ATLANTA -- As Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White sat at his locker late last Sunday afternoon talking about how he has turned his life around, one of the main reasons for that change kept poking at a writer's notebook.
White's son, Roddy Jr., wearing a No. 84 jersey like the one his dad had slipped out of moments before, kept trying to read the writing on the pad.
"Easy, little man," White said. "He's got to do his work."
The topic of conversation was how White had turned from a player who didn't care in his first couple of NFL seasons, one who preferred the nightlife to film-room life, into one of the league's best receivers through that very word he just used: work.
After his first two seasons in the league, when some were calling him a bust, White came to life's proverbial fork in the road. On one side was hard work, dedication, a path to riches and fame. On the other side was what he called the "knucklehead path," one filled with four-nights-a-week visits to the clubs during the season and hangovers that included remedies to try and fix himself up before practice.
The latter path was White's for much of his first two seasons, and it certainly wasn't helping his on-field play.
"Steam room," White said. "I spent a lot of time in that steam room."
That's how you eliminate the previous long night's toxins before practice. White ran the club scene harder than he did his routes, and it showed.
It's hard to imagine that now. White is now arguably the best receiver in the NFC. His work ethic impresses even the most driven teammates like quarterback Matt Ryan.
"I heard some of that stuff, but I wasn't here," Ryan said. "Since I've been here, he's worked his ass off."
Instead of Saturday mornings trying to recover from a night of revelry, White now spends them in the film room with Ryan and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez doing extra work.
"We sit down and we talk about all the things that we like and don't like for the game coming up," Ryan said.
White is second in the NFL in catches with 58 and second in yards with 796. He also has five touchdowns. He's on his way to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, a fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season, and he's a big reason why the Falcons are 6-2 heading into a Thursday night game with the Baltimore Ravens.
To see his importance to the offense, one need only peek at the film from the victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. White tweaked his knee early in that game, forcing him to the sidelines. He came back, but he clearly wasn't himself. He finished with only four catches for 49 yards.
Without him in the lineup, the Bucs didn't have to double outside, which meant they could focus on Gonzalez. When White's on the field, you have to pick your poison. Do you double the deep speed or the future Hall of Fame tight end?
"We work off each other," Gonzalez said. "Roddy's our No. 1 option. He should be. I think he's the best receiver in the league. It's good for me, because I get double-teamed a lot on third down. As long as Roddy's out there making those huge plays, then I know that maybe I'll get one-on-one coverage. And vice versa."
“Best receiver in the league” next to White's name in 2007 would have been laughable. After being a first-round pick in 2005, White caught 29 passes as a rookie and 30 in his second season, one that included him being benched.
He was chunky and out of shape thanks to a diet that included way too much fast food and too much of anything he could throw down the hatch at the club.
White used to come straight to the facility from the clubs, barely awake, feeling like crap, hoping to make it through the day.
"I didn't think I needed to put in the work," White said. "I just thought I could show up and play."
The NFL harshly teaches players otherwise. It takes work and dedication. White finally got it.
It took help.
He got help from Bobby Petrino, the short-term coach who took over for 13 games in White's third season. He got it from veteran Joe Horn, a former Pro Bowl player in New Orleans, who spent a season with the Falcons in 2007.
He got it from Terry Robiskie, the Falcons' receivers coach, who once went to see White's mother to help keep him out of the clubs.
"Joe really showed me what it took to play receiver in this league," White said. "He knew all the things you had to do to be a great player. I owe him a lot."
White insisted last Sunday that he would be on the field Thursday against the Ravens, even though he missed time with the knee injury. Given where he has been and where he is now, it's hard to doubt that.
"Are you sure?" I said. "Maybe you won't."
White cackled. His laugh is infectious and distinctive and often heard.
"You know I'll be there," White said. "Count on it."
White wouldn't come out and say he's the best receiver in the NFL, but he will offer up something.
"I'm playing the best," White said. "I'll say that."
It's hard to argue the point.
As Roddy Jr. continued to try to read what a visitor was jotting down about his father, White continued to dress for his trip home. In the past, it might have meant a detour to a club or a night out with the boys.
Now it's a different Roddy White. This one goes home to spend time with his family and thinks about how he saved his career.
"I could have been that guy," White said.
"Which guy?" I asked.
"The one who would walk down the street and everyone would say the same thing: 'He's the guy who wasted all that talent.' I came close to that. I really did."