By Gareth Kwok
TEMPE – Rachaad White needed help.
The running back had just transferred to Arizona State, arriving several months later than most of his teammates after spending two seasons at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California.
White was still trying to grasp the ASU playbook, and it didn’t help that his fellow running backs already had a chance to learn the plays during seven practices before COVID-19 shut down the rest of spring ball.
White was the new kid and didn’t know anybody during the meetings. He was going to have to ask somebody.
“I’m the type of guy who is going to ask if I don’t know,” White said.
Jackson He recalls seeing White for the first time virtually during a Zoom meeting for the running backs. It wasn’t a good first impression, however.
“At first, with Zoom sometimes when you’re recording things, your voice goes crazy,” He said. “At first, I was like, ‘Huh, this man’s voice is weird.’ It’s high-tuned.
“I was like ‘OK, this man better be good at football.’”
Turns out he is.
White and He are coming off career years but for vastly different reasons. White eventually caught up on that playbook, and led the Sun Devils in rushing with 420 yards and five touchdowns in a season limited to just four games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was an impressive first year for White in Tempe, despite the abbreviated schedule.
He, meanwhile, caught the attention of the sports world for his likeable personality, which largely came to light outside the ASU program after He became the first player born in China to score a touchdown in FBS history.
It came when the 5-foot-9, 220-pound back powered into the end zone against rival Arizona on December 11, a moment that culminated with He’s uniform going to the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
But perhaps the only thing as unexpected as He’s touchdown is how a running back from Kansas City, Missouri, became so close to another running back from Shaoguan, China, creating a sort of Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker “Rush Hour” duo in the Arizona State football program.
Before meeting He, White said he had never played with an Asian football player before. But through learning the plays and quizzing each other, an unlikely friendship was born.
“Like a certain question I would ask Jackson, ‘What do we have on this play? Isn’t it this or isn’t it that?’” White said. “That’s how our relationship kicked off, and Jackson just saw I was an outgoing and cool guy, and we just started hanging after that and making sure we both knew the plays. And we would test each other.”
Running backs coach Shaun Aguano noticed that White and He were forming a bond.
“Jackson would sit next to Rachaad and tell him, ‘This is what we do,’” Aguano said. “It’s funny because everybody looks to Jackson for confirmation. All of sudden, when we walk to practice and the coaches walk to practice, I see Jackson and Rachaad in Jackson’s car every day riding to practice.”
In previous years, a bus would take the players from the main facility at Sun Devil Stadium to the Kajikawa practice fields less than a mile away. But because of COVID, ASU did not use the bus last season.
White was trying to avoid paying for a parking pass necessary to park by the fields every day without the bus to ride. So he asked He, who lives 10 minutes away, to give him a lift from his apartment.
White didn’t exactly know what he was getting himself into when he asked to catch a ride from a teammate who blasts Chinese hip-hop in his car.
“I’m like, ‘What is this?’ and I’m messing around with him,” White said. “He’s like ‘This is our music man. This is what we listen to back home.’ We had that first impression of him playing his music, and he really be windows down and letting people know. I start bobbing my head and messing around and just enjoying time with him.”
It became their routine, according to He. “Rush Hour” to practice.
“In the morning, I just go pick him up and then, you know, we blast a little music before we get in,” He said. “Then we go out to practice again, we blast our music, too.”
While White needed help with the playbook and transportation, He needed something as well.
Jackson had gotten his hair cut in Arizona previously, but he had just picked a random place. He wanted to find out where his teammates were going for their haircuts.
“I feel like a barber shop can connect people,” He said. “So maybe I should go to a barbershop with some of my teammates. I had to ask one of my best friends, Rachaad, ‘Hey, you want to go to the barber shop together? Can I get a ride?’ Just things like that, just get connected after football hours.”
White had asked redshirt freshman quarterback Trenton Bourguet to hook him up with his barber. White told He about Nation of Barbers and shop owner Martio Harris, who He said “gives everyone a haircut on the team.”
So the friendship that began with football, music and haircuts grew, with He and White adding playing basketball, hiking, weight lifting and going out for food together to the list.
He even introduced White to some Chinese food at Phoenix Palace in Chandler. Apparently, White was not a fan. Offered a taste of chicken feet for the first time, He said White responded, “Oh, hell no!”
But the strongest thing the pair has in common? It’s a desire that White and He share to get better every day at practice and in training.
