This is Part 1 of a two-part series. You can read Part 2 here.
SHREVEPORT, La. – A peculiar sign hangs outside Green Oaks High School.
“No horses or horse back riding on track or football field. Violators will be prosecuted.”
As Tre’Davious White tells it, the sign was necessary because the school’s neighbors across Legardy Street would bring their horses over for a snack.
“We’d show up in the morning to work out, and the horses would be out there, eating our grass,” the Buffalo Bills’ second-year cornerback said. “There were times we couldn’t practice because there would be horse poop all over the field.”
The memory lingers as White stares out at the field. He can’t help but reflect on his journey from Green Oaks to LSU to Buffalo.
“I cherish the moments I have now, just knowing the things I come from,” he said. “Anything I experience at the pro level, I've already been through way harder times.”
A Defensive Rookie of the Year finalist last season, White's a star in the making with his infectious personality and stellar play. That journey started here, on a field that it looks like time forgot.
Underneath one of the rusting goal posts, a tackling dummy lies lifeless on the ground, looking as if it couldn’t withstand one more hit. An aging blocking sled and faded monster truck tire stir recollections of grueling three-hour practices in the suffocating Shreveport heat.
Off to the left, past a row of basketball courts, there is an open space at least 10 football fields long.
“They called that Africa down there,” says White’s childhood friend, Quadre Heath. “The coaches used to say, ‘Go to Africa.’ You knew what they meant. You're running all the way, there and back.”
Late to class? Have a bad attitude at practice?
“Go to Africa – like him,” White says with a smile, looking at Heath. “He used to always have to go.”
White insists he rarely, if ever, got sent to Africa. He kept himself out of the trouble that so many of his peers found.
But how? How did White make it from this field, the very humblest of beginnings, to NFL stardom? To find out, The Buffalo News tagged along with White on the first weekend of June, as he returned to his hometown to host his first football camp.
Eighteen interviews with lifelong friends, family members, coaches and residents intimately detail the hardships White overcame, and how an entire community made sure he wouldn’t blow his chance.
'The Cooper Road'
This is not the easiest place to get to from Buffalo.
It first requires a flight to Chicago, then another one to Dallas. From there, it’s a three-hour drive through East Texas, past the sprawling ranches and hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints along I-20.
Ask most residents of Louisiana’s third-largest city, however, and they’ll tell you that getting here is nothing like the challenge of finding your way out.
Nowhere is that more true than on “The Cooper Road.” Tucked into the northwest portion of the city, the actual Cooper Road is officially known as Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. Unofficially, it’s how a neighborhood with about 14,000 residents identifies itself.
“We still consider the Cooper Road its own town,” said DJ Yoshi, a lifelong resident and radio personality on 103.7 Tha Beat. “We call it ‘The Island.’ It’s far from everything. It takes you almost 30 minutes from anywhere in Shreveport to get here.
“We govern our own. We do our own.”
When it was established in 1928, the Cooper Road was a predominantly African-American community. Residents today point out that it was believed to have the second-largest nearly exclusive African-American population in the United States, behind only Harlem.
The City of Shreveport offered to annex the neighborhood in 1977, and the residents agreed. Promises of infrastructure improvements, such as paving dirt roads and adding indoor plumbing to many homes, were made. But they weren’t kept.
Extreme poverty gripped the neighborhood. Blight is everywhere you look. When gangs from California arrived in the late 1980s, problems with drugs and violent crime soon followed.
“When I was growing up, you couldn't go to ‘The Road,’ ” said Shreveport native and local media personality Rashad Johnson. “That's just the type of place it was.”
The situation got so bad that the city, sheriff and state police came up with “Operation Thor” to weed out gang violence. By that point, though, the Cooper Road’s reputation was cemented as a place you wanted to avoid – or escape.
“They label us as the hood,” said Leontine “Tine Tine” Ruffins, a 67-year-old who lives along David Raines Road. “It means we're drug dealers, murderers, everything bad you can imagine. When you come from the C Road, you’re labeled.”
