Just days past what would have been his brother's 30th birthday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' inside linebacker Devin White peers into the past. As White embraces children in the foster care system, he reminisces on the profound influence of J'Marco Jewel Greenard; a life so meaningful that death seemed incomprehensible.
He and I sat down in the vacant media studio at the AdventHealth Training Center flooded with illumination from a single spotlight, embodying hope amidst darkness. Memories pervaded both our minds and an undeniable connection was formed. Although it is one established on grief, it manifested strength in us both.
White grew up in a close-knit family in Cotton Valley, Louisiana, a town encompassing 'Southern Charm.' With one major road through a town with a population less than 1,000, this is where White's story began. Beneath a crown of stars and Friday Night Lights, he started envisioning his dreams on backroads and church pews, beside his brother.
"You can go to the store and if the person is black or white, you probably know their name nine times out of 10, just because it is so small," White laughed. "In my town, you go skip rocks to have fun, rather than a big city where everything is spread out. There is so much love there and even me now being in the NFL and doing good for myself, they embrace it because it doesn't happen every day. In our town, everybody just wanted to be together."
When he was four-years-old, his mother, Coesha, married Willie Standokes, who became White's stepdad. His son, J'Marco "Jae Jae" Greenard, immediately mentored White despite a six-year age gap. The new brothers shared a room in a single-wide trailer, sleeping in stacked bunk buds. They did everything together and White copied Greenards's every move, striving to be just like the person he admired.
"As far as football, I always looked up to him. If I had pictures, I'm trying to look like him, trying to wear the same thing. I was wearing hats – knowing I didn't care about a hat – I was wearing the same clothes, same necklaces, whatever he did I wanted to do it, same shoes for school. He used to shop for himself, and my mom would shop for me. He wore Dickie pants with the pocket on the side and I made her go get me those pants. He helped me in the way he treated people. I wanted to do the same thing. I tried to take all his characteristics from what I remember as a younger person."
Greenard won a state track championship his senior year of high school that sparked a desire in White to be a catalyst in his own sport. People became exhilarated watching his brother compete and White wanted to follow in those footsteps.
"When I was young, I used to watch him train on our dead-end road. In Cotton Valley, we didn't have a track and that was his thing. He was fast and I used to see him run around the house. They mapped it, if you ran around our trailer 12 times, that was a mile. So, he used to run around the house all the time. He was so dedicated, and he always told everyone, 'I'm the fastest around and I'm going to win state.' He did that so the way he trained is kind of the reason why I won't go to a trainer in the offseason."
Instead of pursuing sports as a career venture, Greenard graduated from Cotton Valley High School and enlisted in the Army. Just before he began basic training, Greenard went on a trip with the Mount Sariah Baptist Church youth group to a water park in Tyler, Texas. A morning filled with blithe summer fun quickly turned into a nightmare. On June 11, 2011, tragedy struck.
Around 5:00 p.m., 10 minutes into the ride heading eastbound on Interstate 20, the church van began to shake. The left rear tire had a blowout, and the van flipped several times. Nearly everyone was ejected from the vehicle, including Greenard, who died instantly.
"I was 13 years old. It was 11 years ago. I was at the crib in Cotton Valley. They asked me if I wanted to go on the trip and I said no. I stayed at the house because I wanted to ride horses. A lot of my friends went and, on the way back, me, my mom and everybody was at the house. She said, 'We have to go to Texas. They had a wreck. We have to go to the hospital.' She told me to get my sisters (Jada Greenard and Raynesha Standokes) and go to my grandmother's house. That's what I did.
"So, when I went to my grandmother's house – I was active on social media at this point – I get on Facebook and everybody was posting, 'Rest in peace Jae Jae.' I ended up calling my momma and asked, 'What's going on?' I told her what I saw on Facebook, and she said, 'It's true.' She told me, 'He didn't make it.' She couldn't talk, she was just crying a lot. I was in shock. I asked, 'What do you mean he didn't make it?' She made out the words, 'He's gone.' Then, I had to tell my sisters. Obviously, they're young. One of my sisters is now 22 and the other is 18. So, at the time, one was 11 and the other was seven or six. I remember telling them and they were just crying."
One single moment changed the course of White's life. For a 13-year-old boy, death seemed unfathomable. Greenard – a daredevil at heart – had many accidents prior to the fatal crash. He broke his leg running, got hit by a four-wheeler and injured his leg in the process on a stump and wrecked a dirt bike, all ending with trips to the hospital. After each trip, Greenard always came home. This time was definite, leaving behind devastation. Acceptance and endurance followed for White, attempting to grapple with gut-wrenching loss, with that day entrenched in his mind forever.
"I was very angry. Then the way that he died, I wanted to know everything. I asked things like, 'Well, if there were this many people in the van, why was he the only one who passed?' He got ejected and he broke his neck on impact. It was painful but it helped knowing he didn't feel any pain. It happened fast. That is a blessing knowing that he didn't suffer.
