After suffering a kidney contusion during a practice in 2014, he made the tough decision to leave the team. He ended up embracing another love — art, which he’s now pursuing full-time. A towering mural in the South Loop is among his latest creations.
While playing football, Dwight White II’s hands were among his most important tools — used to derail a catch, make a tackle, pick off a pass.
He made the difficult decision in 2014 to give up the sport while a cornerback for the Northwestern University Wildcats after discovering he’d been born with only one kidney and suffering an injury in practice before the season opener in Evanston.
But White — who went on to earn his bachelor’s degree and a master’s from Northwestern — continues to work with his hands, though on walls and canvas rather than the gridiron.
He’s become an artist, leaving a corporate job during the pandemic to make a go at art as a full-time profession.
The 27-year-old Chicagoan has started to garner attention — most recently along Ida B. Wells Drive where in October he painted a towering mural in recognition of Loop workers.
Each weekday, more than 77,000 vehicles pass the artwork, featuring the side profile of a pony-tailed woman in a hard hat, colorful streaks obscuring her eyes, a stack of books and the words “All Roads Lead Back To The Loop.”
Sponsored by the foundational arm of the Chicago Loop Alliance, the mural was intended to recognize downtown workers, particularly a dozen recognized by the group as “Employees of the Month.”
White also painted a mural on the West Side as part of an arts initiative to honor front-line medical workers during the pandemic, and another one on the North Side amid Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.
“What I really love about art is being able to reach people with different backgrounds,” said White, who grew up in the Houston area and secured a football scholarship from NU. “It connects different walks of life, it builds community.”
He added, “And, it’s a personal practice, it’s how I best communicate.”
Cornerbacks are defensive players who cover wide receivers — offensive players who often run long, quick passing routes.
During the 2013 season at Northwestern — during which he was a red-shirt freshman, standing at 5 foot 10 inches, weighing 180 pounds — White played in all 12 games, started in six, and logged 17 solo tackles and one interception, against the University of Nebraska.
While practicing before the 2014 season, he felt discomfort in the kidney area and, during a doctor visit, discovered he only had the one kidney. He’d been born without a second one.
That made continuing to play football risky, but he decided to soldier on and play the sport that he loved.
Outfitted with a special pad for added protection, White then landed on a receiver’s knee in the same spot during a practice leading up to the Aug. 30 opener at Ryan Field against the University of California.
“It gave me a contusion on my kidney,” he said. “It was a risk to keep playing ball.”
Consulting with his parents, both of whom had been college athletes, he decided to call it quits, though he stayed on scholarship at Northwestern and completed his first degree in 2016.
“Being a member of the football program at Northwestern University has been a huge blessing,” White said at the time in a statement. “Throughout my life, football has been awesome during the good times where I’ve had lots of success, and through the tough times where I’ve strived for success.”
“This football family is part of who I am, and that won’t change with this decision I’ve had to make for my long-term health.”
True to his word, White stayed connected to the football program, led then and now by head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“I started thinking of ways to stay engaged and contribute,” White said, so got involved in public relations and marketing for the team, including over social media platforms.
That helped hone his digital art skills, using Photoshop, for instance, to showcase members of the team in action.
“Eventually I started testing other mediums such as painting,” he said.
“I guess when you have significant life changes” — this marked the first time since he was in the 1st or 2nd grade that he hadn’t played football — “you start redefining yourself,” and he retreated to something else he enjoyed as a kid, creating art.
His mother, LaWanda White, said with sports consuming so much of his time as a youngster, “he didn’t have a lot of time” for artwork, but he always “liked to draw.”
White stayed in the Chicago area so he could complete his master’s degree in integrated marketing communications in 2018 and was hired to work in the marketing and consumer insights department at the Kraft Heinz Company.
“A lot of it had to do with market research . . . less creative, more really understanding the minds and behaviors of consumers,” he said.
While there, he was working on his artwork off hours.
“I was balancing the two as best I could” for more than two years, he said, adding that, eventually, “I had to choose one.”
In recent months, he left his job to become a “full-time creative.”
Calling White “so talented, and humble,” Fitzgerald said, “To see how he’s responded to the adversity” he faced “has been just unbelievable.”
White is not only doing the occasional mural — including one inside the Northwestern players’ lounge in 2019 — he teams with corporate brands on consumer-related art projects and is in the midst of a gallery show in Logan Square where he’s selling his canvas paintings.
As for the 40-foot-tall mural completed this fall, Chicago Loop Alliance President and CEO Michael Edwards said “Dwight did a great job incorporating symbols” of the workers being honored, with balloons, for instance, a nod to a downtown security guard “whose smile uplifts.”
“We love the way he interprets,” said Edwards, whose group promotes the Loop as a workplace. The end result was “very colorful, very playful, very engaging.”