Connected to the large, spacious Bears locker room in the underbelly of Soldier Field is a smaller area filled with wooden tables and a couple of water coolers. This space, the team's training room, is generally a buzz of activity prior to kickoff. Players go in to get taped up or to have a cast examined by doctors, all so they can be at or close to 100 percent healthy when the game begins. The goal is that by spending time in the training area before the game, a player can help avoid being in the room after the day's work is completed.
On a cold afternoon last December, only one player was in the training room following a Bears game: wide receiver Kevin White. It was a location the 23-year old found himself in often throughout 2015. As reporters, cameras and microphones surrounded many of his Chicago teammates in the adjoining locker room, and questions about the contest that had just transpired were being asked, White watched from a distance. The rookie had no uniform to take off or response to give about the game, since he hadn't played a single down that day.
A view of the training room at Soldier Field.
White missed all 16 games a year ago, and all four preseason contests as well, after suffering a stress fracture in his left tibia. Standing in the training room that day, the physical receiver with the footspeed of an Olympic sprinter faced a situation no NFL player wants, especially a rookie: a complete redshirt year, with no on-field snaps and zero ability to help the team win games.
Many in his situation would mope and complain; upset at the hand they'd been given. And while White was far from pleased with how his season had unfolded, he decided to use the setback as motivation in order to accomplish greater things down the road.
"Things happen and you have to hurdle over it," White said then. "I trust the staff and everyone that has been helping me with this process. Like coach (John) Fox said, 'Everything is a balance.' Things happen and you can't continue to look back, you can only to look forward, so that's what I'm going to do.
"The anger I feel now will definitely put a battery in my back. Just because I missed all this time and get a lot of comments, a lot of the outside world says some things, I'll use that to my advantage. When I get out there, I'll just compete a little harder."
With White ready to compete again at full-speed, ChicagoBears.com takes an inside look at the steps the receiver has taken to return to the field. By continuously looking forward at the work needed to achieve his goals instead of dreading a possible return to the training room, White will return to the field a smarter player and motivated competitor in 2016.
One step at a time
A stress fracture often occurs as a result of overwork; a player is putting a lot of wear and tear on his body and a muscle cannot keep up. White suffered from shin pain last summer during Offseason Training Activities, as he prepared for the 2015 season. He was diagnosed with a stress fracture and the first step was to rest the leg for an extended period of time, including at the start of training camp, to allow the area to naturally heal. After he was asymptomatic, his routine included a progressive amount of activity on the leg including cardio machines and pool work. His progress led to a few half-speed, on-field workouts after training camp practices. At this point the symptoms returned and White was at a crossroads.
On August 14, general manager Ryan Pace sat down with the receiver and laid out the three possibilities of what could happen next: Hope the injury heals on its own, play through the pain and risking further damage, or undergo surgery that would likely sideline White for the season. Pace went over all three plans and gave the receiver the team's recommendation. With tears in his eyes, White agreed to have the medical procedure, not knowing what the future would hold.
"I knew it in my heart that I should do it, but I just needed, I needed Ryan and Fox to okay it," White said earlier this spring. "Just so I won't make it seem like I let the team down. Like 'Oh, you just wasted a draft pick.' But they did everything the right way. Took it slow. You know, didn't pressure me to do anything… But it was rough."
Having the support of the GM and head coach was important to the wide receiver. All three men were in their first year in Chicago, and their success in the city was directly tied to one another. After White's surgery took place in August, Pace came to the Chicago-area hospital to keep the receiver company. "Ryan's like, he's my guy," White said. "I mean that a lot. I thank him all the time. Just to have his support on everything has made everything so much easier."
Soon after his surgery in August, White began working with the Bears' medical staff, especially Nate Breske, Chicago's head athletic trainer. The surgery involved putting a metal rod in White's shin, allowing the bone to heal from the inside out. Because White opted for the surgery early before major damage had been done, there was no rush, allowing his body to heal naturally. That resulted in a straightforward rehab process that gave White and the doctors the chance to look into any pain or symptoms that he faced along the way.
Kevin White using an AlterG, an anti-gravity treadmill that gave the ability to exercise without his body taking a beating.
Among the ways that Breske suggested White heal was using an AlterG, an anti-gravity treadmill that gave the receiver the ability to exercise without his body taking a beating at the same time. The doctors could monitor his pain tolerance and make suggestions on how to help move the rehab process along.
