Mike White was sitting outside a fitting room while his wife was trying on clothes in a New Jersey mall on Tuesday when his cellphone rang. It was Robert Saleh calling with good news.
The call lasted about 30 seconds. White’s wife, Mallory, heard him answer, “Hey Coach” and sprinted out of the fitting room. White doesn’t know if she ever actually tried on the clothes. The call already was over when she got to her husband.
White said Saleh asked him, “Are you ready to roll?”
“Yeah, I’m all good, Coach,” he replied.
That’s how White found out that he would be the Jets’ starting quarterback Sunday at MetLife Stadium against the Bears. He immediately shared the news with his wife. They called both sets of parents. Then Mike and Mallory were overcome with emotion and got lost in the moment.
“We were pumped,” White told Newsday. “We’re walking around the mall and we’re like we’re not in the right frame of mind to shop, so we left. We were like, ‘Let’s go to lunch.’ We were driving around aimlessly because we were just so excited. It was just a lot of emotions and it was cool.”
Being named the starter is a big deal for White, who is replacing the struggling Zach Wilson. The Jets (6-4) are in the middle of a playoff chase and they’re trusting White to lead this offense, which definitely needs a spark.
“It’s a great opportunity for him and I know he will attack it,” Saleh said.
The 27-year-old White’s story is one of unwavering belief and perseverance.
He originally was drafted by the Cowboys in the fifth round in 2018. Dallas cut him in 2019 and the Jets signed him a month later. They released him four times in 2020, re-signing him to the practice squad each time.
He has appeared in only four NFL games — all last season while Wilson was injured.
White’s first NFL start made him a fan favorite and was one for the record book. He threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns and caught a two-point conversion pass in a win over Cincinnati on Halloween.
White set an NFL record for most completions (37) in a quarterback’s first start and joined Cam Newton (422) as the only quarterbacks since 1950 to debut by throwing for 400 yards. White’s jersey and the game ball were displayed in Canton.
His last game is one he’d rather forget, but he can’t. He threw four interceptions in a loss to the Bills two weeks later.
White remembers more about the Buffalo game than he does the Cincinnati game, and what he learned in that loss is what he’s taking with him into this game.
“The biggest thing I took from it is I feel like I tried to play hero ball that game,” White said. “We got down quick. I thought I got to bring us back into it. You can’t play football that way. The moment you start playing hero ball, things go from bad to worse. I think that’s what happened.”
He added, “When you get your [opportunity], you got to capitalize on it. It’s not that I got to go out and throw five touchdowns or I have to go out and throw 400 yards, three touchdowns every time. You have to play sound football.”
White is entering a situation in which the Jets don’t need him to be a savior. They need him to make good reads, throws and decisions against the 3-8 Bears, who have the NFL’s fifth-worst scoring defense.
Wilson led one field goal drive last week in a loss to New England. His play hasn’t been sharp for much of the season.
The Jets decided to let Wilson “reset” and work on his fundamentals and footwork. White, who has spent the last three games as Wilson’s primary backup, will be backed up by Joe Flacco.
The Jets believe White is ready for the bigger role.
“He doesn’t need to be anybody but Mike White,” Saleh said. “If you know what your fastball is and you know what your changeups are, just let it rip. We all have faith in Mike White, and we have faith in his mental makeup and the way he prepares, and we all believe that his best is good enough.”
White, a popular, respected player in the locker room, also received votes of confidence from his teammates.
“He’s a baller,” receiver Braxton Berrios said. “We got to see a flash of it last year. We have all the confidence in the world that he’s going to play his game, which he can obviously play at a very high level.’’
Corey Davis, back after missing three games with a knee injury, said: “He knows how to run an operation and run it pretty smooth and get guys where they need to be. I’m excited to see what he’s going to do. I’m excited to see him out there.”
White, a former pitcher who nearly was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays, said his approach at practice and in the meeting rooms this week hasn’t been any different. If anything, he’s trying to truly enjoy every moment after last year’s whirlwind.
“Don’t get me wrong: The butterflies, the nervousness, the anxiousness is always going to be there,” White said. “That’s never not going to be there. Joe still gets it and Joe’s been playing for a hundred years. The biggest thing this time is I’m really embracing it. Last year it was like a whirlwind. I’m really, really embracing it and trying to soak it all in.”
However long it lasts.
Saleh said the intention is to get Wilson back on the field this season. If White is playing well, though, it will be hard to take the football out of his hands.
White’s parents will be at the game. So will Mallory, of course. His college sweetheart has been with him every step of this journey.
“I’ve been lucky,” White said. “A lot of the times that I’ve been getting good news or I have that big Cincinnati game, my wife’s been there with me and I’ve gotten to share every moment with her. That’s just pretty special to me.”