"I've always been a person of emotions but not weak. I'm very strong-minded. I've been through a lot and as a 13-year-old, I was hurt but I wasn't showing it. Somebody had to be the stronger person, so I managed to be strong for my sisters. I remember crying in the bathroom when she told me and then I came out and had to tell them. I was hard body right after that."
White was forced to grow up prematurely as he discovered the frailty and harshness of life. In the ensuing weeks, he stayed active in every way possible, filling his days with mind-numbing tasks to occupy his thoughts. The busier he became, the less the accident swirled in his mind. Riding horses and sports became his therapy of choice. White harnessed the anger, and, on the turf, he let out the built-up emotions he battled. Football became a sanctuary, the place he could escape to and feel the presence of his brother. Yet despite the efforts to stay occupied, without warning, memories persist like a movie trailer. Accompanying it, the 'what if' game ensues.
"His birthday was the other day. I always think about him. Right before he died, he told me, 'We're on our way back. I love you.' I said, 'I love you too, bro.' That was it. No bye. I think I screenshotted the message and still have it. Being a pro athlete and being one of the best in the NFL, I often think, 'Man, I wonder what it would be like for him to live this with me?' Tampa Bay was his favorite team. It all happened for a reason but if he were here, it would be even sweeter. When I come to camp, before the season kicks off, I am always here by myself. I wonder what it would be like to do that, to live with him now. I think about it all the time. Sometimes, I dream about it. Sometimes people come to you in dreams, and they give you signs, and you can interact with them. It really feels real, and I enjoy it every time because you never thought you could miss someone so much until they're gone. Until this day, I don't let people say bye to me. I always say, 'See you later.'"
'What' and 'if' are common words but together, they have the power to haunt their victims. Somehow, they creep in continuously as years pass. Grief can often be viewed as pushing through the pain caused by the death of someone you love. Simply getting to the other side. But like Devin White, I have learned there is no getting to the other side. Rather, following loss, there is acceptance and absorption. It is something you endure. There is no crossing the finish line, there is an alteration of your being; a new way of seeing and a new version of self. Grief never gets easier. You just get used to carrying the weight. Something I am now proficient in.
On March 2, 2008, tragedy struck in my life, as well.
Around 5:00 p.m. on that day, my sister Jennifer was driving her Volkswagen Bug, with Alyssa in the passenger seat and me in the backseat. Just minutes from our destination, the car skidded on a rainslicked Fall Creek Highway and into another oncoming truck, killing my 16-year-old sister Alyssa instantly. I was 13 years old. One single moment changed the trajectory of my existence.
I grew up in a close-knit family in Granbury, Texas. My sisters and I were inseparable as kids, often migrating to each other's rooms at night to spend additional hours with each other. Jennifer is five years older than I and Alyssa was two years younger than her, engendering the term "Dix Gals" from friends in our small, Texas town. From waltzing in the living room on top of Alyssa's feet in our 'elephant' walks to watching endless Disney movies on our portable VHS TV in pajamas, we did everything together. Her black-and-white, rule-follower personality often clashed with my gregarious one, but she pushed me to be the best version of myself every day. However, my carefree life abruptly ended on that fateful day.
We were headed to church choir practice when the accident happened. My sister, Alyssa Diane Dix had just celebrated her 16th birthday. A few days later, a morning filled with laughter quickly turned to a nightmare on March 2. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Alyssa was killed on impact by blunt force trauma.
As screams rang out and the world began spinning, I blacked out due to a concussion. I awoke to a throbbing head and Jennifer's frightened sobs in the driver's seat. First responders began cutting off the top of the car to get us out. Shock and fear ripped my body in the back seat, as I noticed the glass I was sitting on and averted my gaze to Alyssa's slumped body in the passenger seat ahead of me.
Jennifer was immediately transported by Care Flight to Harris Downtown in Fort Worth, to test for internal bleeding. I was taken by ambulance to Cook's Children, an adjacent hospital where I underwent a myriad of X-rays. As I laid on the cold flat surface in the MRI machine – trying to calm my nerves by laying still – I was filled with a gnawing sense of dread. Knots filled my stomach as I re-entered my hospital room and my parents arrived with tear-streaked faces. I asked how my sisters were and received news that will forever be etched in my brain. Voice wavering, my dad said, "Brianna, Alyssa didn't make it. She's gone."
As tears burned my face and blurred by vision, my world shattered into a million pieces. In an out-of-body experience, the rest of the words coming out of my parents' mouths faded as sound became deafening. Like a knife plunging my heart, memories of Alyssa's face, her smile, her contagious laughter invaded my thoughts as I lay too stunned to move.
In the coming days, as most kids my age contemplated what to purchase at the mall to impress their crush in homeroom or what grade they would make on the algebra test, I watched my sister lowered into the ground as reality sunk in. My perspective shifted and I was forced to grow up. Initially, I became angry. I did not doubt God's existence but questioned, "Why?"
