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Reggie White (1961-2004)
On the mourning of Boxing Day, the nation was gripped in shock after learning that Reggie White, one of the greatest individuals to play the game of football, had died due to respiratory failure. He was only 43 years old. White’s death was initially speculated to be caused by a coronary thrombosis (heart attack), however, a preliminary autopsy has led medical examiners to believe that White's death was a result of respiratory problems, including sarcoidosis and sleep apnea.
Known as the “Minister of Defense” partly because he was an ordained minister, and partly because he was arguably the greatest defender the game had ever seen. Wearing his characteristic Number 92 and playing the position of Defensive End, Reggie White was more a force of nature when he played, sweeping through to terrorize and intimidate his opponents. No other defender could single-handedly influence and impact a game the way that Reggie White could.
Reggie White has received many accolades both on and off the football field. He achieved his fame on the football field as one of the most feared and intimidating players ever to play the game. Standing 6’5” and weighing 300 pounds, White was surprisingly fast and agile for a man of his stature. His physical abilities and intellectual prowess allowed him to dominate the game, with an astounding gamesmanship that remains unrivaled to this day. Even, towards the end of his career when he had lost a step or two, he could still be one of the most effective players found on the field.
Reginald “Reggie” Howard White was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee to Thelma and Charles White. The bouncing baby checks in at 6 pounds 9 ounces and 23 inches long. Reggie would grow bigger, and them some, as he nurtured his love for football at a young age. He would go on to become an All-American high school football player at Chattanooga Howard, where he plays nose tackle and tight end. In addition, White was also named all-state for basketball. He was heavily recruited by many top colleges in the nation, but chose to remain home to play for the University of Tennessee.
At the University of Tennessee, White continued his rampage. He set school records for most sacks in the college’s history, and also for most in a season and game. In 1983, his senior year, White was a consensus All-American and was named the Southeast Conference (SEC) Player of the Year. Reggie White then launched his pro career with the United States Football League's (USFL) Memphis Showboats. The league became defunct in 1985, but in his two seasons with the Showboats, White posted 193 tackles (120 solo), 23.5 sacks and forced 7 fumbles in 34 starts. The Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League (NFL) select White with the No. 4 overall choice of the league's supplemental draft of USFL players. With White’s entrance into the NFL, his legend would pick up steam.
In his first NFL game, White registered 2 ½ sacks. This was a sure sign of things to come. For his rookie season, White would record 13 sacks, and be named to the NFL All-Rookie Team, as well as garnering honorable mentions for the All-NFL team. White continued to elevate his play, as he grew more accustomed to the rigors of the NFL game. In his second season, White recorded 18 sacks, and was named to the All-NFL team. He would be named to the All-NFL team eleven times over the span of his luminous career. He would also be named to the Pro-Bowl after this season, the first of an unprecedented thirteen consecutive Pro-Bowl selection.
In Philadelphia, White was the centerpiece of the team’s fabled “Gang Green Defense” as Philadelphia was among the best defensive teams during that time. In his third year, White recorded an amazing 21 sacks in the season, a record for the National Football Conference (NFC), and second most in NFL history. This accomplishment was made even more remarkable by the fact that the season was cut short to 12 games due to players strike. White would be named Defensive Player of the Year, a feat he achieved again in 1997 when playing for the Green Bay Packers.
Although he had helped Philadelphia become one of the top teams, the Eagles never won a Super Bowl title. Thirsting for that elusive championship, White made national headlines when he signed with the Green Bay Packers in 1993. This transaction was significant on several fronts. First, White was the fist significant player available after free agency was introduced into the NFL. He stunned the football world when he chose to sign with Green Bay. At that time, Green Bay was deemed as the “Siberia of the NFL”. It was the least attractive place for players to go, and was often seen as the place where players went to get “punished”. With White’s committing to 4 years for $17-million, he instantaneously restored credibility to a franchise that had only made the playoffs twice in the two decades before he arrived.
The move to acquire White was probably the greatest move ever made in Green Bay’s once illustrious history. Some even consider White’s acquisition as the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history. The Packers had a talented and tough quarterback in Brett Farve, who had guided the team to a 9-7 record in his first year as a starter before Reggie’s arrival, but he was not yet ready to take over the leadership reins, something that Reggie White admirably and successfully did. Much respected by players, coaches, and fans alike, Reggie is widely credited for turning the Green Bay Packers from a good football team to a great football team.
Brett Farve continues to play and excel with the Packers, and he become the one of the most recognizable figures in the NFL. With White as his teammate, Farve went on to win three straight NFL MVP awards, and will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game. But even Farve concedes that it was White who turned the franchise around. Farve commented, “He may have been best player I've ever seen and certainly was the best I've ever played with or against.”
Before he had arrived, the Packer’s defense was laughable at best – but he was the catalyst that transformed the Packers into one of the most terrifying defensive units during the mid-1990s. His efforts paid as the Packers made the playoffs for all six seasons he was there, culminating in the team’s capture of the Super Bowl in 1997 against the New England Patriots. In that game, White recorded 3 sacks against Drew Bledsoe, the Patriot’s quarterback, which stands to this day as a Super Bowl record.
White had signed a contract extension with the Packers, but announced his retirement after the Packers returned to the Super Bowl in 1998, a loss to the Denver Broncos. In his final year with the Packers, White was sensational even at age 37. He recorded 16 sacks, second most in the league, and was named Defensive Player of the Year for a second time. This achievement was all the more remarkable in lieu of White battling various ailments all season long including a bulging disc in his lower back.
White did return to the game after a one-year hiatus to play with the Carolina Panthers. It was a tumultuous season, where White only recorded 5 ½ sacks, the lowest total in his career. He retired for good after that season. When all was done and said, Reggie White was the all-time NFL sack leader with 198 sacks. Bruce Smith surpassed this total in 2000, although Smith had to play 19 seasons to accomplish this compared to Reggie’s 15 seasons. White was Philadelphia’s all-time sack leader (124 sacks – incredibly accomplished in only 121 games) and Green Bay’s all-time sack leader (68.5 sacks).
Although White’s achievements as the most celebrated defensive player in NFL history is more than noteworthy, he was an even better man of the field. Even White himself wanted to be remembered as a “great humanitarian” before being recognized as a “great football player”. Ordained as a minister at the age of 17, religion and community played an immense role in White’s life, as much as football did. White had always made community involvement one of his key objectives wherever he played. He had founded the Inner City Community Investment Corp. in Knoxville with a personal $1 million grant. He also founded the Urban Partnership, an effort to increase jobs, home ownership and education in Green Bay's central city. In the process, White has been awarded with many community and humanitarian awards.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue commented, “Equally as impressive as his achievements on the field was the positive impact he made off the field and the way he served as a positive influence on so many young people.” His sentiments were echoed by White’s former coach in Green Bay, Mike Holmgren, “He was just a wonderful player, first of all. Then, as a person, he was just the best. ... I'm a better person for having been around Reggie White.” Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association said, “He meant as much to us off the field as much as on it.”
Reggie White Accomplishments:
- Retired as NFL all-time sacks leader (198) – it has since been passed by Bruce Smith (201)
- Two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year
- 11 time All-NFL Team Selection
- 14 time Pro Bowl Selection
- Missed only 1 game in his career
- Super Bowl Record – 3 sacks in a game
- Pro Bowl Record – 4 sacks in a game
- Fastest player to record 100 sacks (93 games – 21 games less than second place, Lawrence Taylor).
- Only player to record double-digit sacks in nine consecutive seasons – he recorded double-digit sack totals in 12 of his 15 seasons.
- Selected in 1994 to the 75th anniversary NFL’s All Time Team