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Reggie White


1961 - 2004 | Notice Condolences
Reggie White Notice
He loved God, green and gold

Perennial all-star, spiritual leader White took Packers back to glory

By TOM SILVERSTEIN
tsilverstein@journalsentinel.com
Posted: Dec. 26, 2004

Green Bay - The flags at the north end of Lambeau Field flew at half staff Sunday morning in honor of a fallen Green Bay Packers hero.

It was a tribute ordered by Packers president Bob Harlan after he learned that Reggie White, one of the most revered players to put on a Packers uniform and a giant figure in the team's return to Super Bowl glory, had died at his home in Cornelius, N.C., at age 43.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but Keith Johnson, a family pastor, told The Associated Press that White had a respiratory ailment for several years that affected his sleep. An autopsy was planned.

Since his retirement from football after the 2000 season, White had remained close to the Packers organization and attended several games over the past couple seasons, including the season-opening victory over the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. On Thursday, coach Mike Sherman had called after watching a television program about sports and spirituality that featured White, an ordained minister who used football to promote his deep belief in Christianity.

"I talked to him about where he was with his life and with his family and football," said Sherman, who had developed a relationship with White as an assistant coach and had him occasionally address the team. "We had a good conversation. We talked about his faith and how he interprets things in relationship to his personal, spiritual relationship with God. In his mind, it's more real now than ever."

On the plane trip back from their division-clinching victory over Minnesota on Friday, Harlan and Sherman had discussed setting up a firm date to retire White's familiar No. 92. Only four players in Packers history have had their numbers retired, and Harlan had informed White last year that he was ready to break a long-standing policy against retiring more numbers.

Neither man thought the next time they would be discussing the 13-time Pro Bowl defensive end would be about his death.

"I'll always look at Reggie as being part of the quartet that turned this football franchise around," Harlan said. "Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, Brett Favre and Reggie White brought us to the elite of this league. Reggie was not only a great player but a great recruiter. He sent word out to everybody in the league that we have great tradition and great fans."

News of White's death spread quickly throughout the National Football League, but perhaps nowhere was it felt more than in the league's smallest market. White played 15 years in the NFL, but without question his six seasons in Green Bay, where he won his only Super Bowl, were the highlight of his career.

"I cried for two hours," former Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler said.

Most recently, White had cut back dramatically on the number of speeches and sermons he was giving and had focused on strengthening his knowledge of the Bible. For the past three years, he studied Hebrew so that he could understand the Bible from a more literal sense. He wanted to rely less on other people's interpretations and to deepen his understanding.

"He wanted to find out what he might be missing," said former Packers safety Eugene Robinson, a radio analyst for the Carolina Panthers and a close friend of White's. "That's how Reggie is. It goes right to the heart of who he was. He was always passionate about what he was doing.

"The last conversation we had we were talking about a foundation and raising $4 or $5 million for an after-school program."

The love affair between White and the Packers began almost the moment White stepped off the plane during a free agent visit in early 1993 and continued as he helped the organization regain the glory that had eluded it since Vince Lombardi retired after Super Bowl II.

Within four years of White signing a four-year, $17 million contract - only quarterbacks John Elway and Dan Marino made more at the time he signed the deal - the Packers had won their first Super Bowl in 30 years.

Wolf was the boss, Holmgren was the orchestra leader and Favre ran the show. But it was White who pushed the Packers over the top with his massive impact on defense and in leadership of the team.

"I think Reggie White was one of the top two free agents in the history of the game," Wolf said Sunday evening. "The other was Deion Sanders. One is 1A and the other is 1B. There's no 1 and 2. As far as what he meant for the Green Bay Packers, it was monumental."

When he is up for nomination to the Hall of Fame, arguments will be made that White was the most complete defensive player of all-time. He broke the mold for defensive ends of the 1970s and '80s, players who were either undersized pass rushers or slow-footed run stuffers.

The 6-5, 300-pound White was as big and strong as a nose tackle and as fast as a linebacker when he came out of the University of Tennessee in 1984. After two years playing in the United States Football League, he joined the Philadelphia Eagles and had 2 1/2 sacks in his first NFL game.

