Homelessness and Tragedy to Two-Sport Stardom: The Journey of ASU’s Tim White

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

TEMPE, Ariz. — On the mornings Tim White would shower in a park bathroom sink after spending the night in the back seat of a truck, he would leave for school shortly before sunlight.

If he hoped to arrive on time, he had to leave early. He rarely succeeded. It was hard to scrounge up a ride or bus tokens.

The long walks from Roscoe Boulevard to Woodlake Elementary in the San Fernando Valley could take more than two hours. Every time the family would move, the path would change.

It was a constant adjustment, but it wasn’t his primary concern. That was the fear of being noticed, of the days when a classmate would recognize that he was wearing the same clothes as the day before.

Most of the time, no one suspected a thing. No matter where he spent the previous night, he was always smiling. Not because he had to; it’s simply how he was born—a happy, adaptable, curious child.

Tim White is no longer a boy. He is a 22-year-old wide receiver and track virtuoso at Arizona State.

He still shows no signs of pain, flashing bottomless brown eyes and peals of boyish laughter, even as he speaks about where he comes from.

“It’s really about accepting who I am,” White says. “I know that it can help a lot of people, because a lot of people have lived parts of my story. The hope is that if anything, it can help somebody else.”

In football, White has become one of the Pac-12’s most explosive wide receivers and one of the nation’s most dangerous kick and punt returners. At a recent home game, NFL scouts frantically reached for their binoculars each time he touched the ball.

Despite starting much later than those around him, White has closed the gap. His talents will soon have a place on Sundays.

“We’ve only had him a year,” Arizona State head coach Todd Graham says. “But he’s as talented of a football player physically and as smart mentally as any guy I’ve had. He’ll get a lot of interest.”

In track, White nearly triple-jumped his way to the Rio Olympics this summer. He doesn’t love it the way he loves football, but that hasn’t stopped him from mulling another run in 2020.

“He’s really just scratching the surface,” ASU track and field coach Greg Kraft says. “Just an amazing talent. He’s so freaking strong pound-for-pound that it just blows your mind.”

White has a three-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, who pushes him every day. She came at a most trying time, although she now drives him to the places he soon hopes to reach.

Everything appears in order at first glance: the talent, the future, the attitude and the abundance of doors that will open—athletically and otherwise—in the not-too-distant future.

But it’s not that simple. Not with where he’s been.

Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

It’s more than spending nights in cars, homeless shelters, cramped hotel rooms and occasionally a house. White’s only brother, Elwood, was killed by police in 2012.

His death was the result of a long, inexplicably tragic sequence of events that ended with a single gunshot.

This did not break White, either. It provided inspiration for him to work even harder. And now, after everything he’s endured, he’s no longer concealing his pain.

“One unit,” White says. “Family. We’re still here together. There are struggles, but we’re still fighting.”

A few weeks removed from hip surgery, Timmy White, the father of Tim White, eases himself upward from his seat in Section 32 of Sun Devil Stadium. He uses a dark brown cane for leverage.

It is a perfect, late September evening, and his son is in midair.

Tim rises above a Cal defender in the red zone and comes down with the catch. His father does not yell or show much emotion. He smiles and eases himself down slowly into his seat as those around him remain standing.

On the next play, Arizona State ties the game at 27. The Sun Devils go on to win 51-41, led by White’s team-high 86 receiving yards.

As the game ends, White Sr. waits for Tim to emerge from the locker room. He and his wife drove more than six hours to see him and just barely made the game. It has been a long, exhausting day and a long, exhausting life, but it has all been worth it.

“Him playing football is saving my life,” White Sr. says, his voice laced with emotion. “I’ve been to some very dark places, but my son is my inspiration.”

Tim Jr. is one of nine siblings. He is the second-youngest and the second boy. He grew up with five sisters and his brother; his other sisters were from a previous marriage.

He was born at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Over the years that followed, the family bounced around the L.A. area. They spent a few years in Las Vegas. They traveled wherever a job or a place big enough to house their family might take them.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“Hectic at times,” White says of his upbringing. “Drama. Lots of fights, lots of singing, lots of adventures.”

White Sr. dabbled in various professions. He played college football at USC. In 1982, he caught 24 passes for 404 yards while playing alongside his brother, Lonnie White.

