Reggie White Biography
Loved His Tennessee Home, Jumped from USFL to NFL, Emerged as Team Leader, Joined the Packers
Football player, minister, philanthropist
For a decade and a half, Reggie White dominated the National Football League as one of its most ferocious defensive players. White habitually struck terror into opposing offenses with his great strength, but he also possessed speed, stamina, and the ability to size up situations for maximum impact. Former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan once called White the "perfect defensive lineman…probably the most gifted defensive athlete I've ever been around." After eight seasons with the Eagles, in 1993 White signed a four-year, $17-million contract with the Green Bay Packers; it was an unprecedented amount for a defensive player. Upon his retirement from the NFL in 2001, White was credited with a record 198 career sacks; he had been named to the Pro Bowl an impressive 13 times in succession (although he failed to play in 1994 due to injury). In 1999, the Green Bay Packers retired White's jersey number (92) after his retirement from that team.
Loved His Tennessee Home
Reginald Howard White was born and raised in Tennessee. He went to college there—at the University of Tennessee—and he called that state home his entire life. As a child he lived in Chattanooga, where he was raised by his mother and his grandparents. The family was deeply religious. They attended the local Baptist church regularly, and as a youngster White was inspired by the ministers and teachers he met there. He did not undergo a single, charismatic experience of faith, but rather found his ties to Christianity growing stronger over the entire period of his youth. His mother, Thelma Collier, told Sports Illustrated that when he was 12 years old he announced that he wanted to be two things: a football player and a minister.
Football was a welcome outlet for a young Christian who was teased and goaded by bullies. "When I was a child, I was always bigger than the other kids," White told Sports Illustrated. "Kids used to call me Bigfoot or Land of the Giant. They'd tease me and run away. Around seventh grade, I found something I was good at. I could play football, and I could use my size and achieve success by playing within the rules. I remember telling my mother that someday I would be a professional football player and I'd take care of her for the rest of her life."
White's strength and size indeed seemed to be God-given. He never lifted weights or conditioned himself rigorously, but he was always in shape. At Howard High School in Chattanooga, he played both football and basketball, earning All-America honors in football and all-state honors in basketball. Numerous colleges recruited him, but he chose to stay near home and enrolled at the University of Tennessee, whose team, the Volunteers, were glad to have him. He was a talented and determined athlete who spent his Sundays preaching sermons in churches all over the state. As a senior in 1983, he was a consensus All-American and one of four finalists for the Lombardi Award given annually to the outstanding college lineman. (He did not win.) During his years with the Volunteers, White earned the nickname "minister of defense." The named followed him into his professional career, which began in 1984.
For a while it appeared that Reggie White might never leave Tennessee. After graduating from college he signed a five-year, $4 million contract with the Memphis Showboats, one of the teams in the fledgling United States Football League (USFL). The USFL began as an alternative league for cities starved for professional football action. From the outset it was dwarfed by the better-known, better-staffed National Football League, and soon the upstart teams foundered financially. White viewed this financial instability with concern. He also wanted to prove himself against the best players in the game. He began the 1985 season with the USFL but defected to the Philadelphia Eagles. With his wife, Sara—whom he had met in church—he ventured north to join the NFL.
Jumped from USFL to NFL
White took a salary cut in Philadelphia. The Eagles signed him to a four-year, $1.85 million deal after buying out the remaining three years on his Memphis contract. At the time White was still an unproven entity, but his anonymity did not last long. He joined the Eagles after the 1985 season had begun, missing the first few games. When he finally did start, he made ten tackles and two-and-a-half sacks in his very first game. By season's end he had turned in 13 sacks in as many games, and he was named NFC defensive rookie of the year.
Curiously enough, White's singular gift for mayhem began and ended on the gridiron during his 15-year career with the NFL. The rest of his time was always been spent in pursuing humanitarian work inspired by his deep Christian faith. The citizens of Philadelphia soon discovered that they had won the services of more than just a star athlete. "I believe that I've been blessed with physical ability in order to gain a platform to preach the gospel," White told Sports Illustrated. "A lot of people look at athletes as role models, and to be successful as an athlete, I've got to do what I do, hard but fair.… I try to live a certain way, and maybe that'll have some kind of effect. I think God has allowed me to have an impact on a few people's lives." White spent hours and hours of his spare time preaching on street corners in Philadelphia's troubled inner-city neighborhoods. He gave money to dozens of Christian outreach organizations and spoke as a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And he led by example. In the rough-and-tumble world of professional football, none of his opponents or teammates could ever recall hearing him curse or seeing him fight.
