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Monday, December 27, 2004
The Minister of Defense

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

A dozen Chevrolet Monte Carlos, in various stages of construction, graced the immaculate shop at Joe Gibbs Racing in Huntersville, N.C. Some of them were nearly finished products, race cars bearing the distinctive green of the No. 18 driven by Bobby Labonte and the orange No. 20 of Tony Stewart.

And yet, when Reginald Howard White stepped through the door, it seems he was the biggest thing in the room. At 6-foot-5, he still carried his playing weight of 300 pounds, and then some. The mechanics stopped their work and watched as he walked across the gleaming floor in a rust-colored Sean John velour sweat suit.

Reggie White
As much as he loved football, Reggie White was just as passionate about his religious convictions.
On a brisk, sunny day last March, White sat down to discuss a NASCAR grassroots initiative he supported with Gibbs, the Washington Redskins' head coach. They would create a racing team for two minority drivers in late-model stock cars.

"Knowing what Jackie Robinson and Marion Motley did, I tried to get somebody the opportunity in this sport that may not have the resources to get involved," White explained in his earnest, terminally hoarse voice. "Everybody knows that NASCAR is more of a white sport, but the culture shock to me was when I went to the races and saw the rebel flags. That really did something inside of me, because the rebel flags to me are the same thing as a swastika to a Jew."

He was speaking his mind, as he always did. And whether people agreed with his consistently conservative and sometimes controversial message, there was always an undeniable conviction in his words.

That conviction is what reverberates as the world mourns his passing. White died on Sunday morning at Presbyterian Hospital, also in Huntersville, at the age of 43. He is survived by his wife Sara and son Jeremy, an 18-year-old freshman at Elon University, and Jecolia, a 16-year-old junior at nearby Hopewell High School. Sara believes he died due to respiratory failure related to sleep apnea.

It was appropriate that White departed on a Sunday, the day when both of his passions -- football and faith -- are typically celebrated. His nickname was "The Minister of Defense," a hybrid tag that reflected those passions, but he was a man of many parts. Football was merely the most visible.

The bare numbers fail to do him justice. Many consider him the greatest defensive lineman to play in the NFL. He played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1985-92 and the Green Bay Packers from 1993-98. He was named to the NFL's 75th anniversary team and was voted to 13 consecutive Pro Bowls, a staggering accomplishment since the honor is a measure of respect from one's peers. His 198 sacks have slipped to second on the all-time list, to Bruce Smith.

It was his faith, however, that sustained him. Since his retirement, after a one-year stint with the Carolina Panthers in 2000, White, a devout Christian, attempted to deepen his understanding of religion. He had undertaken a study of Hebrew, the ancient language of the Bible.

Bill Horn, his good friend and agent, said they spoke every day on the phone for the past five years.

"Every single day," said Horn from his home in Edmonton, Oklahoma on Monday morning. "He was the kindest, most loving and loyal friend a person could ever ask for.

"Reggie was studying Hebrew to know more about his Saviour and the word of God. Reggie was on a journey for the truth. It's unfortunate that his journey ended so soon, but&"

Horn broke down and sobbed.

"&but he's found the truth now. I know he's found the truth."

An early platform

Growing up in the projects in Chattanooga, Tenn., Reggie White didn't have a consistent male role model. He had been born to unmarried parents, Charles White and Thelma Dodd Collier. His grandmother, Mildred Dodd, would walk from her home in nearby St. Elmo and take him to church at Alton Park Bible Church.

The pastor of the nearly all black congregation was Bernard Ferguson, who was white. During Reggie's most formative years, from the age of 9 to 13, Ferguson might have been his most important male influence.

Reggie White
Reggie White held the NFL's all-time sacks record, with 192½, until Bruce Smith broke it two years ago.
"I myself became a believer when I was 11 years old," Ferguson said Monday on his cell phone, while traveling south of Chicago. "When the Lord is speaking to a person's heart through the scriptures, it's very real. I sensed that was something very real for Reggie, too."

Today, Ferguson is the pastor at the Community Bible Church of Black Creek, Wis. He remembers Reggie as a "big, pleasant boy" who was energetic and well-liked. As part of his ministry, Ferguson would preside over activities with the youngsters of the congregation. In addition to the study of Bible verses, they would hike in the mountains and go roller skating. Sometimes Ferguson would stop by the apartment and talk with Reggie and his older brother Julius.

When Reggie was 12, he told his mother and grandmother he was going to be a preacher. Five years later, at the age of 17, he became an ordained minister. At a surprisingly early age, he demonstrated an uncanny ability to hold an audience's attention.

"I remember challenging the boys," Ferguson said. "I said, 'Some of you might end up being famous people, congressmen or even the governor.' I didn't dream that one of them might have the higher platform of being a professional athlete. In the end, that helped him share his faith with so many more people."

