How a case of mono helped the New York Jets discover Mike White

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Adam Gase buried the lede.

On Sept. 12, 2019, the then-New York Jets coach began his daily news conference with the injury report -- just like always -- mentioning five players and their practice status. After a brief pause, he dropped a quarterback bombshell.

"Fourteen has mono," Gase said matter-of-factly, referring to Sam Darnold and his jersey number. "So Trevor Siemian will be starting and Luke Falk will get elevated at some point."

Darnold's mononucleosis -- a Jets-ian development -- created a domino effect that has lasted three-plus years. It's not a stretch to say that if the Jets hadn't lost Darnold for a few weeks to the so-called "kissing disease," their current quarterback wouldn't be Mike White.

White was an emergency addition during the Jets' 2019 QB crisis, a Dallas Cowboys castoff who almost opted for the XFL over the Jets. Later that year, he nearly got poached from the Jets' practice squad. They stuck together -- White and the Jets -- through a lot of quarterback drama and now here they are:

They begin December, usually the cruelest of months for the franchise, with an excellent chance to end their 11-year playoff drought. White, who replaced the demoted Zach Wilson, will try to improve to 2-0 on the season Sunday as the Jets (7-4) meet the Minnesota Vikings (9-2) at U.S. Bank Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

From mono to mania -- Mike White mania.

"It's crazy how things work out," White told ESPN. "There are so many stories like that with guys getting an unexpected shot. I just happen to be the story of the guy here."

This is the story of opportunity, persistence, phone calls and early wake-up calls. It's the story of a perceptive and patient front office and a player who refused to give up on his dream. Here's how White's early days with the Jets unfolded, according to sources with direct knowledge of the situation.

DARNOLD'S DIAGNOSIS WAS only the start of the Jets' quarterback problems. A few days later, Siemian suffered a gruesome ankle injury in his first start, leaving the untested Falk as the only quarterback in the building. Journeyman David Fales, who had a background with Gase, was signed immediately.

General manager Joe Douglas, only three months into the job, wasn't done. He considers quarterback the most important position in sports, and he wanted to replenish the pipeline with a young player.

White was looking for work because the Cowboys released him Sept. 1, one year after drafting him in the fifth round. He cleared waivers and started to make the free-agent rounds, working out for the Buffalo Bills (Sept. 3), New England Patriots (Sept. 6) and Jets (Sept. 10).

He already was atop the Jets' short list and validated that standing with an impressive workout. At that point, the Jets' interest was standard. Every team works out players after the final cuts to finalize their contingency plans.

Douglas was high on White after evaluating him before the 2018 draft while working in the Philadelphia Eagles' front office. He knew White as a productive college player with strong intangibles. What impressed him the most was how he threw for 4,177 yards, with 26 touchdown passes and eight interceptions at Western Kentucky, even though some of his best players from the year before had graduated.

Douglas brought that intel to the Jets, who had similarly strong scouting reports on White. Pro personnel director Greg Nejmeh also rated him as a priority player on his list of available developmental quarterbacks. At that point, the Jets were happy with the Darnold-Siemian-Falk troika but received the mono news one day after White's tryout.

Suddenly, there was a sense of urgency. It went to DEFCON 1 when Siemian's ankle was broken on Sept. 16, courtesy of Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett.

The Jets reached out to White's agent, Joel Segal, offering a position on the practice squad for the standard salary of $136,000. White was hesitant; he was being courted by the fledgling XFL, which was debuting in the spring of 2020. The XFL offered "significantly more than a practice-squad salary," said White, who couldn't remember the exact figure. The Jets didn't offer a bonus, but promised they would provide an opportunity to develop.

"At the time, it was pretty tough," White said of his decision. "I knew I was an NFL quarterback -- I wasn't an XFL quarterback -- but (the XFL) was an opportunity to play and I knew I needed film. The only film I had was preseason from Dallas, and it wasn't the greatest film, to be honest."

It took a lot of hard recruiting. Douglas, Nejmeh, assistant GM Rex Hogan and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains placed calls to White and Segal for a week. Recalling that period, White said, "Rex kind of sold me on the dream. He's a very good salesman."

Finally, on Sept. 25, White signed a practice squad contract. After much consideration, he decided "it felt right," and that he wouldn't be just a practice arm. The transaction occurred during their bye week, barely registering on the media radar. At 3:34 p.m., the Jets' official website announced it with a story.

Only three short paragraphs.

BEFORE MEETINGS AND practice, Loggains conducted a quarterback school every day at 7 a.m., a chance to sharpen fundamentals, watch film and talk the language of quarterback. It was an extra-help session, so to speak. White was a regular.

White quickly gained a reputation as a diligent worker, on and off the field, according to former teammates and coaches. They described him as serious, but personable. He ran the scout-team offense against the starting defense.

"He was always consistent in his manner and demeanor," former linebacker Brandon Copeland said. "He was always a great person, great teammate and always worked his tail off. Those are the things that stick out. You could count on Mike to be himself. He didn't have bad days in terms of his outside personality and his demeanor toward the rest of the team. He didn't mope. He didn't do things like that. I think that's going to be huge for him now. Watching him have success, it's extremely earned."

A former staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said White was "smart, focused and a pleaser. He wanted the scout team to present the correct picture for the defense. He wasn't afraid to compete. He was determined. He wanted his fundamentals to improve with quality, competitive team snaps in practice. He had the respect of the huddle. He recruited guys to listen to him as the quarterback -- and they did."

He didn't make an impression on everyone, though. One former offensive starter texted, "I don't remember much about him, to be honest."

White had an opportunity to leave the Jets that first season because the San Francisco 49ers offered him a spot on their 53-man roster. To retain him, the Jets sweetened his practice-squad salary, bumping him to $204,000 -- a practice no longer allowed. On Dec. 9, 2019, White signed a renegotiated contract.

They wound up cutting him four times in 2020, each time bringing him back to the practice squad. There was risk involved -- any team could've claimed him on waivers -- but the Jets were willing to take that chance because no one had seen him play since the 2019 preseason in Dallas. The 2020 preseason was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so there was no new tape.

The Jets never lost faith in White, who made the 53-man roster last season, started three games and achieved near-cult hero status with a 405-yard passing performance against the Cincinnati Bengals. That came as an injury replacement. Now he's starting because coach Robert Saleh believes in him. He tossed White into the crucible of a playoff race.

"It’s almost like he lowers his heartbeat," Saleh said, explaining White's poise under pressure. "It’s just not big for him."

It hasn't been a smooth ride. White was benched last season for Joe Flacco after a four-interception game against the Bills -- Wilson was injured at the time -- and his training camp performance this summer was lackluster. Saleh, acknowledging the "slow start," had a conversation with him in camp. White responded with a terrific outing in the final preseason game, but he still was behind Wilson and Flacco on the depth chart.

In Week 8, White was promoted to QB2. Then, QB1.

"You've got to be prepared because when that time does come, you've got to be able to seize it," White said.

No one knows how this story will end. We know how it began -- a case of mono, a broken ankle and an unexpected shot.

"This didn't come to him easy," said Copeland, a former undrafted free agent who knows what it's like to get cut several times. "[Guys like us], I don't want to say we cherish it more, but we can deal with the ebbs and flows because we've been at the bottom. He's been at the bottom. There's nothing for him to lose, so to speak, and I think that makes him extremely dangerous."