By Jeff Darlington | Published Sept. 24, 2014
ATLANTA -- That May night four months ago melted into mourning as soon as Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White answered his cellphone to a call that would forever change his life. Something terrible happened. Something tragic.
It was about his brother. Somebody had shot him outside of a South Carolina nightclub -- and he didn't survive. The truth seemed unfathomable: Tyrone Moore Jr., one of the most important people in White's life, was stolen away at 21 years old.
"My life just changed so fast, so instantly," White said. "You know, losing probably, right behind my kids, the second person that, you know ... the second person I love so much in life."
While there might have been no way to ease the pain of this past offseason, somebody was about to try. And that is where this story begins. Not with a tragedy too personal and too recent to vividly recount -- but with a friendship that cemented itself in a moment when White needed it most.
"It was good, you know, because Julio was with me when I found out," White said.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that Julio Jones was alongside Roddy White when tragedy struck. After all, they are together much more often than they are apart.
This time, they were in Baltimore, preparing to attend the Preakness Stakes horse race. And at that moment, three years after White first mentored Jones, it was Jones' turn to be the rock.
"It solidified our friendship," said White, who is older than Jones by seven years. "Every day, he called me and checked up on me, asked me how I was doing; came down for the funeral; showed up at the house. You know, that was really, really special to me. I needed him to get through that."
More accurately, they both needed each other to get through this difficult year. No longer does anyone inside the Falcons' locker room view White and Jones merely as teammates who play the same position -- now they are best friends who share an unbreakable bond.
Exactly 10 days after a bullet took the life of White's brother in South Carolina, Jones faced his own family hardship: Jones' brother suffered an accidental gunshot wound that required him to have his arm amputated in Alabama. In the wake of their most trying season professionally, things had become far more trying personally.
"It's just been difficult for us, but you know, difficult times bring people that love each other together," White said. "That's what I thought it did for us. Just going to Julio's house after he went through the situation (with his own brother), you know, it just shows that you can get through adversity and bad times in life when you just stick with the people that love you."
To understand the depth of this friendship, it is first important to understand the amount of time these two spend together. And it begins when each day starts, an observation that has been impossible for seventh-year Falcons coach Mike Smith to ignore.
"They literally arrive at the same time in the morning," Smith said. "And whenever I walk into the weight room, they're always together. Work on the field after practice ... they're together. And that's not even counting the time (practice drills, positional meetings, etc.) they are required to spend together."
That's also only when they are at the team's facility. Away from it, they spend at least every Tuesday and Thursday evening hanging out. Each offseason, they vacation together. (This year, they rented a condo in Brazil for the World Cup.) And they're even still talking about buying matching sports cars, literally down to the paint.
They're like Fred and Barney. Jerry and George. Jay and Silent Bob. Andy and Red.
"We're best friends," White said. "You know, we have so many similar things going on in life, it's just easy to talk to him. He's always going to be completely honest with me -- and I'm always going to be the same with him. We can get through things together."
It is, indeed, true that their backgrounds have plenty of parallels. Both were raised in the South (White in South Carolina, Jones in Alabama) with athletic upbringings and very strong connections to their mothers. They both went to school in Alabama (White at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Jones at the University of Alabama), and both ended up as first-round selections by the Falcons (White in 2005, Jones in 2011).
And yet, even with all of those similarities, this friendship was never guaranteed. In fact, at a position that is often played by the most ego-driven, hypersensitive athletes, it is actually somewhat incredible that they are friends at all.
As Jones prepared for the start of his NFL career after his decorated collegiate career, he'd already been warned about the issues he might face as a star wide receiver entering a professional locker room.
"The biggest challenge for me was all the rumors you heard before you get to the NFL," Jones said. "You know, just hearing guys won't help you. They'll turn your back on you, they'll tell you the wrong plays, everything like that."
It didn't help those fears when Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff made an aggressive move into the sixth overall slot of the 2011 NFL Draft (trading away five picks in the process) to select Jones. The Falcons already had an alpha receiver -- White was a star at the height of his career. And now Jones was potentially about to ruffle those figurative feathers, even if it wasn't by choice.
"Julio was a big pick for us, and I think somewhere in there, Roddy sat over there and wondered if Julio was coming in to take his job," Falcons wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie said. "He's never came out and said he was concerned about Julio coming in. I just think it's a natural thing, a natural event. When you draft a guy in the first round and trade picks to get him, you say, 'What's going on?' "
It would be a natural question for anyone in White's situation at the time. He was fresh off a first-team All-Pro season that saw him set a franchise record with 1,389 yards -- a career high that also led the NFC in 2010. And then, the Falcons decided to draft Jones?
But Atlanta would end up benefitting from two vital factors: Dimitroff's research led to the conclusion that Jones was a mild-mannered, quiet person -- anything but a diva. And White had reached a point in his career, with four 1,000-yard seasons (and six campaigns total) under his belt by 2011, that allowed him to be comfortable in his own Pro Bowl skin and fully prepared to handle the situation.
"You've got to give credit to Roddy," said fellow receiver Devin Hester, who joined the Falcons this past offseason. "He took Julio under his wing since Day 1. Julio really looks up to Roddy, and after a couple of years, they're now best friends."
