CHAD WINGER - Tuesday, February 15, 2005
In the United States when soccer makes the mainstream news, most American soccer fans happily accept the mention of the sport. But in March 2004, when Jeremiah White made national headlines on MSNBC and CNN following an "overblown and misreported" racial incident, even non-soccer enthusiasts took notice as the game took yet another knock to its already low profile in America.
So began a torrid year for the Pennsylvania native, a year that has seen the player signed and released by two teams, a host of injuries and other adversities. A year, that in his own words, "I'd just like to put it behind me."
White, 22, took a different path to Europe than that of many of his peers.
After a four year career with Wake Forest University - a career which saw him being named the ACC Player of the Year in 2003 - White balked at the opportunity to sign with MLS, instead, opting to ink a deal with little-known Serbia and Montenegro side OFK Belgrade. A decision that in retrospect, White says was made in haste.
"I was probably a little bit too eager. Too naive. I really just wanted to play in Europe and test myself," White told YA from his home in Pennsylvania. "Perhaps I should have waited a little longer and let the pieces fall into place."
"I had a few other trials and opportunities in a few other countries, but then I hurt my knee, so really [OFK] was the best choice over there that I had at that point."
After an initial delay in getting approval of his playing license, White figured heavily into the team's plans, making several appearances for the club in the domestic Prva Liga. Despite playing out of his preferred withdrawn striker role, White took the opportunity in stride, gaining valuable professional experience, improving his game in the process.
"I think the thing that I took most from my time there was just learning to be more physical and to think ahead. In college, I could rely a lot on my speed to get by guys or to get into scoring position. You try that there, 9 times out of 10 they're just going to flatten you."
"It forces you to think more and be stronger on the ball. So I think I learned quite a bit there even though I wasn't there too long."
Then in mid-March, came the incident, which unfortunately for the American, put White's name in the news for the wrong reasons.
While out with a group of friends - including two black Brazilians - the group was met by several Belgrade youths, one of whom, as White describes, "was throwing around Nazi signs."
And after a few angry words - and a few punches thrown in both directions - White and his group left the scene, believing that the incident was over.
It was not to be, however. In the following days, worldwide news agencies such as BBC and Italian channel RAI picked up the story, putting the soft spoken youngster in an awkward, yet incredulous position.
"A few days after that all went down, I was talking to a friend back home and he was like, 'Man, I saw you on CNN! Are you ok? Do you need any help?'" recalls White. "At first I didn't even know what he was talking about, but then when I understood, I couldn't believe it."
"I mean, yeah, there was an incident, but it was nothing like what the news said. They made it out to be some huge brawl where I was running for my life or something, but in reality, it was just a few ignorant guys trying to cause trouble. I've faced worse stuff back home, to be honest."
"I think it just made a good news story for them. They saw that I'm American, and I guess they figured it'd make better ratings or something. It wasn't that big of a deal."
A little over a month later, the racial incident still fresh in the minds of the media, came to the forefront again, when White asked for - and was granted - release from his contract.
Speculation arose on both sides of the Atlantic that the speedster had quit the club due to fear of his safety, a suggestion that White laughed off, saying, "That's the farthest thing from the truth."
"The fact is, that I didn't really like my role with them, and they had plans for me that I had no interest in. They are a club that has a history of selling guys over to teams in Russia and Ukraine, and I didn't want any part in that at all."
"My dream and goal is to play in Western Europe and going over somewhere in the middle of nowhere wasn't something I wanted to do."
And that dream seemed to be on the right track soon after, cementing trials with Dutch power Feyenoord as well as their feeder club, Belgian Jupiler League side Westerlo, where he was impressive in both.
But impatience again got the best of White, and as he had just months earlier, made a decision which he'd later regret.
Despite having a deal nearly sewn up in Belgium, against the better advice of advisors, in August he quickly signed with Panserraikos FC of the Greek second division, a team recommended by several players that he had spent time with training following his release from OFK.
"I probably was a little too trusting in these guys, again, maybe a little too naive. But these guys had played for Monaco and other big teams, so why shouldn't I have?"
But White soon discovered the dirty side of the game the hard way. Finding among other things, that his original contract had been physically altered, as well as having to play through injury following a series of setbacks suffered early in the season.
"It was ridiculous what [Panserraikos] they tried to do," he claims. "They thought that they could do what they wanted and get away with it."
"I guess they forgot that I had a copy of the contract as well. They tried to show me their copy, but you could literally see that they had made changes to it after I signed. It was made to look like I had signed for two years, instead of one."
"The whole situation was bad. They even had me playing as a target forward at times, and I'm only 5' 8"! That didn't make any sense at all."
Following a violent collision with an opposing goalkeeper in November which resulted in a severe concussion and the eventual loss of two months of action, White would seize on the opportunity to leave club.
In addition to the disputed contract situation, the 2004 New England Revolution 3rd round draft pick finally asked for his release, citing better medical treatment among his reasons. After an initial fight from the Greek side, they reluctantly granted the release in mid-January.
"At first, they were still trying to fight it with me, saying they'd sell me to another team," White continued. "I didn't trust them anymore and just wanted to get out of there, get better, and have the chance to start over."
"I think I've learned now to be a little more patient, and that in this game, the business side can be just as important."
"I put myself in those situations, and I can admit that now, but I'm not going to make the same mistakes again," the former Demon Deacon stated. "I've surrounded myself with people that will help me make my next decisions, and I feel good about the future."
Those next decisions, of which White laughingly says, "I'm not allowed to say right now, but they do involve Europe again," shows that he has begun to take his time into planning his future. Without the knee-jerk choices of the past year, White is looking forward to the close season, saying, "It won't be too long, but I am going to be more careful from now on."
"I am definitely smarter now, and I'm excited about what I am going to do next," he said, before offering one piece of ironic final advice.
"Don't believe everything you see on CNN."