White blossomed in 1986 with the arrival of Buddy Ryan as the Eagles' head coach. Ryan had made a name for himself as a defensive coordinator and had worked with some great lines, including the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings. Quickly Ryan assessed White's potential and built the defense around him. Opponents tried to double- and triple-team White, but still he achieved more than 11 quarterback sacks each season. In his first season under Ryan, he made 18 sacks in 16 games. He was also named Most Valuable Player at the annual Pro Bowl after sacking the opposing quarterback four times in that game. In 1987 he led the league with an NFC-record 21 sacks, and most certainly would have broken the all-time record had the season not been shortened by a players' strike.
Emerged as Team Leader
That players' strike—a particularly bitter one—saw White emerge as a team leader. As one of the team-voted union representatives, White worked hard to keep his fellow Eagles united in the face of "replacement" teams and fan apathy. Didinger wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News: "One of the more memorable images of that 1987 season was White wearing a picket sign and blocking a bus loaded with replacement players as it attempted to pull into a South Jersey hotel.… [White] spoke loudly and passionately about the need for the veterans to stick together. Other teams broke ranks: the Eagles never did."
The hard feelings between White and the Eagles' front office probably began to develop during this strike season, intensifying as the years passed, but White's continued dominance on the field allayed any talk of trade or release. In 1988 he led the NFL in sacks for the second straight year. Between 1989 and 1991 he was joined on the defensive line by several equally ferocious teammates, including Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, and Jerome Brown. This potent defense—with White still as anchor—was widely considered the best in pro football by 1991.
Observers marveled at the way White roared into every play of every game without ever seeming tired or distracted. White told Sports Illustrated: "In high school and college you're taught to hit the ground on a double team. Here you're expected to take it on. I get double-teamed on every play, so I expect it. Sacks are great, and they get you elected to the Pro Bowl. But I've always felt that a great defensive lineman has to play the run and the pass equally well.… The so-called men of the game pride themselves on being complete players."
In 1989 White signed a four-year, $6.1 million contract that made him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL at the time. The deal came at the tail end of considerable acrimony between White and the Eagles' ownership and management. Didinger described the relationship between White and the Eagles' brass, headed by owner Norman Braman: "They split on so many issues—the 1987 players' strike, the 1990 firing of head coach Buddy Ryan, the 1992 loss of free agent Keith Jackson—that in the end they had nothing to build on. There was no trust, no goodwill to serve as the foundation for constructive talks." Although he continued to play at the top of his game under new Eagles coach Rich Kotite, White became privately convinced that owner Braman was not pursuing a championship with any great vigor.
As the end of his 1989 contract approached, White grew more and more critical of Braman and his decisions. In the press White suggested that the Eagles' training facilities were inadequate. White spoke of the growing chasm between Braman and the Eagles players, using his own chilly relations with the owner as an example. Not surprisingly, White became one of the plaintiffs in a 1992 lawsuit against the NFL ownership to enlarge the powers of free agency.
Joined the Packers
Unrestricted free agency descended upon the NFL officially on March 1, 1993. Reggie White quickly became the most visible—-and sought-after—-unrestricted free agent after the 1992-93 football season. His contract with the Eagles had expired, and although he claimed that he would not mind staying in Philadelphia, he was not tendered another offer there. As it happened, Green Bay was one of a half dozen teams that bid quite openly for White's services at that time. He flew to Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Green Bay, New York City, and Washington, D.C., as an all-out war erupted to sign the powerful defensive end. Everywhere he went he was courted not only by team owners, management, and player personnel, but also by ordinary citizens who had heard about his community work and his Christian ethics. In the end, White signed with Wisconsin's Green Bay Packers. The Packers' offer was the most generous financially, with guaranteed earnings of $17 million over four years. Under the contract White became the most highly paid defender in the NFL and a pioneer in the heady new world of unrestricted free agent contracts.