All his life, Ruffins' grandson has fought to break free from that label. Don’t get it twisted: Tre’Davious White is fiercely proud of where he comes from. He just always wanted more.
“There was never a time in my mind where I second-guessed where I was going,” White said. “I knew what I wanted, and I took the initiative to go hard every day for it.”
Tre'Davious, aka Shaq
In Shreveport, the first thing you learn about White is that nobody calls him Tre’Davious. His father, David White, bears a striking resemblance to Shaquille O’Neal, so he went by “Shaq” in the neighborhood. Tre’Davious was “Baby Shaq,” but now that he’s made it to the NFL, the “Shaq” moniker has been inherited.
White grew up in a house with his older half-brother on his mom’s side, LeGregory, as well as younger brother Da’Vonta and younger sister La’Daijah. The three boys shared a room, while La’Daijah and their mother, LaShawnita, got the other bedrooms. The family moved frequently, and there were times they didn't have money for the water bill. Because LaShawnita worked overnights at the Horseshoe Casino in neighboring Bossier City, the kids would often spend nights at Ruffins' home.
The family’s routine must have been discovered, because one night while their house sat empty, it was robbed.
“We had to move out of that house because it was broken into several times,” White said as he slowed down to get a good look at the property at 1749 Adler Road. “We had just got a PlayStation 2. We thought that was the best thing ever. My mom, she worked her butt off to get us that, and probably a month after Christmas, our house got broken into, and it was gone.”
Burglary comes with the territory on the Cooper Road. Shreveport police say they responded to 1,646 burglary calls in 2017 across the city’s 13 districts, including 158 calls from District 1, which includes the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive area. That was an increase of 28 percent from the 123 burglary calls in 2016. Additionally, police say there were 2,327 vehicle break-ins throughout Shreveport, including 122 in District 1.
By comparison, the city of Glendale, Calif., which has a population of about 200,000 (Shreveport has about 195,000) had 498 burglaries.
“There’s crime everywhere, but in the neighborhood we come from, it’s high,” David White said. “You can fall victim to the streets. Drug dealing, gang banging, everything like that. He didn’t want any part of that.”
Shreveport's median household income is $36,600. Blight and poverty are huge problems. That’s particularly true along the Cooper Road.
“The area I come from, it’s not flashy,” Tre’Davious said. “I mean, just look around. You see it.”
Tre’Davious steers his Kia Sportage south down Audrey Lane, then turns right on Round Grove Lane. He’s headed toward the David Raines Community Center, where the annual “Cooper Road Family Reunion” is taking place.
As the DJ outside blasts Drake’s “God’s Plan,” Yoshi explains the scene.
“You know how you have biker gangs? On the weekends that's what they do. But throughout the week, they’re lawyers and doctors,” he said. “That’s like here. Yeah, they gang members, but that guy right there, Sunday, he'll be in the church choir. I personally know him. But right now, he's representing. It's the Cooper Road reunion now.
“You see the cops up there? This is relax time for them. Any time they have to patrol on the Cooper Road for an event like this, they don't have to worry about working. They're just here because the city wants them to be here. They know for a fact nothing's going to happen. These people govern their own.”
He points to two men standing side by side, listening to the music.
“Anywhere in the country, Hoovers and Crips, they don’t get along,” he said, referring to members of the Hoover Street Crips and Rolling 60s Crips gangs, “but we have Hoovers and 60s on the Cooper Rood, and look, they’re standing by each other, because they’re from here. Now, if they cross town somewhere and they get into a squabble, then that’s off the turf off the Cooper Road. But right here, it’s neutral ground, so they good. The right here, it’s a celebration day. A lot of these guys have lost loved ones to senseless violence. … They’re the nicest people, but they’re not going to take no (expletive).”
From nursery school to Pinegrove Elementary, through junior high, Green Oaks and then Southern University, someone from the Cooper Road can go through every level of school without ever leaving.
“I don't know where else that has that,” Yoshi said. “You don't have to leave this area, and a lot of us don't. Growing up here, it's hard to get out. So when you do make it out, everything else is a cake walk.”
