7:01 AM ET

  • Mark Schlabach

    CloseESPN Senior Writer

    • Senior college football writer
    • Author of seven books on college football
    • Graduate of the University of Georgia
  • Marty Smith


    • ESPN NASCAR lead reporter
    • Former NASCAR.com senior writer
    • 15 years covering NASCAR

ATHENS, Ga. — Shanee White was 14 years old when she became pregnant with her first child. At six months, a doctor told her that her baby, a boy, weighed just one pound and advised her to abort the pregnancy.

Her grandmother, Nancy White, quickly overruled the doctor.

“We’re not going to terminate the pregnancy,” she said. “No matter what’s wrong with him, he’s going to be born.”

Shanee, already overwhelmed about having a child while still in high school, urged her grandmother to listen to the doctor.

“The doctor is not God, so he doesn’t have the last say,” her grandmother told her. “If he takes one breath, he’s going to take it.”

Shanee’s baby was born on Sept. 18, 1999. Although he had grown to about seven pounds, he had a cleft lip and cleft palate. The next day, after his body temperature dropped and he was losing weight because he wouldn’t eat, he was transferred to a hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Doctors there told Shanee that her son might not live for another two weeks.

“I was just sitting there staring,” Shanee said. “I just looked at him for a long time like, ‘What am I going to do?'”

Today, the baby boy that was given just two weeks to live is the leading rusher on the No. 1-ranked college football team in the country.

Zamir White not only survived, he grew to become a five-star recruit, a Georgia Bulldogs fan favorite affectionately known as “Zeus” and a potential NFL draft choice in 2022. And, more importantly, he has become an inspiration for children who were born with the same medical condition as him.

But it wasn’t always easy. After three months in the hospital, Zamir survived and finally got to go home for the first time. When Nancy White’s great-grandson finally came home, she fed him with a medicine dropper to keep him nourished. At six months, he underwent surgery to repair his cleft lip. Then there was another invasive procedure to repair the cleft palate, which is a hole in the roof of the mouth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in every 1,600 babies is born with cleft lip and cleft palate in the U.S.

“It’s difficult to look at your child,” Shanee said. “I kept asking, ‘What did I do?’ They told me it was nothing that I had done. You just have to keep praying about it.”

Shanee’s baby boy had other health problems. He spent his second Christmas in the hospital for surgery to repair leaking kidneys. He had another surgery for a hernia, and a few years later doctors transferred bone from his hip to his mouth to further correct his lip and palate. Doctors put tubes in his ears to reduce infections as well.

“They would take him into one surgery and bring him out to another one,” said Louise Pegues, Shanee’s aunt. “He got so used to going to the hospital that when his mama was driving, he was like, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’ He knew the route.”

Despite the frequent surgeries for young Zamir, Shanee didn’t second guess to Nancy’s advice.

“I’m just glad I listened to my grandma,” she said. “I didn’t want to have a child in high school. It wasn’t something that was planned, but it happened and he’s here, and I love him to death.”

Zamir White has not only become a star player on the field in Athens but also off the field with families of children who were born with a craniofacial difference. Photo/Collins family

Once Zamir was home from the hospital, Nancy White ordered her granddaughter back to school and took over his care. Zamir was walking before he was 1 and was running soon after. His great-grandmother had one rule: he couldn’t go farther than she could see.

“She wouldn’t let him out of her sight because she knew if he got a step ahead, she couldn’t catch him,” Pegues said. “I had to run him down one day and had a hard time. I didn’t know a boy could run like that.”

As if Zamir’s health problems weren’t enough, the family was hit with another crisis in 2003. Nancy’s mobile home caught on fire, and Shanee rescued her great-grandmother and toddler son, leading them through the smoke and flames.

“When Shanee tried to go back in to get some of their things, Nancy wouldn’t let her go,” Pegues said. “They lost everything.”

The family moved into another house and eventually to an apartment, which is where Zamir stayed until he left for college in Athens.

When Zamir was six years old, his family signed him up for football at a recreation league in Laurinburg, North Carolina. Almost immediately, his coaches noticed he was different from everyone else. One of them, Richard Bailey, told Shanee that her son would one day be playing in the NFL.

“He told me the truth that day,” Shanee said. “I don’t know what he was actually envisioning, but I thought the man was crazy, honestly.”

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Zamir’s father was in prison when he was born, and he has never had much of a relationship with him. So, Shanee’s uncle, Anthony Pegues, stepped in as a father figure. One day, when Zamir was still in elementary school, he told his Uncle Anth, “I want to be great.”

