As Corey Alexander streaked down the sideline, threatening to render the celebrations of Howard's 34-31 season-opening victory over Texas Southern premature, Ray Petty had his hands on his headset, preparing to rip it off in disgust. A go-ahead touchdown, in the final minute of his first game as the Bison's head coach, seemed about to be wasted on the ensuing kickoff return.
"Then I saw Tracy White in the corner of my eye," Petty said, "and I knew we had a chance."
White, who had begun his dash from the other side of the field, angled in on Alexander and shoved him out of bounds.
"That was a Tracy White play," said Petty, and those who have followed the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in recent years needed no elaboration.
White has made the spectacular routine while winning MEAC defensive player of the year honors the past two seasons. He was the frontrunner for a third until a pulled hamstring limited his production for most of September and October this season. Despite the injury, he ranks third in the MEAC with 8.2 tackles per game.
White was recruited heavily out of Timberland High School in St. Stephen, S.C. -- by the Army. With no scholarship offers of any kind, White was set to enlist as late as January of his senior year, until Howard offered a visit.
"I pretty much signed right then," White said. "What else was I going to do? I didn't have the money to pay for college, and it was the only school that offered me."
The recruiting world's oversight has been the Bison's gain. Saturday, White will start the 44th and final game of his college career when the Bison (6-4, 4-3) host Delaware State (3-8, 1-6) at noon, and he will have one game to add to his 485 career tackles, believed to be a school record (Howard has no such records).
The defense had grown so reliant on White to cover mistakes that "we spent two games just looking around for Tracy," Petty said. "We were out there wondering what we were going to do now that he wasn't the same player."
White has done it all quietly. His teammates revere his humility and stoicism, which White traces back to his upbringing in St. Stephen, where he helped take care of his father, who was blinded by a tumor when Tracy was 6.
"You learn patience helping out someone like that every day," White said. "You learn to like helping people. He started to get into the church after that, and getting us into the Bible."
That influence may be why reporters and teammates alike have trouble getting much out of White.
"I don't like to talk about myself much," White said. "I'm afraid if I talk about it a lot I'll jinx it, lose it."
White, a shade under 6 feet, 235 pounds, has been timed in the 40-yard dash at just under 4.5 seconds. Petty believes he would have to move to outside linebacker or strong safety to make it in the NFL, and probably would need a year or two of special teams duty to adjust to the pro game's speed. White's appearance in the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 11 will be, in essence, an audition for a spot at February's NFL Combine.
That makes the Shrine appearance a particularly pressure-filled game for White, whose mother was laid off from her secretarial job this fall.
"I've never really been in a situation like this before," White said. "There are a lot of people depending on me."
When White pulled his right hamstring on the first series against Hampton on Sept. 14, Petty thought he would rest for at least the next game, against Maine, a nonconference opponent.
"I left him in the locker room when we went out for warmups," Petty said. "Then it's about to be kickoff, and I turn to my right, and there's Tracy, in his uniform with his helmet in his hand: 'Coach, you going to put me in?' "
He made five tackles, playing at nearly half-speed.
"He wasn't able to make Tracy White plays for a while," Petty said. "He wasn't able to change direction and explode the way he was up until the Hampton game. He has a great ability to close in on ballcarriers, and he wasn't able to do that until that play."
In Saturday's loss at Bethune-Cookman, he was listed with 13 tackles, "but it looked like 20," Petty said. "He was everywhere. That was the player he has always been."