Patriots running backs 'just trying to stay afloat' during challenging season

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In what has been a challenging season for everyone across the NFL, there might not be a position group in the league that has dealt with more than the New England Patriots' running backs. From personal tragedy, to opt-outs, positive COVID-19 tests and season-ending knee injuries, the group has been put to a test that extends far beyond the field.

Ivan Fears, 66, is the team's longtime running backs coach and like a proud parent to his players. His passion percolates almost every time he talks, as does his emotion.

"I tell you what, I've got a great group that's dealt with a hard, hard year emotionally," he said.

Nothing has hurt more than seeing one of the Patriots' captains, James White, grieving the loss of his father, Tyrone, in a Sept. 20 car accident that also injured his mother, Lisa. White has relayed his mother is doing better, but it remains a process, and she is taking it one day at a time.

"If anything had to happen to anyone, James is probably the strongest guy to deal with it. He did," Fears said.

White, 28, is revered by his Patriots teammates and those around the NFL, as the outpouring of love and support for him has shown. Seeing White grieving sent widespread heartache through all corners of the Patriots organization, while those who observed his grace and strength were also inspired.

"I tell him every day, every chance I get, 'I want to be like James White when I grow up,'" Patriots' second-year running back Damien Harris said.

White's personal empathy for others was evident in the aftermath of the Patriots' Week 11 loss to the Houston Texans. His eyes welled as he spoke about fellow running back Rex Burkhead, who took a direct hit to his right knee that abruptly ended what had been the best season of his career.

"I'm hurt for him. I'm still hurting for him," White said, adding he wasn't just talking about a teammate, but a close friend.

Burkhead's injury was the most significant of those that have hit the running back room this season, but far from the only notable one.

Harris, who missed the first three games of the season after undergoing surgery on his pinkie finger following a strong training camp, is currently working through a back injury after a hard-charging collision on a blitz pickup in Thursday's loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Despite the setbacks, he leads the team in carries (137), yards (691) and yards per carry (5.0).

Former No. 1 rusher Sony Michel landed on injured reserve (quad) after his best game of the season in Week 3, and then tested positive for COVID-19 -- a stretch that ultimately cost him six games.

Undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor, who flashed in late September, remains sidelined with a quad injury as well.

And before the season began, veteran Brandon Bolden, a valuable backup and locker-room leader, opted out of the season as a high-risk case based on his medical history.

Add it all up, and it has been a lot for the group to handle.

"We're doing all right, man," White said, when asked how the position group is holding up. "Lot of ups and downs, whether injuries and things of that nature. It sucks still not having Rex here. Like I said before, he was having a great year, and it just sucks to see a guy like that go down.

"Trying to stay afloat, man. Just keep working hard, cheering for one another, making sure we're doing everything we can to protect ourselves, protect our bodies to be the best performers we can be out there. We still have a good core group of guys, whether it's Damien, Sony, myself, J.J. We do whatever it takes to win football games."

Yet they wouldn't be human if the games didn't feel secondary at times.

Fears, now in his 30th NFL season and 24th with the Patriots, has been grieving the loss of his close friend Markus Paul, the former Patriots strength and conditioning coach who died on Nov. 25.

"You know, 2020 is probably the craziest year I've ever been around. ... Some of the things that have happened to me personally with special friends like Markus [and] James' situation. With the COVID, it has been extremely hard to focus in on playing football and enjoying the football season. It's been just the opposite. It's been a real challenge," Fears said.

"[But] just being able to play the game is kind of fun, compared to all the other stuff we go through to get to the game, and to prepare for a game. It's been hard. It's been really hard. But I've had four of the best guys you could possibly have to deal with this."