Devin White knelt to feed his mare in the quiet shade of a stable.

The mare dipped her dark head into the palm of White’s hand — the same hand that tears footballs free from running backs and flings quarterbacks effortlessly to the ground.

White is the centerpiece of LSU’s new blitz-heavy defense under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, and after leading the NCAA in tackles in 2017, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound junior is expected to establish himself as one of the best linebackers in program history before taking the fast track to the NFL.

But at Farr Park Equestrian Center, where the oak trees and picket fences block Tiger Stadium from view, the Cotton Valley native can also braid the black hairs of Daisy Mae’s mane and brush the dust from her brown shoulders.

The mare brings peace to a country-born linebacker chasing greatness, and, on the first weekend of July, White decided he must have her.

The YouTube title read “Standardbred Racking Mare FOR SALE.”

White said he watched the seven-minute video twice before immediately calling up the owner and purchasing Daisy Mae with what he'd saved from leftover scholarship money and bowl stipends.

White finished his last exam of summer school on July 7, borrowed a teammate’s Chevy Silverado, and drove 12 hours roundtrip to Hickory Valley, Tennessee, to retrieve Daisy Mae.

“It was a long ride back,” White said. “But knowing I had her in the back of the truck, I really couldn’t complain.”

When White checked his mare into Farr Park, the manager, Melissa Wood, said she didn’t know who he was. As he led Daisy Mae through the stable halls, the silence was only broken up by the snuffs of other horses in their pens.

White had become so popular in Baton Rouge that when he’d purchased a cell phone plan, the AT&T employee offered a phone number that used his No. 40 jersey twice.

Inevitably, White’s anonymity at Farr Park didn’t last long either.

Wood said that when she told some summer-camp kids who Daisy Mae’s owner was, they grew excited and “started reciting all his stats.”

Some of the kids, Wood said, even messaged White on Instagram, saying “I fed your horse!”

Even now, White said he sometimes rides Daisy Mae bareback beyond the picket fences, along the bike lanes of Highway 327, where people will stop their cars and take pictures.

White will grin, wearing the same Justin George Strait boots he’s had since high school.

“This is like Cotton Valley right here — this little part,” White said. “When I turn on that road, it’s like ‘Up, I’m going to Springhill. I’m going to Cotton Valley.’ ”

But it wasn’t seclusion White was after.

No, White had always been too big for even one of Louisiana’s smallest cities to hide.

'Everything changed'

The lumber trucks still chug through Main Street in Springhill, a mile away from the Arkansas state line, but they don’t stop in town anymore.

Up until 1979, Springhill and the surrounding cities — Shongaloo, Sarepta and Cotton Valley — thrived economically from a paper mill under the International Paper Company.

“When the mill was running, everyone had new cars,” said Springhill resident Bruce Blanton, 60, who worked in the mill. “It was just a prosperous time.”

Athletics also prospered.

John David Crow, winner of the 1957 Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M, graduated from Springhill High.

In 1974, the Baltimore Colts drafted Cotton Valley High School graduate Roger Carr No. 24 overall, and he went on to play 10 seasons in the NFL.

Then the paper mill closed.

A few thousand jobs, Springhill mayor Carroll Breaux said, were eliminated.

“It really suffered,” said Blanton, who was one of the workers who was laid off. “Those big-paying jobs were no more. We lost people who moved away.”

That trend continues today.

Cotton Valley’s population (980) has decreased 17.6 percent since 2000, and the town’s median household income ($25,995) is nearly half the median income of the state of Louisiana ($45,146).

The area continued to produce athletes — like 1988 NFL Rookie of the Year John Stephens and Kansas City Chiefs running back Charcandrick West — but no one produced the same public fanfare of Crow or Carr.

That is, until a super-sized kid’s affinity for horses lured him into the game of football.

George “Junior” Shaw still laughs at his own tact.

The 63-year-old raised horses on his family’s 160 acres, and, at times, he’d invite Cotton Valley residents to trail-ride parties, where they’d ride horses, eat barbecue and “just have a good time.”

Shaw’s grandson, Xavious (nicknamed X-man), would bring along his classmate, Devin White, who had shot up to six feet tall by the sixth grade and already could dunk a basketball.

White’s mother and father had both earned basketball scholarships, and he had his mind set on following their footsteps.

But in the summer of 2009, Shaw was approached by a persistent little-league coach, Shaun Houston, who had seen White “put half his forearm” over the rim at a recent open gym and desperately wanted him to join his new football team.

Houston asked Shaw to help persuade White.

So when White asked Shaw about the next trail ride, Shaw recalled saying, “Well, me and X-man are going to the football game on Saturday. How would I be able to get you to the trail ride if you’re not at the football game?”

Over the next two years White dominated the little-league fields of northern Louisiana — scoring so many touchdowns as a running back, Shaw said, that they had to carry around his birth certificate to prove White was only 10 years old.

The legend continued to grow.

“We heard how good he was when he was in junior high,” said Blanton, who called high school football games on KTKC-FM, 92.9. “And by the time some get into high school, they’re not what everybody said they’re going to be. But he was twice as good as we’d heard, and he was good to begin with. He turned out to be better than anybody’d imagined.”