When a professional football career didn’t develop, he attempted a career in music, which he loved. The money just wasn’t there. He tried sales. He drove a cab for a while. He cleaned rooms with his wife, Darlene.

“I’ve had a thousand jobs,” White Sr. says. “We would do whatever, as long as it was legal.”

All of White’s children endured their own difficult times based on when they were born. They each have their own story to tell—littered with both ups and downs.

For Tim, his most difficult stretch came between elementary school and the early part of high school.

“Sometimes we’d be lucky and get in hotels,” White says. “Sometimes in a house. A lot of the time we were in cars for extended stretches. These were really hard times, but I saw the strength in my parents’ eyes that they wanted the best for us. They weren’t relaxing.”

There were times when homeless shelters turned away the family based on sheer numbers alone. Nights like these were when there were few options, although sleeping in a car was always a last resort.

White spent many nights in friends’ homes, although even his closest companions didn’t suspect this to be anything out of the ordinary.

“I was never over at his house, and I never put it together,” says White’s childhood friend, David Blake. “I had no idea there was anything going on by the way he carried himself. I told him years later, once I knew, how badly I wish he would have told me.”

The children did their part. Tim and his siblings collected cans to raise as much money as possible. They even made a game of it, seeing who could fill up their shopping cart the fastest.

The family morale, through it all, never wavered.

Academically, however, Tim struggled. There were patches of his childhood when he was not enrolled in school. When he was, his attendance was sporadic. His grades suffered as a result.

His teachers urged him to care more—to immerse himself in what he was trying to do. White never told them why he struggled. He would simply nod in agreement.

“I wanted to care about school,” White says. “But there was just so many other things going on.”

Through it all, there was football.

On the days and nights the family would sleep in a park, Tim would juke out trees. He would hurdle park benches and race against cars as they pulled away at green lights.

He watched his peers play organized football and dreamed about the day it would be his turn. Then, at recess, he would dazzle.

The kids knew what they were in for by his shoes alone. When his family moved to Las Vegas, Tim traded a pair of skater shoes for a pair of Converses with flames across the side. They became his trademark.

“I always knew if he was wearing those, we weren’t going to beat him in a race,” Blake says. “He was just so fast.”

During his sophomore year of high school, White got his first jersey and pads. That afternoon, he brought them home, which at the time was a red Ford Ranger.

Although he slept with a football almost every night, this was a special occasion. He dressed himself in his entire uniform—pads, helmet and all—climbed in the crammed back seat and fell soundly asleep.

Courtesy of College of the Canyons

Tim White signs with College of the Canyons.

For two-and-a-half years, Bryan Martuscello’s morning routine was the same.

On his way out the door, he placed a brown paper bag on his front doorstep in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles. The contents were typically a salami sandwich, a bag of chips, string cheese and a Gatorade.

Martuscello would then head to Hart High School, where he has coached football for more than two decades.

The paper bag was a lunch for Tim, a ritual the two began when he was a sophomore. One day, the coaches saw White working out in the weight room. His body looked frail and tired.

When the coaches asked what he had eaten that day, White didn’t have an answer. From that point on, with the depth of the situation still out of focus, Martuscello and his wife made White lunch.

“We had to feed this kid,” Martuscello says. “And now he had to come to school. Because if that lunch was sitting on my doorstep when I got home, I knew.”

On multiple occasions, Martuscello witnessed White pushing a shopping cart full of cans down Lyons Avenue. He slowly started to piece it together.

As the two grew closer, White opened up some. It took a while for him to trust Martuscello as more than just a football coach, although he eventually did.

“The adversity that this kid has faced through his life, and for him to be where he is at,” Martuscello says, “it’s unreal.”

When Tim arrived at Hart, the family found something close to stability. That’s not to say it solved all of their problems, but there was a roof over their heads.

School was still an issue. White was ruled academically ineligible his sophomore year. His grades improved, if only slightly, and he was allowed to compete in football and track his junior and senior seasons.

Instantly, he shined. The explosiveness of his talent finally had a platform. The athleticism that had been bottled up for so long was unleashed, although his college recruitment didn’t suddenly explode.

Grades were still a concern, and the timing wasn’t optimal. The recruiting cycle had passed him by.

White ultimately enrolled at College of the Canyons, a community college in Santa Clarita. It gave him a chance to compete in football and track. It also allowed him to work on his academics.