“The greatest player I ever saw was Walter Payton,” Anthony told his great-nephew. “You got to know what greatness is. Now, we’re not talking about an average player. You said you want to be the very best. So when you say that, you’ve gotta live it and you gotta eat football. You gotta really want this.”

Almost every day, Anthony worked out with Zamir, whether it was running, doing push-ups and situps, throwing the football or learning the gaps in the offensive line.

“I just did like any uncle would do for [his] nephew,” Anthony said. “We practiced together. We prayed together. Basically, we did everything a father figure would do for his child.”

While school was sometimes a challenge socially, especially after his great-grandmother died, Zamir found his calling on the football field. Between those lines, other kids wouldn’t tease him about the scars on his face or his slurred speech. Out there, he was just like everyone else — only better.

“Football means everything to me,” said Zamir, who has 400 rushing yards with eight touchdowns for the Bulldogs going into Saturday’s game against Florida. “It’s just a safe space for me [where] I can get away from everything I’ve been through. It’s just like therapy for me. I love football.”

As a freshman at Scotland High School in 2014, Zamir started the season as the third-string tailback. He scored a 53-yard touchdown the first time he touched the ball, and then supplanted the starter, a senior, after only two games. By his junior season, he was among the most heavily recruited players in the country, with Alabama, Georgia, LSU and others pursuing him. As a senior in 2017, he ran for 2,086 yards with 34 touchdowns in 11 games, averaging 14.1 yards per carry. He left high school as the fifth all-time leading rusher in North Carolina history with 7,169 yards.

“I’ve been doing it a long time and coached a bunch of [FBS college] football players,” said Scotland High coach Richard Bailey. “I’ve never had a kid work harder than him. And he never missed a practice, never missed a workout. I’ve never heard him complain. It’s always great when your best player is your hardest worker.”

Scotland High seemed to be on its way to winning a Class 4A state championship during Zamir’s senior season, but then he was injured in the final minutes of a 63-26 victory against Seventy-First High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the second round of the playoffs. Zamir wasn’t even carrying the ball when he was hurt, and he didn’t think much about the injury when he limped off the field. Georgia’s team doctors diagnosed him with a torn ACL in his right knee during a visit to campus the next day.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart said he never hesitated in still taking Zamir after the injury.

“This is a five-star talent, an unbelievable kid, but he has a 10-star character,” Smart said. “He’s got this undeniable love for the game and just affection for others that we knew this guy was going to be a special part of our program. And an ACL is repairable, it’s going to get well.”

Then, in another cruel twist of fate, Zamir tore the ACL in his left knee on a noncontact play while covering a punt in practice at Georgia in August 2018.

“That one hurt me because I had just gotten back, and I was like, ‘Finally, my groove is back,”’ Zamir said. “I was out there practicing and scrimmaging with the guys. It was crazy.”

After tearing the ACL in his right knee during his senior year of high school, Zamir White was dealt another blow when he tore the ACL in his left knee in his first season at Georgia in August 2018. Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Georgia running backs coach Dell McGee said Zamir’s medical challenges as a child helped him come back from two serious knee injuries within a year. Former Bulldogs running backs Nick Chubb and Todd Gurley, who suffered torn ACLs during their college careers, also encouraged Zamir during his rehabilitation.

“I just think it added to his ability to cope with outside factors,” McGee said. “It showed a lot of resiliency. Just that mindset of nothing’s too big, I can overcome anything, any obstacle. I think all of that from his childhood growing up helped with those issues that he’s overcome.”

After redshirting as a freshman, Zamir played behind current Detroit Lions tailback D’Andre Swift in 2019, running for 408 yards with three touchdowns. Last season, he took over the starting job and ran for 779 yards with 11 scores in 10 games. After the season, because of Zamir’s history of knee injuries, McGee said he encouraged him to enter the NFL draft.

“I thought he should have, just because of the surgeries,” McGee said. “You don’t want to see him get injured again during his senior year. At least you’ve got some trail [left] on your tires, but he had faith in his abilities. He had faith that he wanted to improve his draft stock. He also had faith in Coach Smart and this team, and he wanted to do something special.”

It would have been easy for Zamir to leave. His hometown of Laurinburg is one of the poorest cities in North Carolina. The town of about 15,000 residents has a poverty rate of 33.8%, about three times as high as the national average. The median annual income is $30,862, less than half the national average. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, all but three of the 1,353 students enrolled at Scotland High in the 2019-2020 school year were eligible for free lunches.

