By now, Leon White knows How To Succeed In the NFL. Pay your dues, bide your time, don't try to rework your contract when all you're playing on are special teams, don't argue with the system, and when the guy ahead of you gives you an opening, seize it.
It's a lot like the real world.White will start at left outside linebacker for the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII Sunday in Joe Robbie Stadium. It will be the one-time BYU star's 19th consecutive start of the season, dating back to an opening-day 21-14 win over the Phoenix Cardinals. If the Super Bowl goes according to form, White will not sit out a single defensive down unless the Bengals go into prevent, or nickel, coverage on third-down-and-long situations.
The left outside linebacker territory is his, and his alone.
It didn't used to be. During White's first two years with the Bengals - he was drafted out of BYU by Cincinnati in the fifth round in 1986 - he played behind one Emanuel King, who had a lock on the position. King came to the Bengals from Alabama the year before White came from BYU, and his seniority, plus the fact he was a competent starter, gave him the job. It was his to lose.
White didn't play a single down at linebacker in either 1986 or 1987. His only duty with the Bengals was on special teams, which he played with as much abandon as possible, and as much humility as that calling calls for. He went about his business uncomplainingly. He didn't ask for more money. He didn't question the coaches' judgment.
He came into the 1988 summer training camp still second to King, and anticipating more of the same for the season - a lot of looking on from the sidelines, biding his time.
Then, four days before the season opened, King tested positive for a banned substance. The league office placed him on a 30-day suspension.
Cincinnati defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau aproached White.
"You're starting Sunday," he told him.
"Play well and the job's yours."
White was in on two key goal-line stands in that one-touchdown win over Phoenix - one at the start of the game and one at the finish - and he hasn't come out of the lineup yet.
King, who has rarely played this season, will be White's backup Sunday.
"What you're talking about is a guy (White) that we never thought would play," said Bengals linebacker coach Dick Selcer in an interview with Scripps Howard News Service. "He never started a game for us before this year - never hardly played in a game for us before this year - and the Friday before the season starts he's called on, and he's started 18 games since."
White's attitude his first two years was to make certain he was prepared for an opportunity.
"I wanted to be ready when I got my chance, that's all," he said. "I always thought I could play. I had confidence in myself."
In that opening game, he did go out of his way to make a good first impression.
"I wanted to make sure I was around the ball every play," he said. "You can look at the films and at the end of every play, there I am. I was running around like my head was cut off."
After four games, when King's suspension was up, no one, least of all King, questioned White's claim to the job.
White had 59 tackles and three sacks during the regular season, and added seven more tackles in the playoff wins over Seattle and Buffalo.
"All you heard about before the Buffalo game was Cornelius Bennett and the Buffalo defense," Selcer said. "But he didn't have as many tackles as Leon White, and you have to wonder. Someone has to be questioning why. And Leon isn't going to the Pro Bowl."
He'll have to settle for the Super Bowl.
White, who is just 16 hours short of a recreation management and administration degree from BYU, is flying his mother and brother in from his hometown of San Diego for the game. His father, James, died of cancer three years ago, not long after Leon helped BYU to the 1984 collegiate national championship with a win over Michigan in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
For that game, James White was wheeled in a hospital bed to the BYU sidelines, where he sat up and watched his son win defensive Player of the Game honors.
"Every time I play, I think about my dad on the sidelines," said Leon, "and it makes it easy to go out and play hard. He was always an inspiration to me."