Joining the Packers for the 1993 season, White left behind good will in Philadelphia, where he played for the Eagles through eight seasons. Philadelphia Daily News correspondent Ray Didinger called White "a man who made a giant impact…a symbol of hope, for the Eagles and for the city in general." Didinger added: "White is more than just a superb football player. He is an ordained Baptist minister whose tireless work in the community touched thousands of lives. He is a man who always wore his heart on his extra-long sleeve."
During his years with the Eagles, White had was named annually to play in the Pro Bowl beginning in 1986; he continued the tradition during his years with Green Bay through 1998, to realize the longest consecutive run of Pro Bowl participation on record. When the Packers won the world championship at the Super Bowl in 1997, White set a Super Bowl game record with three quarterback sacks. The Associated Press named White the defensive player of the year for the second time in his career after the 1998 season, and he announced his retirement soon afterward in 1999. Green Bay honored White's retirement by retiring his jersey number, which was 92, and he spent one year out of football and involved in his ministry.
White returned for one final season in the NFL, lured from retirement for the 2000 season by the Carolina Panthers who paid him one million dollars for the effort. He retired for the second time at the end of that season, leaving behind an NFL record of 198 career sacks after 15 seasons of play. White was voted by the NFL Hall of Fame to the NFL All-time Team in 2000.
Retired to Ministry
White's other career—carrying the gospel of Christ to those in need—will last his entire life. He and his wife built Hope Place, a shelter for unwed mothers, on property near their home in rural Tennessee; they also founded the Alpha & Omega Ministry to sponsor a community development bank in Knoxville. "I'm trying to build up black people's morale, self-confidence and self-reliance to show them that the Jesus I'm talking about is real," White explained in Ebony.
One of the most trying moments in White's career in the ministry came in 1996, when his church was burnt to the ground, one of dozens of black churches torched throughout the South in a string of hate crimes. Throughout the off-season that year, White badgered investigators to discover the arsonist, lobbied lawmakers—including then vice president Al Gore of Tennessee—to speak out against racial violence, and raised money to help his and other black churches throughout the nation. In addition to this work, White pursued missionary work among teenaged gang members, abused children, and young women seeking an alternative to abortion. He also tithed a good portion of his NFL income to several Baptist churches. Reflecting on his work in the Philadelphia Daily News, the "minister of defense" concluded: "The Bible says, 'Faith without works is dead.' That is just another way of saying: 'Put your money where your mouth is.'"
White's life work came to an untimely end on December 26, 2004, when he was rushed to the hospital for what was termed a respiratory illness and soon pronounced dead. According to Jet, family spokesman Keith Johnson stated that White's death "was not only unexpected, but it was also a complete surprise. Reggie wasn't a sick man…he was vibrant. He had lots and lots of energy, lots of passion." In his local church and across the NFL, friends, former players, and fans of White spoke of their sadness at his passing. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued a statement which read in part: "Reggie White was a gentle warrior who will be remembered as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. 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."
(With Terry Hill) Reggie White: Minister of Defense, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991.
(With Jim Denney) Reggie White in the Trenches: The Autobiography, T. Nelson, 1996.
(With Steve Hubbard) God's Playbook: The Bible's Game Plan for Life, T. Nelson, 1998.
Broken Promises, Blinded Dreams: Take Charge of Your Destiny, Treasure House, 2003.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, August 29, 1993, p. TS-5.
Ebony, December 1993, pp. 47-48.
Jet, September 15, 1986; April 26, 1993; January 29, 1996; November 1, 1999; August 21, 2000; March 19, 2001; January 17, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1989, p. C-1.
New York Times, April 7, 1993, p. B-11.
Philadelphia Daily News, June 7, 1991; April 7, 1993; April 8, 1993.
Sporting News, July 12, 1993, p. 30; September 13, 1993, p. 30; July 8, 1996; January 14, 2005, p. 41.
Sports Illustrated, September 3, 1986; November 27, 1989, p. 64; March 15, 1993, p. 20; May 3, 1993; September 2, 1996; January 10, 2005, p. 30.
USA Today, February 11, 1991, p. C-6; August 4, 1993, p. C-8.
Wall Street Journal, August 20, 1993, p. A-9.
Washington Post, March 14, 1993, p. D-4; March 18, 1993, p. C-1.
—Mark Kram and
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