Why Devin White's path to Bucs feels like destiny: 'God makes no mistakes'

TAMPA, Fla. -- Linebacker Devin White's pre-draft visit with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't go exactly as planned.

The flight that was to take him from Tampa to New York to meet with the New York Giants experienced multiple delays, leaving him stranded at the airport for eight hours and forcing him to stay an extra night.

"It was the longest delay that I've ever been [through]," White said. "They were working on the plane and once they fixed something, I guess something else broke."

That experience, and those hours spent staring out a window at the Marriott Airport Hotel, would come back to him three and half weeks later on the first night of the NFL draft. It's almost as if those swaying palm trees outside the window were trying to tell him something. Maybe, that his brother, J'Marco "Jae Jae" Greenard, wanted him to stay a little longer and play for the team he loved before he died in a car accident.

"As I look back on it, I feel like it was heaven-sent that they [were] just telling me, 'You're home. You're home, get used to this place,'" said White, who was drafted fifth overall by the Bucs.

"That's why I say God makes no mistakes."

'That was the person I strived to be like'

When White was 4 years old, his mother, Coesha, married Willie Standokes, who became White's stepfather. His son, J'Marco "Jae Jae" Greenard, was six years older but immediately accepted White.

The two brothers shared a room in a single-wide trailer and did everything together in their Cotton Valley, Louisiana, hometown that didn't even have a stoplight.

"That was my big brother, my mentor, that was the person I strived to be like," said White, who watched Greenard's track meets and basketball and football games.

"He was a running back. He wore No. 22," White said.

"[He was] very outgoing like Devin, very popular. He was athletic as well -- really, really fast," said Shaun Houston, who was White's youth football coach and attended the same church.

When White and Greenard played football video games, Greenard always chose the Bucs, his favorite team despite living among a sea of fans rooting for the New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys.

Greenard even had a Ronde Barber jersey.

"He was the biggest Bucs fan," White said. "He never went to a game or [anything] because we lived so far away -- we're like 12 hours from Tampa -- but he really liked them."

'Why did it happen that way?'

On June 11, 2011, Greenard and Houston were on the way back from visiting a water park in Texas with the Mount Sariah Baptist Church group, with Houston driving. Ten to 15 minutes into the ride, heading eastbound on Interstate 20, the van began to shake. The driver's side tire blew, causing the van to leave the highway and flip several times.

"I got a call saying that my mom and my stepdad had to go to Texas because my brother was hurt, he had been in a wreck," said White, who stayed home from the trip.

Eight people were thrown from the van that day, including Greenard, who died on impact. Houston's mother-in-law also suffered devastating injuries in the accident and died a year later.

"I really didn't know how to accept it," said White, who was 13 at the time.

Greenard had just graduated from Cotton Valley High School and had enlisted in the Army. He was to report for basic training soon and was looking forward to serving his country.

"He had so much going for himself," Houston said.

Instead, he was buried beneath a canopy of yellow and blue roses, with tiny blue balloons spelling out his name.

"It rocked our community ... it rocked me in ways that were just unimaginable," said Houston, who still struggles to talk about the accident. "To be honest -- every day, the closer we get to the month of June, the harder it is to deal with, just across the board in our community."

Both White and Houston leaned on their faith to carry them through.

"I used to be so hurt that [Greenard] was in that car wreck. But I look at it now, it ended up being a blessing," White said. "On the field, I write his name on my cleats and I just feel like he's there with me.

"I don't know how true it is, but some of the things, when I watch film, [that] I do on the field, I'm like, 'It's nobody but God and Jae Jae.' I'm just thankful. And for me to link up with the Bucs and he was a Bucs fan, you just start to wonder, 'Why did it happen that way?'"

Houston made a vow to White and his siblings, that he would be there for them in every part of their lives -- as a coach, mentor, spiritual adviser and friend.

"I just think, man, I needed him, and he needed me," Houston said. "I think God put both of us in each other's lives at the right time. And to be able to not only endure that, but to kind of go through everything that we've gone through, [it has brought us closer]."

'A higher purpose'

LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has watched White play, with the cleats and the arm bands etched with "Jae Jae" on them. He says he believes Greenard played a big role in shaping White's disciplined approach to football.

"What I notice is he's very purposeful [and] driven," Aranda said of White. "He wants to be coached. He wants to hear what he's doing good and what he's doing bad and in no uncertain terms, 'Just give to me.'

"There are certain guys who are at his level of play where it's just, you're gonna give it to 'em the straight way no matter what, but they have a hard time accepting it or they'll fight you at times ... but Devin welcomes it. And I think it's because of [what he has dealt with]. There's more of a purpose behind it, a higher purpose."

Aranda is proud of the way White has gone from a heartbroken teenager to a resilient young man, not letting tragic circumstances dictate his life.

"His greatest strength, though, is that he can inspire people," Aranda said. "He's got a gift of communicating and empathizing with people. It's pretty special."

'It was just meant to be'

On the night of the NFL draft, White summoned Houston.

"Hey, Coach, can you come over here and tie my tie?" he asked. He repeated a ritual he started with Houston in his senior year of high school and when Houston drove over 15 hours to watch White play his first college game in Wisconsin.

"That was actually the first time I tied his tie and we had cameras in there with us," Houston said of the pre-draft moment.

Unbeknownst to anyone else, White brought a framed photo of Greenard with him. As the family was getting ready to leave the hotel, White handed the photo -- from Greenard's high school graduation -- to his stepfather.

"I was like, 'Make sure this gets in the green room,'" White said. "I [saw] the look in his eye, it kind of hit him, like, 'Man, you didn't forget it.'"

When the Oakland Raiders, who were selecting one spot ahead of the Bucs at No. 4, drafted Clelin Ferrell, White's mind immediately went back to the Tampa visit and Jae Jae, whose photo was sitting right beside him.

"That moment just hit me and I was like, maybe God was telling me, you were at home all along," White said.

"I put my head down, and I just like closed my eyes and said, 'Bro, I'm about to go to your team.' As soon as I picked my head up and sat back in the chair, I looked over and the phone was ringing. It was just meant to be."

White isn't sure where Greenard's Barber jersey is today. Greenard moved out when he was 17 and White hasn't seen it since. But he hopes to meet Barber, who now works as a television analyst for Fox and frequently calls Bucs games. He'd like to have something signed to bring to Greenard's grave.

"He just wanted to take care of the family, which is what I want to do. I feel like I've been doing it, I've been giving him something to be proud of," White said.

"He really liked [the Bucs]. Now I'm part of them, I know he'd really, really love them now. He's up in heaven watching me and I know once I set foot on that field at Raymond James Stadium, he's gonna be with me. He's really gonna give me an extra boost because I always play with him, for him and through him."