White, though, wasn't always such a cool customer.
One afternoon in 2008, White was fed up. Who did this assistant coach think he was? How could he dare come into White's world, after the wide receiver had already established himself as a legitimate player, and act like such a tough guy?
"Well, I was especially hard on him during practice that day," said Robiskie, who first started coaching in the NFL in 1982 -- one year after White was born -- and joined the Falcons before White's fourth season. "I was cussing and shoving him and swearing at him. I was prodding him, saying, 'This is how we're going to do it.' "
So when practice ended, Robiskie recalls, he caught wind that White was walking around the locker room telling teammates that he was going to fight his coach. He was going to find him in a dark alley and jump him.
"Later that day, I figured I'd go to his house," Robiskie said. "I drove over there to tell him that I was going to challenge him like he's never been challenged before. I told him he was going to meet the challenge -- or we were going to fight right there.
"Fortunately, his mother was there. His grandmother was there. And his great grandmother was there. Let's just say, as an old man, I was able to communicate with them quite well. Never had a problem with Roddy since."
It was the beginning of an important relationship for White. Not only did Robiskie show White what it would take to be a professional on the field -- he began to help him become more accountable away from it. Robiskie's entrance into White's life also launched another very influential relationship that would help the receiver get to this point. It was a bond with former Falcons wide receiver Joe Horn, who did for White what White would eventually pay forward to Jones.
"I don't think Roddy would be Roddy today if he didn't have a guy like Joe Horn," Robiskie said. "He was outstanding for Roddy's growth."
Yes, White still struggles at times to resist generating unnecessary attention (generally through social media), but those closest to him know how far he has come. His late nights at Atlanta nightclubs, for instance, began to subside when Robiskie entered the picture. And his focus on the game began to take priority.
White was named to his first of four Pro Bowls after that 2008 season. Two years later, in 2010, he led the NFL with 115 receptions. He had found his groove. This, it seemed after the most prolific receiving season in franchise history, was his team.
So by the time Jones walked through that door, even if White had some quiet hesitations, he'd reached a place -- both mentally and physically -- that allowed him to welcome the rookie with open arms.
"I knew we needed him to win games," White said. "You learn a lot just going through this league and not making the playoffs -- and then being able to get there and needing people to get you over the hump. Julio can do so much on the football field, and he's a game changer. Any time you get guys like that, you try to do as much as possible to get them going as fast as possible."
As a result of the NFL lockout in 2011, Jones immediately needed to rely on White to get an understanding of the pro game, since he couldn't be around the coaching staff.
The pair would work together often, quickly realizing their personalities blended to perfection. If this friendship began for business reasons, it would quickly bud for personal reasons.
"I didn't come in and be like, 'I'm the No. 1 guy, I'm the No. 1 pick,' " Jones said. "I'm always willing to learn. ... I wouldn't be the person I am today without Roddy White. He's helped teach me how to be a man."
Behind the scenes, Robiskie was reminding White about all of the great duos in NFL history and the impacts they've had on their respective teams. Whether it was obvious, as with the Marks Brothers in Miami, or more subtle, as with Alvin Harper helping Michael Irvin in Dallas, Robiskie said a dynamic pairing was often what lifted a team to the pinnacle.
And that's where White and Jones now stand: Two dynamic players, two best friends, sharing one common task of raising the Falcons to new heights. They might be as motivated this year as they've ever been.
Last season, both players battled with injuries. Jones missed 11 games because of a foot injury; White dealt with a nagging hamstring for much of the season, even though it kept him sidelined for just three games. And Atlanta struggled badly as a result, finishing with a disappointing 4-12 record.
"When Julio was out, we played those last (11) games without him, it was like part of our offense was missing," White said. "He's so explosive and can get out there and turn those longer drives into faster ones because of his big-play ability."
White is right, and this season's start has proven as much. The Falcons couldn't be much hotter. The offense ranks first in the NFL in average points (34.3), average yards (455) and passing yards per game (337). And Jones is currently leading the NFL in receiving yards, with 365 yards on 23 catches through three games.
"We just feed off each other," Jones said. "I mean, it's like my brother being out there playing with me."
Before the season, Jones said he believed it was possible for both receivers to eclipse 1,500 yards each. Jones also noted he believes he and White are the two best wide receivers in the NFL. Combined with Devin Hester and Harry Douglas -- who are also very close friends with Jones and White -- this group of pass catchers might be on the brink of big things.
"They don't have egos," their head coach said. "They don't need to catch every ball. But they understand that it helps one another to have them each out there."
So yes, thus far, things are going well. The Falcons are 2-1, and the offense is clicking in a way it wasn't in 2013. But beyond the situation that has been recently unfolding on the field, there is something that has happened far more important away from it.
I wouldn't be the person I am today without Roddy White. He's helped teach me how to be a man. Julio Jones
Through hardship and heartache, through tough times and tragedy, White and Jones have become something so much more than teammates. They have created the type of friendship that lasts a lifetime.
"Before every game, I tell my teammates that I love them so much," White said. "I always tell them, because with football, you never know when this thing can end. I just want to tell them that so we can go out there and have as much fun as possible.
"And that's the beauty of the game."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.