White played varsity as a freshman at the newly consolidated North Webster High, which had just hired a new head football coach, John Ware, from North Caddo.

Ware said White had “arms that were bigger than my legs” and that White ran the ball at least 70 times as a freshman running back, while also recording 110 tackles as the team’s starting linebacker.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Ware said. “I never had a kid that talented, and I didn’t want him to miss out.”

Ware said he called Steve Ensminger, who was LSU’s tight end coach at the time and recruited the area.

“I told him, ‘Look, we’ve got this kid here,’ ” Ware recalled. “ ‘He’s phenomenal. Out of all my years in coaching, I’ve never had a (Division-I) player like this here.’ ”

Ensminger, used to such calls, invited White to LSU’s football camp to see for himself.

Houston took White to the camp, where he said White ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash. Houston said they planned to leave the camp early to catch another at Alabama, but Ensminger asked them to stay a little longer and meet then-head coach Les Miles.

“(Miles) offered him on the spot,” Houston said.

Afterward, White walked with Houston around the Mall of Louisiana — a 14-year-old with a scholarship offer to LSU.

Within 10 minutes, Houston said, White’s phone rang 15 times. Recruiting reporters were calling from Rivals, 247Sports, Scout, Bleacher Report.

“After that,” Houston said, “everything changed.”

Over the next three seasons, TV trucks, college scout caravans and curious out-of-towners followed the lumber trucks down Main Street to see the phenom on Friday nights.

The bleachers at Baucum-Farrar Stadium, which were hardly ever filled, were packed.

Business at the neighboring Chick-A-Dilly boomed.

Blanton said it was easy to sell radio advertisements for the games on KTKC, and everywhere he went “there were people talking about (the game) who had listened to it on the radio.”

Blake Branch, a former sports editor at the Minden Press-Herald who is now on the North Webster coaching staff, said he always wanted to go to one of White’s games “because I wanted to see what he might do that night.”

White played both running back and linebacker at North Webster, and the stories of his high school games often sound like fiction.

Blanton said White could tackle people by just sticking his arm out, “grab one of these little guys and throw 'em down.”

More than once, he added, White would “just run slam over the opposition” instead of trying to avoid them while running the ball.

One time, Branch said, a team tried to squib-kick a ball past White on special teams, and he jumped, snatched it with one hand and carried it down the sideline for a touchdown.

In a 51-47 playoff win over Patterson in 2014, Ware said White rushed for 400 yards, received for 100 more and scored six touchdowns.

At times, it was too much of a phenomenon for a small town to handle.

When news leaked that Miles had visited Ware in his North Webster office, Ware said people would become mad at him because he didn’t tell them that the famous coach was there.

“ 'We would have stopped by!' ” Ware recalled them saying.

Blanton said he was sometimes criticized for his radio broadcasts, with some people saying, “You know, Bruce, there are other people on the team besides Devin.”

And all the hype and expectation were cast onto the shoulders of a teenager.

“He looked like a grown man, but he had not fully matured,” Ware said. “Even myself, I was guilty of treating him like a grown man. You see all this ability, and you want him to do everything right, right now. He was still a kid.”

Branch remembers White being “very aware and measured” during interviews, and Houston said White skipped playing outside with his friends to “talk like an adult” with Houston and his wife, Naomi.

There was immense weight, Houston said, for White to rise from a lost and broken town.

“I think God made him for that,” Houston said.

'Believe'

White said he still writes J.J.’s name on his cleats.

Under the flashing caution light on Highway 371, past a hollowed and weed-infested church, rests the single-wide trailer where the stepbrothers once shared a room.

J’Marco Jewel Greenard, 19, died on June 11, 2011, when the rear, driver’s side tire of a church van blew out on a return trip from Texas.

Houston was driving the bus, and he said the van flipped five times and threw nearly everyone from the vehicle, including J.J.

“He died on impact,” Houston said.

White said he learned maturity from J.J. — his elder by six years, who accepted his new brother fully when his father, Willie Standokes, married White’s mother, Coesha, when White was 4 years old.

J.J. taught White everything he knew, and White followed J.J. wherever he went.

“I was just his shadow,” White said.

White was at home with his mother when they got the call.

Houston remembers pulling White aside after the funeral and saying, “I’ll make sure that you and all your younger sisters and brothers are always taken care of.”

Houston became White’s confidante, his recruiting trip companion, his surrogate father.

Houston began sending White inspirational text messages, and even now, White will roll over in the early morning to the buzz of his cell phone.

It’s an inspiration White said he wants to pay forward.

Together, White and Houston are in the early stages of creating a nonprofit foundation that supports young athletes in financial need  called “Believe.”

For now, they’re handing out custom mouthpieces that have the word “Believe” printed on the front, promoting the foundation.

Houston got his first box in mid-August, and White immediately texted, “Send me one now.”

White and preseason All-American cornerback Greedy Williams both have one.

When asked about the purpose of Believe, White said it was about rising from small beginnings.

“Being in a small town,” White said, “a lot of people like to rely on hope.”

From Stadium Drive, Baton Rouge up to Main Street, Springhill, others rely on hope, too.

“Time marches on, and there’s probably somebody right now in junior high,” Blanton said. “Who knows? Another Devin White? Hopefully, there is.”