The league was barely ready for White, who went on to earn 13 consecutive Pro Bowl selections and twice won defensive player of the year awards (1987 and '98). When he retired for the third and final time after the 2000 season, White was the NFL's all-time leader in sacks with 198, having produced double-digit sacks in 12 of 15 seasons.

The Washington Redskins' Bruce Smith broke the record last year and finished with 200 before retiring, but it took him 19 seasons to do it. White played 15 seasons in the NFL - he missed only one non-strike-related game - and never got to count the 23 1/2 sacks he registered in two years in the USFL on his all-time total.

"I had the utmost respect for Reggie White as a player," quarterback Brett Favre said in a statement released by the team. "He may have been the best player I've ever seen and certainly was the best I've ever played with or against.

"He made the defense what it was during our run . . . the best in the league. He could turn the course of the game in a single play . . . and did it many times for us. It was fun to watch him play."

As great as his impact on the NFL was, it was equally as great on the Packers. When Wolf made the decision to pursue White, his only objective was to show him that the Packers meant business. With a fat check in hand and his word that the Packers would do everything they could to get White the Super Bowl ring he coveted so much, Wolf used a pragmatic approach toward recruitment.

The Washington Redskins, San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns were also after White, and the Browns had lavished him in limousine rides and fancy hotel stays. They bought White's wife, Sara, dozens of flowers and got the mayor to urge him to sign with them.

The Packers picked White up at the airport in a 4x4 Jeep Wrangler and interviewed him in a tiny windowless office in their modest facility.

"There were no limousines," Wolf said. "We took him over to the Red Lobster for a meal. He was shown Green Bay as Green Bay was. He appreciated that. He saw that he was dealing with genuine people. Everything about Green Bay was genuine."

It took White time to make a decision, but when he did, he said that God had told him Green Bay was the place he should go. Over time, the Packers learned more of White's devotion to preaching the Gospel and came to accept that he was as opinionated off the field as he was strong-willed on it.

An ordained minister from the time he was 17, White spoke often of his devotion to Christianity. But around his teammates he preached teamwork and dedication as much as devotion to God and the players quickly learned that his sense of humor prevailed over all other things.

Fans appreciated his devotion to the team and to them and when his church in Knoxville, Tenn., burned to the ground in 1995, they collectively raised $250,000 to help rebuild. It was a heartfelt gesture that White talked about often, but it turned into controversy when the church was never rebuilt and the money never recovered.

White also shocked many people with a notorious speech before the Wisconsin Legislature in which he used stereotypes and an anti-homosexual theme to get his point across. It was an embarrassing moment for the Packers and those who had supported White over the years, and it cost him a post-career television analyst job.

On the field, the Packers found out how much White would mean to them in the coming years when in the fifth game of his Packers career, with the team off to a 1-3 start, he sacked Elway on consecutive plays to wipe out a last-minute drive that threatened the Packers' three-point lead.

It was the kind of domination that White, who was 31 at the time, would display through his years in Green Bay, when he set the franchise record with 68 1/2 sacks. It was a defining moment in the resurrection of the Packers franchise.

"Those two plays were as big a plays at that time in the development of our football team as any we've been around," former defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes recalled in 1999.

The Packers went from 23rd in the NFL to second in defense in White's first season, and they ranked in the top eight in all but one of his seasons. There were many more highlights during his Packers tenure, and none was more satisfying than his Super Bowl-record three sacks against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.

The Super Bowl ring he won was the reason White came to Green Bay, and it pleased him to no end. But he wanted more than anything to share it with the fans who had developed a bond with him.

"I just thank God for the opportunity to have played in front of these people for six years and to have been a part in bringing them a championship," White said upon his retirement from the Packers after the 1998 season. "It's an extreme honor to have played for the Green Bay Packers and to have played in front of the Green Bay Packers fans."

White retired twice from the Packers, once after the '97 season - he changed his mind after two days - and again after the '98 season, when he had 16 sacks and earned his last defensive player of the year honor. He returned to play with the Panthers in 2000 and then retired for good.

He is survived by wife, Sara; son Jeremy, 18; and daughter Jecolia, 16.

Funeral arrangements are pending.
Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Dec. 26, 2004
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