“I knew exactly who he was and how special of a kid he was,” College of the Canyons football coach Ted Iacenda says of White. “You step on the field, you instantly see it.”

Courtesy of College of the Canyons

Tim White breaks into the open field at College of the Canyons.

Iacenda was named the full-time coach shortly after White arrived. One of his first orders of business—one that was not received particularly well—was to redshirt White the following season.

It wasn’t about being physically ready. Iacenda knew White would win him games if he allowed him to play. He was ready for this. Academically, however, White still needed to do an abundance of work in order to realize his football future.

“As a man and as a father, I wasn’t just going to let this kid play,” Iacenda says. “He would have gone to a Division II program and he would have never been heard from again. He was pissed. He wanted to play. But he also understood.”

Once again, White waited. And once again, after the wait had ended, he excelled.

In the spring of 2015, with many teams having their rosters already set, White completed his final class necessary to transfer to a Division I school. Within hours, Iacenda’s phone was ringing relentlessly.

Many wanted him for football. Everyone wanted him for track. Although some interest had wavered after his initial struggles in college, there were still plenty of suitors.

Kraft began pursuing White after he won the U.S. Junior Outdoor Track and Field Championship in triple jump at College of the Canyons. While looking into White’s background, Kraft began to unearth his story—where he came from and what he had endured. White had never mentioned any of it in previous conversations.

During his research, Kraft came across a football highlight reel of White. What he saw so mesmerized him that he forwarded it to the football recruiting department.

Courtesy Sun Devil Athletics

A few weeks later, while sitting next to Graham, Kraft mentioned it to the football coach.

“Todd, I’ve got this guy,” he said. “I don’t know a lot about football, but every time he touches the ball it’s a first down or a touchdown.”

Graham watched the tape and, like Kraft, was intrigued. With a roster spot open, they dug deeper.

“As we looked through and researched everything about his past, every person we talked to told us this was a special kid,” Graham says. “When I met him, that’s when I knew we wanted this guy in our program.

“Tim has what I call an old soul. You sit down and want to have a cup of coffee with him, and not many 22-year-olds are like that. He just has this magnetic personality.”

White thought about Oregon. Given his father’s history with the program, he thought long and hard about USC, the team he idolized growing up. Ultimately, he decided on Arizona State.

In the first game he played in, White had a 59-yard run and caught a touchdown pass. He has blossomed into a threat to score at any time, from any place on the football field.

“I loved the players, and it was closer to home,” White says. “I just felt right in the environment, and I couldn’t pass up on the moment.”

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It was a Sunday afternoon in Oceanside, a coastal town north of San Diego, the day Elwood Edwards White lost his life.

Tim was readying for college and the state championship in track the day his brother walked into the intersection of Oceanside Boulevard and North Melrose Drive at 1:23 p.m. Elwood then threw a 20-pound cinder block through the window of a stationary car, injuring the passenger inside, according to court documents obtained by Bleacher Report.

He had been visiting family friends in Vista, about 10 miles away. What prompted this violent, out-of-character sequence of events on May 20, 2012, remains a mystery.

Something caused him to throw the cinder block at that windshield. Something prompted him to throw rocks at oncoming cars. Something triggered him to “wreak havoc”—the words of his attorney, Carl Douglas—at a local gas station.

Something caused him to fight off two Marines who are attempting to subdue him and then brandish the jagged edge of a broken mop handle—not letting go until a police officer shot him once in the chest. He died at the scene.

“I think about it all the time, and unfortunately we still just don’t have enough information on exactly what happened and what led to it,” Tim says of his brother’s death. “They’re all just thoughts right now.”

The Whites’ home phone rang a few hours later. Tim answered. It was the father of the family friend that Elwood was visiting, and he wanted to speak with Tim’s dad.

As White Sr. processed the news, Tim gauged his father’s response. He knew something was deeply wrong.

Courtesy of Tim White Jr.

Tim White Jr., right, and his brother, Elwood.

Blake, his childhood friend, heard that Tim’s brother had died and immediately reached out. While they had fallen out of touch, Elwood’s death brought them closer. They connect now almost every day.

“I knew he was hurting, but he was strong,” Blake says of White. “He knew his brother wouldn’t want him crying. Elwood was an older version of Tim. He was positive and energetic. Everything you see in Tim, you saw that in Elwood.”