White can barely make it 5 feet before someone wants to shake his hand, or pose for a picture. Little kids approach one by one, asking him to sign whatever they’re wearing.
“These people, they love me here,” White says. “They inspire me, too, as much as I inspire them. All these kids, and probably even grown-ups, they look at me as a motivating factor in their life to get up and continue to do better and want better for themselves.”
The City of Shreveport declared April 21 as “Tre’Davious White Day,” honoring him with a parade and community party.
“From the humble beginning to what he's become now, he's a role model to every young man walking around the Shreveport area,” said Johnson, the local sports personality. “Not just for the Cooper Road, but for the entire city. Every young man who comes up in a situation like him can relate to what he's going through.
"For him to come back on a regular basis and give back to this community, that means a lot. I hear about it all through the city on a regular basis. I hear it from the kids, I hear about it from the grown-ups, I hear about it from his peers. The guys who played with him, they talk about what he means to this area. It's a blessing to see a young man like that grow up in this area and come back and give back.”
Although he’s pulled in several different directions every time he’s home, White’s smile never fades.
“This is what I love to do. I love to come back and show my face to the kids,” he said. “I really come from here. I’m not some story that you hear. I'm a real person. I come from the same circumstances and same situation they come from. For me to give back, I feel like that can maybe help change the cycle of everything that's going on.”
It’s Friday night, and LaShawnita is on the move. She’s organized a meet and greet for White at an area Buffalo Wild Wings. The event was only supposed to last an hour, but as the line quickly reached out the door, it ended up going almost two. Fans decked out in either the purple and gold of Louisiana State or the red, white and blue of the Bills – even one in a chicken wing hat – approach, stopping for a picture and getting a signed 8-by-10. LaShawnita quarterbacks everything, making sure every person in attendance leaves happy.
Local TV stations shoot interviews with White, who smiles through the entire thing. He smiles so much, you have to think his cheeks must hurt. Knowing his visitor is from Buffalo and wouldn’t be interested in the offerings at a BWW, White instead insists on a local institution.
“You’ve got to go to Southern Classic Fried Chicken,” he says. “The line’s going to be long, but it’s going to be worth it. Then you’ve got to get a Southern Maid doughnut – one for dessert and one for breakfast.”
White says he wants picture evidence of the orders. Just as he predicts, the drive-thru line stretches into the street at Southern Classic. A two-piece meal with fries, a roll and a Coke comes in at less than $7. It’s another $1.50 for the doughnuts – one glazed and one lemon filled.
Now it’s Saturday. Camp time. A total of 445 kids show up, and a full hour before the 9 a.m. start time, a line stretches out of Independence Stadium. LaShawnita bounces from station to station, making sure the volunteers are ready. Over here is where the water goes. Is there enough ice? On these tables, the camp T-shirts are laid out, organized by size. Over there is where lunch will be served. The mercury hovers near 90 degrees, and it’s not yet 10 a.m.
White arrives, joined by some of his NFL counterparts and former LSU teammates. Fellow Shreveport native Morris Claiborne, currently with the Jets, is there. So, too, is Greedy Williams, another Shreveport native who followed both Claiborne and White to LSU to play cornerback. He’s a lock to be picked in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Kendell Beckwith, White’s roommate for four years at LSU and currently a linebacker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is also helping out, even though he’s recovering from a broken ankle suffered during an April car accident.
“To see what he's doing now for his city, it's inspirational,” Beckwith says. “He knows anything I can do to help, I'm all in for it.”
Campers are split up by age groups, and drills begin. On one side of the field, kids run with a parachute attached. On the other, they flip monster truck tires. White bounces from station to station, offering up encouragement.
As the relentless sun beats down, Yolanda Hadnot gazed out over the field from the bleachers. Her 10-year-old son, Jayden, had been up since 5 a.m. waiting for the camp.
“He plays Pop Warner for the Shreveport Cowboys,” Hadnot said of her son. “He’s been following Tre’Davious’ every move since he got to the NFL.”
Is it fair to say White is one of Jayden’s role models? Hadnot is asked.