Reggie lettered in football, basketball and track at Howard High School in Chattanooga. He was the two-sport player of the year as a senior; Patrick Ewing was the runner-up. Ridiculously fast (4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash) for his size, White matriculated to the University of Tennessee and, in 1984, the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League. He joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 1985 and played there for eight seasons. In 121 games, he produced 124 sacks, something no NFL player has ever done, before or since. He joined the Green Bay Packers in 1993 and helped the proud franchise -- that had made the playoffs only twice in the previous 26 years -- win Super Bowl XXXI. White had three sacks in the 35-21 victory over the New England Patriots.

On Sunday, reoccurring images of Reggie White the football player appeared on television. His athletic successes were dutifully recounted, but perhaps history will see a larger contribution to the game off the field. White, always a man of conviction, was listed as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to a new, seven-year collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners in 1993. And then White became the most heavily recruited free agent in NFL history, signing a ground-breaking $17 million, four-year contract with the Packers that included a $4.5 million signing bonus.

Reggie told me, 'A lot of Christians leave their wounded on the battle field, but I'm gonna love you. I'm gonna stand by you.'
Eugene Robinson, former teammate of Reggie White
He was described by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue as a "gentle warrior," but on the field he was as ferocious a football player as ever played the game. He is, by consensus, one of the greatest defensive linemen ever.

White usually lined up at end on the left side of the defense, which meant he was often double-teamed by tight ends and full backs, along with the right offensive tackle. He played the run as solidly as he played the pass; today fewer defensive linemen play every down. Later in his career, the Packers lined him up at defensive tackle to take advantage of his speed against overmatched guards.

If White had retired from the Packers in 1998 he almost certainly would have been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year. But because players must be out of the game for five years before they are voted in, that honor will not come until 2005, unless the Hall of Fame makes an exception.

Eugene Robinson, the former three-time Pro Bowl free safety, played with White for two years in Green Bay and also with the Panthers. More than anything, he remembers White's support after the darkest day of his career. On the eve of Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, Robinson was arrested for propositioning an undercover policewoman -- 12 hours after he received the Bart Starr Award from the religious group Athletes in Action. Robinson was humiliated and his Atlanta Falcons lost to Denver, 34-19.

"So many people turned their back on me at the Super Bowl," said Robinson, now a radio analyst for the Carolina Panthers. "One person stood by me, my old roommate. I was devastated, like everyone else, but Reggie told me, 'A lot of Christians leave their wounded on the battle field, but I'm gonna love you. I'm gonna stand by you.' That's my dog, right there."

An enormous backlash

Prior to his final season in Green Bay, as a way of honoring him for his remarkable accomplishments in life and in football, White was invited to address the Wisconsin state legislature. Typically, these are perfunctory, predictable speeches that last about 10 minutes.

White's speech went on for more than an hour and his remarks made national headlines -- negative headlines, in the manner of Al Campanis or Jimmy the Greek or Fuzzy Zoeller. He used the opportunity as a platform to state his fervent beliefs.

He denounced homosexuals, seeking to separate them from blacks who suffered under institutionalized racism, saying, "Homosexuals are not a race," and that "in the process of history, homosexuals have never been castrated." Homosexuality, he said, "is a decision" and "one of the biggest sins in the Bible."

White went on to ascribe stereotypical values to different cultures. "You go to a black church," he said, "and people are jumping up and down." Whites "know how to organize, run businesses and tap into money," he said. Hispanics, he noted, "are gifted at family structure. You can see a Hispanic person, and he can put 20 or 30 people in one home." Native Americans, he added, "knew how to sneak up on people."

Anyone who knows Reggie in his heart knows he would never say anything mean-spirited about anyone. He was not that man.
Bill Horn, a friend of Reggie White
After an immediate and enormous backlash, White blamed the media.

"I hear people lying all day long, on TV and in the newspapers," he said. "When are we going to make the media accountable? The Madison [Wis.] media made a whole lot of money selling my comments and making me look dumb. Nothing would have gotten out to the public if cameras weren't there."

White, who later claimed that the controversy cost him a $6 million announcing contract with CBS, later apologized for making the comments but never retracted the essence of his statements.

That incident, interestingly, was what brought White and Bill Horn together.

"There was a need to correct the perception," Horn said. "If you go back to that speech, he was being complimentary. He was saying that Hispanics were family oriented -- not one Hispanic group ever complained. The one group of people that complained were the homosexual advocates. Reggie's view was that it was the word of God -- take it up with Him.

"Anyone who knows Reggie in his heart knows he would never say anything mean-spirited about anyone. He was not that man."

