- Kristian Dyer
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His feet have made him a living. They also might have saved his life.
It was a pretty typical March evening in Belgrade. Jeremiah White was in his first season (2004) with Serbian soccer club OFK Beograd and had just finished dinner with several teammates. It was a relaxed pace for White, an African-American midfielder known for his speed. Hands in pockets and laughing with his teammates, all seemed right in the world.
In his own words, he remembers walking through the capital city and noticing a group of OFK supporters. Outgoing and true to form, White approached the group. What happened next is still somewhat of a blur to him.
"As I got closer to the group, a few of the guys began to raise their arms, making Nazi gestures towards me. At that point, I probably should have walked away, but I asked them what their problem was -- I said to them that they probably have no clue why they were making those gestures," White said. "Long story short, one of the guys confronted me in an aggressive manner, and I defended myself."
The situation quickly escalated. Having put one of the assailants on his back, White was quickly on his heels. With the rest of the hooligans chasing him, White ran for his life. The feet that earned him his first chance to play professional soccer carried him to safety. As he remembers it, "none [of the attackers] were able to catch up."
He left the club shortly thereafter because OFK was in financial desperation, unable to pay several of its top players, including the American. White is honest in saying he did not leave the club because of the altercation. It is clear, however, that he is now in a better place.
"The [Belgrade attack] made me realize that some people will do hurtful things to others in order to feel as though they are part of a group," White said. "That incident made me stronger mentally. It was never a thought of mine to use it as an excuse to quit."
That doesn't mean that he didn't endure some moments of doubt. As a born-again Christian, White turned inward to find strength and conviction when no one would have questioned him if he wanted to quit.
"My faith helped me through this [time] because God has given me so many wonderful things and so many victories," White said. "Even though I sometimes had doubts and in the back of my mind I wanted to just go home, my belief overcame any temporary doubt or thought."
Yet, the incident isn't the definition of White. He is quick to point out that he is more than just a story of overcoming and surviving. He is a family man, a son and a husband. Father of a 10-month old son, he is defined by more than what would be a singular incident. A college graduate, a deep thinker and a man of faith, everything in his life has found a perspective, including the attack.
"In the story of my life," White said, "that cold evening in Belgrade takes up a paragraph."
These days, one look at Jeremiah White is all you need to know about him. He has a quick smile and an infectious laugh that makes him a hit in the locker room. A graduate of Wake Forest University, the former Deacon was a collegiate soccer standout, three times earning All-ACC honors and being named the ACC Player of the Year in 2003, his senior season. Following graduation, he signed a professional contract with OFK, passing up an opportunity to play Major League Soccer. It was a decision by White to prove himself in Europe against the best competition in the world. It was far from the easy route that many had advised.
White's youth coach, FC Delco's Mike Gorni, recalls White as a raw talent and had the opportunity to watch him mature and develop on and off the field. Gorni was not surprised by the character and dignity that White showed in the days after the attack. In fact, he expected it from his former player.
"I think he has been brilliant. That is how he is different than many other American kids," Gorni said. "Despite the language barrier, the discrimination and even being the new kid on the block, it was a very big chance. He never quit when a lot of others would. He always was willing to take a chance."
And for White, the chance meant continuing to play professional soccer in Europe, even with the attack a not-so-distant memory.
"Growing up, my dad always told me to do my best and never quit," he said. "So I didn't quit."
Far from it.
Nearly four years removed from the day of the attack, White is now on the fast track to success. He is in Denmark, playing with AGF Arhus. For the first time in his career, he is seeing first-team action for a top-flight team. His reliable play and solid performances recently earned him a call-up to the United States national team to play Sweden. He made his first appearance in that game, briefly in the second half as the game closed. He notes that this past season in Denmark is the first time in his career he has put together consistent performances from game to game. White's feet are now making headlines, not carrying him from trouble.
Even in college, the knock on White was that he was one-dimensional, reliant on pure speed. Playing at a high level in Denmark has forced the 25-year-old from Washington, D.C., to have a better engine. Now, he notes, he has to bring his best effort whether it's for "90 minutes or two." Not only has his work rate increased, he has worked on his crossing. All this has made the chance to play for the national team possible.
Gorni sees White as an option either at forward or as a flank player in the midfield. He has noticed that White's game is maturing, and he is no longer content to be just a "speed guy."
All this is what national team coach Bob Bradley is counting on as he puts together his squad for this summer's qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup.
"It is a huge honor," White said of being included in the January camp. "It is a big thing for my coaches, friends and especially my family."
He might be the fastest guy on a team with several burners. With the forward situation very much up in the air for the national team, he will have an opportunity to impress Bradley as qualification for the World Cup begins this summer. White feels he can be the kind of performer Bradley needs to score goals at the international level.
"I like Bob because he is very clear about what he wants," White said. "He can count on me to work hard every day and follow instructions to my maximum capacity. If finding a place on the national team means that I am required to be a hard tackler or a player or both, then that is what I will do."
This determination, in the face of uncertainty, is an attribute that helps make White a success.
"I've never seen him do anything or behave in any way other then that which is good," says Joe Cox, the headmaster of The Haverford School in Philadelphia, White's alma mater. "I am proud to be associated with a school that graduated Jeremiah White."
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.
Jeremiah White experienced the ugly side of soccer on a dark night four years ago in Belgrade, but he hasn't let that deter him, writes Kristian Dyer.