"As he started doing more activities, he started working through that soft tissue soreness and just getting confident with the rod in place and knowing that it was there to protect him and activities he did were not going to make him worse," Breske said.
The Bears knew that keeping White sharp mentally was going to be important during his time away from the field. Often times with injured players in an NFL locker room, it becomes out of sight, out of mind. The rest of the team has to move on without their banged-up comrade and the coaching staff doesn't have enough hours in the week to monitor those who won't help the team on Sundays.
But while the rehab work was to fix White's body; at the same time, the receiver's mind was also being challenged. Despite being unable to work out with his teammates on the field, White was still an active member of the Bears in 2015, attending meetings and film sessions with his teammates. Running mental routes is not the same as doing them on the field, but the exercises will be valuable when White is in uniform.
After he rejoined the team following his surgery, White didn't miss a single meeting and never hesitated when asked a question by a coach. "In meetings I would ask Jay (Cutler) questions or, Alshon (Jeffery) or Eddie (Royal)," he said. "Some of the receivers that know a little bit more than me with the offense, so I just try to stay in tune. I was preparing like I was going to play."
As the season progressed, White began to feel better. Last Nov. 24, the Bears took White off the physically unable to perform list, starting a 21-day span where he could practice with the team with the chance of being added to the active roster. Though he was eventually placed on injured reserve, the time spent working with teammates was a confidence booster.
White also realized during that time how to better monitor his body. Now when he feels an ache, he'll get a massage or speak with a trainer. During the rehab, Breske set up a schedule, so that White could monitor how far he'd come, from being on crutches to running in a pool, or on the AlterG, to making sharp cuts on land. After having a nagging injury add up to a missed rookie season, the receiver is taking every precaution possible to guarantee he's back in top form when the Bears need him next.
"I can't wait to see him on the field," Breske said. "He basically gets a second rookie year. And as you're around a guy for a lot of hours of the day and you kind of start to understand who he is as a person not just as a football player, you understand the goals and his mindset, and how much it means to him. He's got something to prove and he's excited to be playing football."
Back to work
Nearly a full 12 months after he first suffered his injury, White feels like his old self again. In early May, he joined his teammates at Halas Hall for offseason workouts, running routes and being fully active. No longer in silence and off to the side, the receiver can now be an active part of the offense.
"Feels good to be with the team finally," White said following a recent workout. "It feels good to get better every day—unlike last year, where I was watching other guys get better but I could only improve from a mental standpoint, so it's been going pretty good.
Kevin White's rookie season did not go as planned, as an injury sidelined him for the entire year. Here's a look at photos of his recovery process to get back on the field.
"I feel smooth. I feel like I have better body control, because after the injury I started getting massages, going to the chiropractor, paying attention to the little details of my ankles, hips, quads, all those things. So I feel like my body is a lot better than last year even before I got hurt because I understand the body more now and I know what it needs to feel like it's recovered."
Because White made the most of his time away from the field, he already has a comfort with Cutler and the Chicago offense despite his lack of in-game action. That bond has developed this spring during practices, White said, and should progress more over the next few months so that the receiver and quarterback are on the same page when facing an opponent.
No player wants to go through what White did in 2015, but the hope is that the experience and motivation from that kind of setback can lay the groundwork for a future of excellence. Already he's on the right track. Anyone who doesn't know his history would never know he had a major leg surgery less than a year ago. His left leg feels the same as his right leg, and both feel great. Breske is still keeping a close eye on the receiver, who goes in the hot tub and cold tub following workouts to make sure his body is taken care of properly.
"At first I was really upset with 2015," White said following one of those May workouts, as he reflected on all he's been through. "And then I realized I had to take advantage of my time. Going to meetings, knowing my surroundings and teammates, really using it as an opportunity to get better. I have a bigger chip on my shoulder because I didn't play, but everything happens for a reason and those are the cards I was dealt, so I've had to adjust and do what I know how to do."
Eli Kaberon is a web writer for ChicagoBears.com. He has previously written for Pro Football Weekly, Stats LLC and the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2014, Kaberon won the Chicago Headline Club's Peter Lisagor Award for Best Sports Story in a Daily Newspaper. You can follow Eli on Twitter @EKaberon.