Horn came to handle White's media requests, public speaking engagements and endorsements. He said White was in the process of trying to secure sponsorship for his own NASCAR racing team and was working on a number of philanthropic projects. He wishes White's contributions to the under-privileged in Philadelphia, Wisconsin, Tennessee and North Carolina are what people will remember.

Reggie White and his wife Sara
Reggie White was an assistant pastor at the Inner City Community Church, which was burned down by arsonists in 1996.
In 1991, he opened a home for unwed mothers on his property in Tennessee. As the associate minister at the Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tenn., White led the effort to rebuild the church after it burned down in 1996 following a rash of suspicious fires throughout the south that began in 1995. That, too, led to controversy when $250,000 was raised, but the church was never rebuilt. Two years after his speech to the Wisconsin legislature, White received a tolerance award in 2000 from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization. His former teammates say he was uncommonly generous with his time and attention in the locker room.

"I can't tell you how many times he'd come into a city and ask to go to the local hospital unannounced," Horn said. "It was always unannounced, visiting with the children in the kids' ward, because he didn't want any attention for it. He didn't do it to get credit for it, he did it because God laid it on his heart to touch people's lives."

White was not viewed as a man with a keen sense of humor, but his friends say he was quick with a joke. Horn remembers the imitations - Muhammad Ali, Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Cosby. He can still see White taking the microphone when they were on a cruise in Greece and pulling off a creditable version of Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock." Horn said that a Web site -- www.reggiewhitefoundation.org -- will be in place by Monday evening with all the pertinent information regarding White's arrangements.

White was sometimes criticized for invoking God's name in his decision-making process -- particularly after he signed with Green Bay -- and in crediting Him in overcoming injuries. Still, whatever his vices were, by all accounts, they didn't include smoking, drinking, cursing or gambling.

Robinson remembers White's levity, the many times he'd come to his front door and, in dead-pan Dragnet style, pretend to arrest him for wearing his trademark golf shoes. The pranks, most memorably the plot with White to awake Packers teammate Doug Evans with an ammonia capsule. Problem was, the joke was ultimately on Robinson. When Evans awoke, he bit into a hidden Alka-Seltzer tablet and appeared to start foaming at the mouth. Robinson screamed as Evans went into convulsions.

"Doug, what have I done?" he shouted. White, Evans and, eventually, Robinson all collapsed in laughter.

Robinson's final conversation with White was last week. They were talking about raising $4-5 million dollars to start a foundation in Charlotte that would encourage after-school learning for kids.

"He was so caring," Robinson said. "He's got a passion about everything. I'd say, 'Reggie, you want to save the world, you want to save the world.' And Reggie's saying, 'We got to do it, Gene. We got to do it.'

Robinson's voice is transformed into White's distinctive scratchy whisper and you can hear his delight at the memory.

"That," he said, "was my boy."

Enduring faith

The flag at the north end of Lambeau Field stood at half staff on Sunday.

There was no game -- the Packers played at the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Eve -- but the franchise honored White, one of a handful of people most responsible for bringing respect back to the Packers. Head coach Mike Sherman told reporters he had talked to White just three days before his death.

Sherman, who was the tight ends coach under Mike Holmgren during White's last two seasons in Green Bay, was watching television just before the team left for Minnesota and saw White featured on an ESPN Classic program that discussed athletes' faith. Sherman was so impressed that he was moved to call White. He was amazed when White called him back almost immediately.

"I talked to him about where he was with his life and with his family and football," Sherman said. "We had a good conversation. We talked about his faith and how he interprets things in relationship to his personal, spiritual relationship with God.

The world just lost a great football player, but I think he should be remembered for being a greater man.
The Rev. Bernard Ferguson
"In his mind, it's more real now than ever."

In each of his three seasons as head coach, Sherman has asked White to address the team. This year, it was before the Sept. 13 season opener at Carolina. On the plane trip back from Minnesota, Sherman and Packers president Bob Harlan talked about a percolating plan to retire White's No. 92 jersey. Only four Packers players -- Tony Canadeo (3) Don Hutson (14), Bart Starr (15) and Ray Nitschke (66) -- have had their numbers retired, the lowest number of any team among the older sports franchises. Last year, Harlan said he would consider adding White to that short list that encompasses 86 years of history.

"I don't think there will ever be another player like Reggie White," Sherman said.

The Rev. Bernard Ferguson, who lit the fuse of White's faith, is accustomed to dealing with death. Nevertheless, he was "extremely shocked" by the news of White's passing.

"I thought Reggie was just entering into a life where he would use the platform of his NFL play to spread the word of his faith," Ferguson said. "I felt the Lord had prepared him for a vast ministry."

Ferguson sighed and paused.

"The world just lost a great football player, but I think he should be remembered for being a greater man."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com