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Football to firefighter

Former Valencia and NFL player traded in his football helmet for a firefighter helmet

Posted: August 6, 2008 9:25 p.m.
Updated: October 8, 2008 5:04 a.m.

Former Valencia, UCLA and Washington Redskins football player Manuel White graduated from the Pasadena Fire Academy on Aug. 1 and will take his football skills to his next job.

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By Roman Veytsman
Signal Staff Writer

Manuel White went to a different kind of training camp this year.
The former Valencia, UCLA, and Washington Redskins running back/fullback traded in his football helmet, jersey and cleats for a fire helmet, bunker gear and boots.
And a new life.
He went from tearing through holes to tearing through brush. His last name, stitched on the back of his jerseys is now on the front right pocket of his uniform.
He left the football locker room for the fire station clubhouse.
He went from one dream to another.
The 6-foot-2, 245 pound football player with the broad shoulders and menacing downhill running style now gets to fight intimidating fires.
"Training camp takes a toll on you mentally," said White as he sat in the bleachers at Valencia High School, overlooking the field on which he once ran over Foothill League opponents. "The Fire Academy takes a toll on you mentally, physically and emotionally."

White officially became a firefighter after graduating from the Pasadena Fire Academy on Aug. 1. In less than two weeks, he begins the regular season as a rookie.

This training camp, which began in April was nothing like the time he knocked helmets against Ray Lewis and tried to outrun Deion Sanders in his first preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2005.

This one was more intimidating.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," he said.

White always dreamed about making it to the NFL. He also dreamed about becoming a firefighter. So after the first dream, which ended after one year because of injuries to his knees (a fractured fibula and meniscus tear), he thought about pursuing the other.

White said "he just wanted to ride the (football) wave." But once the injuries became a common occurrence, he didn't want to push his luck.

"It was important for me to be able to leave football walking," he says.

His uncle Michael White is a captain in the Los Angeles Fire Department and mentored Manuel.

One day Manuel received a call from his uncle, who used to give all his nephews rides on the fire truck.

"The Chiefs are asking about you," Michael told him.

Except he wasn't talking about the Kansas City Chiefs. He was talking about the fire chiefs. An article of Manuel from his playing days hung on the wall at Michael's fire station. And many who were Bruins wondered when the next White would join their force.

So Manuel took them up on the offer.

Having already earned a sociology degree from UCLA, he enrolled in a nine-week crash course at College of the Canyons in 2007, passed the written tests, and was one of six people hired at Pasadena out of hundreds in April.

"I can't believe I made it here," White said to himself after he was hired.

He did indeed make it, twice. The first, when he was drafted in the fourth round as a full back by the Redskins. The second when he was taken by Station 31.

At his graduation from the academy Manuel came over to his uncle, who's been a firefighter for 31 1/2, and expressed his excitement.

"(Manuel) said, I think I found my niche, I love the fire service," Michael said.

Michael isn't surprised Manuel followed in his direction. It's clear to him that his nephew has a passion. He was told that Manuel's oral interview was one of the best the interviewer had ever heard. The exuberance for the job is evident.

"I think he's very diligent in his efforts, he tries very, very hard and the most critical thing he has a very strong passion with what he's doing right now," Michael said.

The parallels are endless. White is again part of a team.

"Leadership, discipline, and going home to study the plays," are all things Manuel said he took from football and applied to firefighting.

Except he wasn't doing wind sprints in this field. He was doing three-mile hikes in 100 degree weather while wearing fire gear.

He struggled at first. This was a different kind of nervousness. He had to repel from buildings and climb ladders. He had to be prepared to save lives. No NFL training camp can equip you for that.

"I did a lot of things I never thought I could do," White said. "I learned in 16 weeks more than I learned in four years of college."

The camaraderie isn't the same either. Sure, it was White's job to protect the quarterback on passing plays and to make his running back look good. But now he's protecting more than just careers.

"I actually think the relationships are closer," he said of his new teammates. "You're dependent on them to keep you alive."

But that same adrenaline rush is there. Just last week White was watching the NFL network and got the itch. He misses football. His new job is somewhat of a replacement, however.

"A lot of the things I miss in football, fire picks up the slack," he said.

Though his station is on the other side of Pasadena in relation to the Rose Bowl, he envisions a day when he'll be back in the stadium, giving back to the community that supported him.

That feeling before you enter a stadium with the crowd screaming.

The anticipation. The knowledge that you've spent training camp working toward a goal and the day is here. That's how White feels.

As he waits to start his dream, White smiles.

"I'm fired up," he said.

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