"Why was she taken. Why was I spared?"
I became a shell, not wanting to talk about the accident because it was too challenging to discuss something I could not comprehend at the time. I cried in my room, isolated as I journaled my thoughts, looked across the hallway to Alyssa's empty room and listened to her voicemail box on repeat. I did not know it was possible to miss someone so much or to long for one more embrace or hear her yelled sarcasm again. I was in and out of the house every day as friends came by to pick me up, keeping my mind off the accident. For that little while of activity, it provided a sense of normalcy. I felt like an actual kid again. Watching football with my dad became therapy, a break from monotony that grew into an impassioned hobby.
As days began to compile and the shock wore off, my attitude began to evolve. Instead of dwelling on the time I would not get to spend with her, I focused on the 16 years we did have together. In seeing the numerous lives Alyssa touched by exuding God's love, I began to view my situation from a different lens as my faith was strengthened. I made the conscious decision to reflect a positive outlook and pursue my dreams, as she would have wanted. Devin White made the same choice.
With emboldened strength, White set out to make his brother proud and carry on his legacy as an athlete and as a man. Greenard always emitted confidence, saying he was 'the best.' Those words resonated with White, who began a quest to showcase his worth among the hierarchy in a different sport.
At 14 years old, White attended an LSU football camp, where he ran a swift 4.45 40-yard dash, garnering a full scholarship offer from Head Coach Les Miles on the spot. He played varsity as a freshman while attending North Webster High School. As a two-way player, White electrified the town with sensational play. At running back, White eclipsed 5,000 rushing yards and notched 81 touchdowns. As a linebacker, he became a tackling menace. At LSU, White switched to linebacker full-time and was named a captain as a sophomore. His rare sideline-to-sideline range, work ethic, nasty competitive streak, explosion out of his stance and ability to neutralize screens and quick passes garnered recognition. White was named the Outland Trophy recipient, given to the nation's top linebacker.
He kept Greenard's memory alive by writing his name on his cleats and inscribing "Jae Jae" on the black lines he wore underneath his eyes. Despite fame and increased exposure, White stayed true to his origins. On the night of the draft in 2019, White brought a framed photo of Greenard to the green room, commemorating the unequivocal influence of the person who could not physically be in attendance. The Buccaneers – Greenard's favorite team - selected White with the fifth overall pick in a movie-script moment.
"It's crazy how God works. That's the story that he had. Hey, I took your brother from you but now he watches over you doing what you wanted to do. I felt having that picture was not just talking about him or, 'Hey I felt his spirit in the draft,' but I could look over and see his picture. It made me feel like he was there even more. I just knew I had to have him there. All the family was there, and I couldn't leave him behind. Surreal moment just getting to come to his team. When I got here, the number-one thing I told myself is, 'I want to make him proud.' That's one of the reasons I am always all-out, even making a change in the community is to make him proud. A little bit is a lot."
As the tone-setter on the Buccaneers' defense, White uses his platform to enact change in the community. He found his calling off the field, providing resources to underprivileged children in the foster care system and shifting the flawed psychological wiring caused by broken homes/trauma. In 2021, White founded the Get Live 45 Foundation to generate hope and comfort to youth in foster care, foster families and disadvantaged youth during life's meaningful moments. White's love of family developed into a committed passion to help others experience the environment he was raised in, anchored by the inspiration of his brother. During Community Day on August 3 at the AdventHealth Training Center, the Foundation hosted the 'Devin White Get Live for Back to School' program for foster kids, providing over 20 families with backpacks, non-refrigerated food items and school supplies to foster growth and cultivate learning. Since July 27, 2022, the Get Live 45 Foundation has impacted the lives of over 460 children in need throughout Florida and White's hometown in Louisiana.
In the Tampa Bay area, there are over 3,000 children currently in the system of care. On average, nine children a day are removed and put into foster care. Children are placed in the system through no fault of their own. With the hand they are dealt, the scars are lasting – a testament to hardship. Seventy percent of those that are incarcerated are a product of the foster care system. To initiate a change, White got involved to create a stabilizing force in the lives of those overcoming obstacles. Prompted by the infectious spirit of his late brother, White seeks to empathize and inspire.
From a heartbroken teenager to a resilient man, White refused to let circumstances dictate his life. Instead, it revealed character. In the darkest valley, he morphed into a pillar of strength. Greenard's mentorship shines through every facet of White's life and although sorrow remains, hope abounds. His memory lives on in White's son, Conner Jewel White.
"I gave my son his middle name. That was my way of truly honoring him. He is a funny kid and immediately brightens any room he steps into as Jae Jae did."
On any given Sunday as enthusiastic cheers from thousands of fans erupt, White prays to his brother, asking a request, "Play through me." He carries the legacy of his brother with him and each time he steps onto the turf, White plays for an audience of one. Strength manifested.
View photos of the Get Live 45 Foundation backpack giveaway after 2022 Training Camp practice at AdventHealth Training Center.