When Zamir left for Georgia, his mother told him, “You’ve got to do something with yourself. You can’t stay here. It’s not an option for you to live here in Scotland County. You can’t. You’ve got to leave here.”

Shanee, now 36, knows the plight of Laurinburg’s residents all too well. She graduated from high school, went to college and earned a master’s degree in criminal justice at Fayetteville State University. She works for the state’s Department of Public Safety as a corrections officer.

“We’ve got so many good kids and we have so much talent that comes through Scotland High School,” she said. “They just fall victim to the streets and all the stuff that’s going on around here. I don’t want my son to be a statistic to that. I go to work every day, and I see a lot of guys in prison. That’s not what we’re doing.”

Shanee and her daughter, Zimora McClain, still live in Laurinburg. Zamir wants to get to the NFL to help them leave, too.

“For my mom to go back to school and believe in herself, after having me so early, and seeing her keep fighting no matter what, I’m proud of her,” Zamir said. “That’s something I’ve got to pay her back for. I know she’s not expecting it. My mother doesn’t care about material things, but my goal is to make it to the NFL and support my mother, sister and aunts for what they did for me.”

Zamir is paying back in other ways, too. He has worked closely with Extra Special People, an Athens organization that works with people with differences. He also has encouraged young people dealing with cleft lip and cleft palate whenever he can.

Jimbo Floyd and his wife, Jenny, learned their first child, James, had a craniofacial abnormality during an exam in the 36th week of her pregnancy. Doctors induced labor right away, and James was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate on March 20, 2009.

Jimbo took James and his younger brother, Henry, to a Georgia football practice two years ago. Jimbo, an insurance agent in Gainesville, Georgia, grew up with Smart and reached out about his sons meeting Zamir. After practice, Zamir threw the football with James for about 15 minutes. Zamir also whispered something to James that he still won’t share with his brother and parents.

“I wish I knew,” Jimbo said. “I can’t describe the smile on his face when Zamir finished talking. He was beaming with confidence and excitement. He immediately struck up a friendship with my son. It was 15 minutes out of a day, but for my son, it meant the world to him.”

Zamir White has formed a bond with James Floyd (left) and his brother Jeremy after finding out that James was also born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Photo/Floyd family

Ashley Collins, a Bulldogs fan from Decatur, Georgia, met Zamir in the lobby of an on-campus hotel before a football game in 2019. Only a couple of months earlier, Collins and her husband, Casey, had been told that their youngest daughter, Harper, would soon be born with a craniofacial difference.

“I almost told him about it, but I knew I couldn’t break down and cry in front of a kid who was about to play in a big football game,” Collins said.

Like Shanee, a doctor had advised Ashley that she could terminate her pregnancy, but that it would have to be done soon under Georgia’s abortion law.

“Already knowing Zamir’s story at the time and then kind of relating it, you’re thinking, ‘Well, what if his mom had done the same thing?'” Ashley said. “This is not a life-threatening condition. They’re going to have a good, sustainable life and be normal. For anyone to have even suggested that was mind-blowing and shocking.”

Harper was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate in January 2020. Now nearly two years old, Harper has undergone two surgeries and is thriving. Ashley hopes her daughter will meet Zamir one day, and she has been searching for a toddler-sized No. 3 Georgia jersey on the internet.

“To see the impact he has and being so open about it, it really has given us a lot of inspiration,” Ashley said. “He hasn’t let it stop him from overcoming and being great. He is such a light. We love Zamir and feel such a connection to him.”

Smart said he’s proud of the impact Zamir is having on kids with similar conditions.

“He’s embraced it most of his life now,” Smart said. “So when he sees a young man or young woman with the same thing, they admire him. I’ve watched kids walk up to him and just light up, and he lights them up because he’s so charismatic.”

For now, Zamir is focused on helping Georgia beat Florida and winning the SEC. That would give the Bulldogs a chance at trying to end their 41-year drought without a national championship in the College Football Playoff.

And they’ll do it while riding the back of a 22-year-old man who wasn’t supposed to live beyond two weeks.

“I always felt like God gave him a chance,” Bailey said. “I think he felt like he owed it to God and his family and everybody to just make the most of his talent and the most of his opportunity. I get chills thinking about it. But I really do think that part of his drive is, ‘I’m not going to cheat this opportunity. I’ve been given a lease on life.'”

Zamir is making the most of that chance. Doctors have recommended yet another surgery that would involve breaking his jaw and realigning it. So far, he has been reluctant to go through yet another procedure.

“I’m fine the way I am,” Zamir said. “I know I’m perfect in God’s eyes, and that’s all that matters to me.”