Elwood was also a natural athlete. He loved to dance, where he went by the name BIGS. He was a Golden Gloves boxer and had hopes of going pro.

There was even a thought, if only a pipe dream, that he would run track with Tim at College of the Canyons. After getting a late start to organized sports, they wanted to compete together.

According to the legal team that represented the family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the officer and San Diego County, the toxicology report showed no signs of alcohol or mind-altering drugs. He had no arrest record, either.

“If three cops had fired, we wouldn’t have taken the case,” Douglas says. “Even if two cops fired, we wouldn’t have taken it. But the fact that one fired, we thought his decision was premature given the circumstances.”

A federal jury cleared the officer of any wrongdoing in June 2015—not long after White arrived at Arizona State.

“The death of the oldest son had a devastating impact on the entire family,” Douglas says. “We were heartbroken by the verdict. It was a tragedy.”

White loved his brother dearly. Growing up, he was jealous of his size and his spirit. He hoped that one day he would run as fast and be as strong as he was.

After Elwood’s death, Tim missed only a few days of school. As the family struggled to pay for funeral costs, Tim tried to stay the course.

Those around him worried it would spark a downward spiral, that after somehow coming out the other side of all his youthful struggles unscathed, a darker timeline would appear. Tim wouldn’t allow it happen.

“I tried not to view it as a setback,” he says. “I used it as motivation.”

Chris Coduto/Getty Images

In late September, after suffering one of the worst losses since arriving at College of the Canyons, Ted Iacenda was down. It was a rare funk.

A few days after the loss, he received a text message: “You will see how great your team is,” it read. “There’s nothing like seeing your team bounce back. Get them boys ready, coach.”

It was a small gesture, but it touched Iacenda. It didn’t take much for Tim to reach out to one of the many people who helped him along the way, but he wanted to show his support for someone who had always supported him.

“That’s the type of kid he is,” Iacenda says. “It’s the truest definition of perseverance. We’re tested every single day, and it’s really about how we keep moving forward. This is the story that you want kids to read about.”

In June, White’s jump of 54 feet, 4.5 inches was good for fourth in the triple jump at the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships. A month later, he finished 18th at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Had he focused exclusively on track rather than seesawing back and forth between sports, he’s certain he would have jumped farther and perhaps even made Rio. Even still, he says he was satisfied with how he finished.

On the football field, Tim is still catching up. He cherishes the direction he receives from coaches—even when they yell and scream. He loves the grind of a full season. All of it, the good and the bad, he soaks up like a sponge.

Many athletes have had enough of their sport by their senior year of college. They’re burned out and ready for that next step—a job and a clean break from what they have done for so long.

White is the exact opposite. Everything is still so new.

“It’s the life that I wanted to live, and it’s finally here,” he says. “I have taken control of it.”

Away from the field, Tim is still perfecting the art of being a dad.

Brooklyn’s arrival in July 2013 changed everything. It gave him even more purpose than he already had—motivation to become a better student and athlete. It prompted him to think long and hard about his future and how he would support her.

It changed his daily routine immensely, which is not something he takes on alone. “She has a wonderful mother who is incredibly helpful and caring,” White says.

Bringing life into this world also brought him back to his own upbringing. It allowed him to look back at the road he traveled and everything—the good, the bad, the unimaginable—that brought him here.

“I still want her to go through some struggles, but not in the sense that I went through,” White says. “I want her to grow up better than I did, but I still want her to do things with a purpose.”

Each night before bed, they have a ritual: a kiss, a hug, a high-five and a pound with an explosion, sound effect and all, at the very end. They do it before each game, too.

During the game, as he waits for kickoffs, with the ball tumbling toward him, White says two words.

“Push BIGS.”

Before his death, Tim’s brother used to tell him to “push.” During the family’s darkest hours, Elwood urged him to keep going—that everything would somehow work and his dreams would one day become a reality.

Beyond its obvious meaning, “P.U.S.H.” stands for “pray until something happens.” Tim added BIGS, Elwood’s dancing name, to honor his life.

At 22, Tim is the same age his brother was when he died. He views this year as an honor, and he tries to capture his brother’s spirit any way he can.

The phrase is catching on with his teammates, too.

“This isn’t just for me,” Tim says. “I’m pushing for everybody. Everybody is BIGS.”