“(It’s) the mindset to chase improvement every day,” He said. “I want to be better every day and that’s how I got to this point, I guess. But it’s far from finished. (Rachaad) is the guy that wants to put in extra work and put in extra time to perfect his craft. This is the type of attitude that makes people around you want to work harder, and then we basically just feed off each other. We just try to be great everyday and be better than yesterday.”
On the night that He scored his historic touchdown, the Devils were leading 42-7 with 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter and White had the opportunity to easily walk into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game.
Instead, he stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard line hoping to set up He for the touchdown run. The ASU coaching staff chose to keep White in the game, and White eventually scored on the next play. He had to wait a little longer for his opportunity.
“I feel like that was my time to step out of bounds and let Jackson get one,” White said. “Obviously it didn’t happen, but that was my whole mindset was to get us down there. We got down there and I had an opportunity to score. I just felt like it wasn’t my time. It was his time, so I stepped out of bounds.”
It is a gesture that He will never forget.
“You know, everything is on TV,” He said. “Everything is going to help him with his draft stock. He’s going to the (NFL) for sure. Anything he does is going to be on tape. He easily could have just leveled up his stats.”
While the coaching staff stuck with White on that drive, He received his chance with 7:09 left in the game and Arizona State leading 63-7.
From the 1-yard line, He took the handoff and ran left before being wrapped up by Arizona’s defensive back Jaxen Turner. But Turner didn’t bring him down to the ground. He kept his legs churning and drove through Turner to break the plane of the end zone for his first career touchdown, setting off a celebration with his teammates.
“When I scored, I didn’t even know I scored, to be honest,” He said. “I was about to stand up and look at the sideline for another play and then everybody starts crowding up and starts cheering and I was like ‘Oh, maybe I scored!’
“My head went blank. I was like man, the only thing I can do is just point out the name on my back because it’s representing. It’s pretty cool to have my real Chinese name on it. It’s more than just my name.”
The whole ASU sideline went into a frenzy after He scored with each teammate wanting to soak up a moment with him.
“When he eventually scored, I was going crazy,” White said. “I wanted him to hit his little dance. He calls it the “Chinese Griddy.” I was just happy for him. He has worked his butt off. He has gotten a lot better since I first got to ASU. I was just happy for him to get that touchdown.”
Jackson is also well aware that his highlight came at a time when many Asian Americans have been subjected to abuse and violence.
The Stop AAPI Hate organization reported over 3,700 incidents of discrimination and hate this past year directed toward Asian Americans. Despite the senseless attacks, He remains optimistic.
“I feel there’s still hope,” He said, speaking in Chinese. “Although so many frightful things have happened, however … I feel we still have to trust other people. We can’t let this climate of discrimination affect everyone. I feel there’s still hope in this world (society). So I feel everyone should not give up the faith and then don’t bear a grudge to certain people because of this.
“If you want to earn others respect, you must respect others. If you want others to be good to you, you must first be good to others.”
White believes the friendship he shares with He can be a symbol for different backgrounds and ethnicities coming together during difficult times.
“I feel like that’s one of the lovely things about sports,” White said. “They build bonds, connections and friendships that last a long time. No matter what color, ethnicity or culture or background you are from; that’s the lovely part about sports.”
From a coach’s standpoint, where much of the focus is on winning and production on the field, Aguano said he finds satisfaction seeing He and White together. And others can learn from their friendship.
“It makes me want to spend a lot of time with them and helping them and not only from a football aspect but also growing in life, because they are attentive and they listen,” Aguano said. “They are good role models for other players on the team because they go about their business the right way.”
Looking ahead to this season, He said he wants to earn a scholarship and earn more playing time while promoting football and Arizona State as not just a “party school” to people in China.
But for now, he is looking forward to spending more time with White.
“That relationship between me and him I think is going to last really long because even though we are from different backgrounds and from different countries, we still can relate to each other deeply,” He said. “That’s something that’s hard to find. I just feel like he knows what I’m talking about, and then I feel like I know what he’s talking about. It is hard to find a relationship like that.”
They may have grown up over 7,000 miles apart in different cultures, but through football, haircuts and chicken feet, a lifetime friendship has formed.
“Jackson is a great dude,” White said. “He knows how I feel about him. Our relationship is going to last a long time. He knows I want the best for him. That’s my guy.”