Niyo: Cody, Sheldon White find father-son time at MSU

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Freshman Cody White and father Sheldon’s paths regularly cross at MSU.

They are father and son. But they are parent and college student as well. So when their paths cross on Michigan State’s campus — usually inside the Duffy Daugherty Football Building, where Cody White is a freshman wide receiver and Sheldon White works as the Spartans’ executive director of player personnel — the interactions are about what you’d expect.

“When he comes to me, it’s ‘Dad, can I have some money?’” Sheldon White said, chuckling. “And I’ll laugh and say, ‘Can you at least say ‘Hi’ first?’”

Cody insists that’s not true — “Only sometimes,” he grinned — but they both can agree on one thing.

“It’s been a great experience,” the son said, “just having my dad around.”

And right around now, that’s easy to see, wrapping up a White Christmas — one big Spartan family, all together here in San Diego — while preparing for today’s Holiday Bowl.

Cody White will be looking to finish off an impressive debut season when the 18th-ranked Spartans face No. 21 Washington State Thursday night. The Spartans’ third-leading receiver (32 catches, 449 yards) is just 4 yards shy of the school record for receiving yards by a true freshman. (Donnie Corley finished with 33 catches and 453 yards in 2016.)

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Sheldon White had a pretty successful rookie year as well, assuming a lead role in Michigan State’s recruiting efforts after a tumultuous offseason that was overshadowed by player arrests, roster attrition and the departure of Curtis Blackwell. Last week, the Spartans signed the bulk of their 2018 class — all 20 committed recruits — during the NCAA’s new early-signing period, leaving just a few more spots to fill this winter.

But right around here, that’s where the former NFL cornerback and longtime NFL personnel executive with the Detroit Lions will stop you and tell you this story isn’t about him.

“I mean it,” White said. “This is his experience. I’m in the background of it. I’m just here as an employee. Really, this is his show.”

Growing up with MSU

Fair enough, and as the story goes, Cody White showed his true colors at an early age. He was a Michigan State recruit “from birth,” Sheldon joked, owing mostly to his wife Amy’s side of the family. Both her parents were Michigan State alums, and Cody and his three siblings often attended games with them at Spartan Stadium.

Having grown up around football — a regular on the sidelines before games at Ford Field and during training camp in Allen Park — Cody was naturally drawn to the game. But while he dominated youth flag football and grade-school 7-on-7 leagues, he also excelled in other sports, baseball, basketball, track and field. And in his early teens, when his father asked him, “If I rolled out three balls, which one would you pick?” his answer was pretty telling.

“Whichever one takes me to Michigan State,” Cody replied.

Cody White

Of course, he still had some growing up to do. He was 5-foot-10 and 135 pounds as a freshman at Walled Lake Western, though the Spartans’ football staff still had him on their watch list because they liked his skill set. And after a standout performance at Eastern Michigan’s summer camp in 2015, Cody received his first Big Ten scholarship offer from Wisconsin. More offers followed as a junior — by then he’d grown to 6-2 and 180-plus pounds — and when Michigan State called on March 1, his birthday, “it was over, basically,” his father said. Within a week, he became the first recruit to commit to MSU’s 2017 recruiting class.

In the meantime, Sheldon had become unemployed, officially let go by new Lions general manager Bob Quinn in early February after 19 years with the organization, including a brief final stint as interim GM where the Lions went 6-2 following Martin Mayhew’s midseason firing.

“At that point, I just wanted to step back for a second, exhale, and make sure this next step’s a good one,” said White, whose youngest child — 17-year-old Lacy — is still a junior at Walled Lake Western.

White had inquiries from other NFL teams while attending the league’s scouting combine in late February, he said, “but nothing that made sense.” He also had a college offer for a consulting role at Indiana, where he would join then-head coach Kevin Wilson, a former coaching colleague at Miami (Ohio) in the mid-1990s.

White said he was perhaps a week or two away from accepting that job when Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio called with a similar offer, one that would allow him not just to stay home, but also give him a front-row seat to watch his youngest son’s career in a way he never could thanks to his NFL duties.

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White had gotten to know Dantonio over the years, first through his scouting duties and later as a reference point for internship programs, along with Cody’s recruitment. The Spartans’ head coach always impressed White as a talent evaluator, “and when you walk into his office, you better have your t’s crossed and i’s dotted.” Likewise, Dantonio raves about White’s “great attention to detail,” something he cited when he promoted him to his current position last July.