“Oh, he definitely is, even if he doesn’t know it yet,” she says. “Just seeing him on Sundays, my son thinks, 'He came from Shreveport, so that could be me.' "
Before the camp ends, White gathers all the participants at midfield for a Q-and-A session. Naturally, the first question is about Rob Gronkowski. The vicious late hit Gronk delivered while White was face down on the turf during a December game dominated the national headlines. The hit earned Gronkowski a one-game suspension and left White with a concussion.
“You saw how I reacted, right?” White asks the campers. “I didn’t retaliate, because it would have hurt my team. That’s just like you in your life. Things are going to happen to you, and you can’t retaliate to every little thing.”
It wasn’t just the kids who learned that lesson.
“When that guy from the Patriots did that dirty move, dudes were booking flights,” Yoshi said. “We were about to go see about that boy. We were going to take care of him real quick. You don't do that.
“Because Tre handled it that way, we've got to handle it that way. He called the troops off.”
After the Q-and-A, the campers headed off for lunch while Yoshi spun some tracks. As the last trucks were being packed, LaShawnita mustered as much of a smile as she could.
“I’m going back to have a couple cold beers,” she said.
Living the dream
It’s Sunday morning, and LaShawnita can finally relax. White is on his way back to Buffalo for another week of practices.
Outside her mother’s house, a Bills wreath hangs from the window. A “Welcome” sign is painted in red, white and blue. Inside, it’s a shrine to White’s accomplishments. Pictures from his high school signing day are on a table along with his LSU jersey and helmets from both the Tigers and the U.S. Army All-American game. A framed copy of the letter he wrote to LSU fans at the end of his senior season is proudly displayed on an end table.
On the other end of the room, a framed copy of The Buffalo News’ sports section the day after White was drafted rests against the wall.
“I was born and raised here,” LaShawnita says. “My mom, my uncle, my cousins, they all had houses right on this block, so it’s a family thing. My kids, I never tried to shelter them from anything.”
Gone are the days of working the graveyard shift at the Horseshoe. LaShawnita’s time now is spent helping her sister run a seafood restaurant and managing Tre’Davious’ various commitments. There was a shoe drive last September, in which 187 students from the schools that White attended who were nominated by their teachers and principals got new Adidas shoes. At Christmas, White adopted 27 families and treated them to gifts.
“It doesn’t surprise me, but I’m proud of it because I see it everywhere I go,” LaShawnita said of her son. “You saw the support that he has here. It’s great turnouts at any event. He’s always coming up with a way to give back. He tells me what he wants to do, and I put the vision in place. It’s very hard work in dealing with the community I deal with, but I love it. And he loves it as well. It’s the least we can do to try and change things.”
Like so many on the Cooper Road, LaShawnita has had her own adversity to overcome. That included spending four months in jail while Tre’Davious was a high school junior for the illegal use of an access card.
“They saw a lot of things that have gone on, but I’m proud to say they made a great decision of who to hang with and what to be around,” LaShawnita said of her kids. “I have four graduates now from the same school I graduated from – my daughter was the last one and she just graduated this year.”
LaShawnita and David White divorced more than a decade ago, but they have an amicable relationship.
“It didn't work out,” LaShawnita said. “He went his way, I went my way, but at the same time it was about the kids. So we as adults, we knew how to adapt that situation and move on. We’re a family. We had three kids together, so we communicate over the phone about everything.”
The day after he was drafted, White was asked what his first big purchase would be after becoming an instant millionaire. A new house for his mom was the first thing he mentioned.
"I feel like my duty is to get her in a comfortable situation where she can call something hers," he said then.
That dream is almost real. LaShawnita said it will be "probably a couple more months" before she moves into her new home in a different part of Shreveport.
"The sacrifices that she made for my brothers and my sisters and I is something that I'll never be able to pay her back for," White said. "That's another thing that pushes me to be excellent. We didn't have a lot, but the stuff we did have, we cherished. All the things that we went through, it made me the person I am today. I wake up every day, and that's what makes me want to watch more film, want to get in early for extra work. I want to be the best person and best player I can be. I come from hard times, and I don't want to go back."