And they both noticed the same traits in that three-star recruit who was voted Michigan’s “Mr. Football” after a senior season that saw White rack up more than 1,600 all-purpose yards and play eight different positions for the Division 2 state runner-up.

“He’s been around football all his life, and you can see that and feel that,” Dantonio said.

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Now, if you ask Cody about what he saw being around the NFL growing up, the first name he’ll mention is Calvin Johnson. But not for the usual wide-eyed reasons.

“Watching him out there working harder than everybody else, going after every ball — that’s what really impressed me,” he said. “And just seeing the work ethic it takes to play at that level, and trying to replicate it, I think that’s a big part of why I’m here today.”

It’s not the only reason, obviously. Sheldon was a four-year starter at Miami (Ohio) who played six years in the NFL, and Cody, who just turned 19, has the athletic profile to do the same — the size (6-3, 206), the long arms, the hands, the body control.

It didn’t take long, either, once fall camp began in late July, for Michigan State receivers coach Terrence Samuel to see the attention to detail runs in the family, as White began learning the playbook and trying to understand route concepts.

“Coach (Samuel) would say, ‘Do this,’ and he’d say, ‘Why?’” said junior receiver Felton Davis. “Not in a bad way. He just wants to know the full reason why we’re doing it this way.”

It didn’t take him long to show everyone why, as White kept producing explosive plays in the passing game during camp, impressing both his coaches and his quarterback daily.

“It was really cool," Lewerke said. “I was just, like, ‘Wow, this guy is  really  good. He’s a freshman, but he can play and be a big part of our offense right away.’”

Breakout game

The playing time came sparingly at first. But by midseason, there was no more holding the freshman back. A breakout performance Oct. 21 against Indiana — six catches, 99 yards and one big hug from dad on the sideline as time expired — earned White the starting job opposite Davis, and from there, he said, “the game just started to slow down for me.”

The next week, White had nine receptions for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the overtime loss at Northwestern. And with 27 catches for 399 yards over his last six games, even White admits his learning curve looks different now.

“Yeah, it does,” he said. “You always put a high bar on things, but this year has definitely put a stamp on what I’m capable of.”

Cody White

He said he already sees the benefits of six months of working with MSU strength coach Ken Mannie, adding 10 pounds and a noticeable burst when he turns up field. He expects to see even more of that — strength and speed — after a full offseason in the program.

And when he looks around at all the underclassmen who contributed to this season’s success — center Brian Allen was the lone senior starter on offense — “it’s pretty exciting to think about what we’ve got coming back,” White said.

“All the freshmen, we have a group chat, and that’s really what we were talking about the whole summer — coming in and trying to make an impact,” he said. “I think we did a good job of that.”

All the while, he said, his dad has done a great job of sticking to his promises. No special treatment — “He doesn’t get babied, let’s put it that way,” Dantonio said, smiling — and no helicopter parenting.

“He sees little things and he’ll just nudge me,” Cody said, “but he won’t really come at me,” he said. “Really, it’s been cool, to have him around, to be a part of this.”

On that count, he’ll get no argument.

“When he sees me, I’m more of a dad,” Sheldon said. “I’m here, but I’m not here, is the best way of putting it. I want him to grow up. So I let his coaches handle him, and the trainers and the other administrators. I don’t say a word. ...

“It can be nerve-racking sometimes. But at the same it’s very, very rewarding."

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And when you ask the elder White about his own career plans, wondering aloud about NFL opportunities that might come this winter or next, he sounds like what he has learned to call a “hard commit” in his new job. Sort of like his son was not that long ago.

“It better be something phenomenal,” Sheldon White said. “Because I can tell you, when I’m 70, it doesn’t matter if I’ve got another hundred grand in my pocket. I’ll be like, ‘Man, it was great that I was there watching that, watching Cody.’ From a distance, but close-up.”

Holiday Bowl

Michigan State vs. Washington State

Kickoff: 9 p.m. Thursday, SDCCU Stadium, San Diego

TV/radio: FS1/760

Records: Michigan State 9-3, Washington State 9-3

Line: Michigan State by 1