White, Reginald Howard (“Reggie”)

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White, Reginald Howard (“Reggie”)

(b. 19 December 1961 in Chattanooga, Tennessee; d. 26 December 2004 in Huntersville, North Carolina), professional football defensive end known for his values and his leadership in the players’ union.

White grew up in the housing projects of Chattanooga. He was the son of Thelma Dodds Collier and Charles White, who lived apart from White and his mother. White regularly attended the local Baptist church and when he was twelve told his mother that he wanted to be both a football player and a minister. He was ordained a Baptist minister in his late teens. At Howard High School, White played both football and basketball, being named All-American in football and All-State in basketball. Recruited by many colleges, White chose to remain near home and enrolled in the University of Tennessee. He was a football All-American in college, playing defensive end. He graduated with a BA in 1983 and was offered a multimillion-dollar contract with the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League.

White was a dominant force with the Showboats, but the league folded in 1985, and White took a pay cut to play for the Philadelphia Eagles in the National Football League (NFL). He was an immediate success, recording ten tackles and two and a half sacks in his first game. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year for 1985. On 5 January 1985 White married Sara Copeland. The couple had two children and remained married for the rest of White’s life. In 1986 the defense-minded Buddy Ryan became head coach of the Eagles, and White blossomed under his leadership, not only playing in the Pro Bowl game but also being chosen Most Valuable Player.

In 1987 the players’ union, the NFL Players Association, wanting contract flexibility similar to that of baseball players, voted to strike. White, the player representative for the Eagles, stood firm for the strike. When the owners continued games with replacement players, White successfully urged his teammates to remain united and not play until the strike was settled. The strike ended in a stalemate. White missed the first four games of the season but still established a National Football Conference record of twenty-one sacks.

In 1989 White signed a four-year contract with the Eagles that made him the highest-paid defensive player in the league, but the strike and the contract negotiations had led to acrimony between White and the team management. Serving on the defensive line with Clyde Simmons and Jerome Brown, White helped the Eagles to the championship playoffs in 1988 through 1990. The team, however, lost in the first round of the playoffs each year, and as a result Ryan was fired after the 1990 season, driving a further wedge between White and the owners. In 1992 White was one of the plaintiffs in a players’ suit against the league. On 1 March 1993 the league and the players signed an agreement to allow genuine free agency and salary caps. Under the terms of the agreement a team could keep one player whose contract was up as a “franchise player” whom no other team could take without payment to the original team. White would probably have been the Eagles franchise player that year, but because of his role in the lawsuit was exempt from the rule.

In the spring of 1993 White visited seven teams that were interested in signing him. The Green Bay Packers made the largest offer, and White was convinced he could help bring them back to their former glory. In 1993–1994 season White shared the National Football Conference lead in sacks with thirteen, and the team made the playoffs for the first time since 1982. The Packers defeated the Detroit Lions in the first round of the playoffs but lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional championship game. The next two years the Packers also made the playoffs but again could not get past the Cowboys, despite reaching the conference finals in 1995.

White suffered an elbow injury in 1994 and a thigh bruise and hamstring tear in 1995 but bounced back each time. He said that God had healed him. By this time White had become the associate pastor of the Inner City Community Church, an evangelical church in Knoxville, Tennessee. White donated $1 million to the church, which not only preached the gospel but also set up programs to help the poor, including an investment corporation offering loans to minority businesses that did not qualify for loans from establishment banks.

On 6 January 1996 White’s church was burned down by arsonists who left racist graffiti, one of a number of burnings of African-American churches at that time. White spoke out against these hate crimes and called for donations to help rebuild. Within six months he had raised $250,000. On the football field in the 1996–1997 season, White achieved his ambition of playing for a Super Bowl winner. The Packers had an outstanding season, finishing with a 13–3 record and then beating the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers in the conference playoffs. White’s statistics were not outstanding that year, because offenses almost always double-teamed him, but the effort put into stopping White made it easier for his teammates to record tackles and sacks. In the second half of the Super Bowl win against the New England Patriots, White sacked the Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe in two consecutive plays and then added a third sack to set a Super Bowl record. The Packers won 35–21.

White was showing his age, and there was question whether he would return for the 1997 season. White did return, saying that God wanted him to continue playing. Off the field, White built Hope Place, a shelter for unwed mothers, near his Tennessee home. The Packers again made the Super Bowl, but the Denver Broncos defeated them 31–24. White, slowed by back pain, announced his retirement after the Super Bowl and applied for a broadcaster’s job with Columbia Broadcasting System but was turned down, possibly because he had made a speech to the Wisconsin State Assembly proclaiming his belief in the sinfulness of homosexuality and had made stereotyped remarks about ethnic groups. White then decided to play one more season. He played well but not up to the standards he had set in his prime and retired at the end of the year. In 2000 White gave professional football another try, signing with the Carolina Panthers. He was ineffective and retired for good at the end of the year.

White ended his playing days having set the career record for sacks with 198, which was later surpassed. He remained active in religious efforts. Encountering the Messianic Movement through the writings of Monte Judah led White to begin learning Hebrew to be able to read the Torah in the original.

In 1997 White was found to have sarcoidosis, a systemic inflammatory disease. On the morning of 26 December 2004 he was unable to breathe and was rushed from his home in Cornelius, North Carolina, to a hospital in nearby Huntersville, North Carolina, where he died at the age of forty-three. The coroner ruled that his death was caused by cardiac arrhythmia precipitated by pulmonary and cardiac sarcoidosis. White is buried in Glenwood Memorial Park, Mooresville, North Carolina.

White’s combination of football skill and religious zeal won him the nickname Minister of Defense. One of the greatest pass rushers and defensive ends in the history of the sport, he was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl in thirteen consecutive seasons (1986–1998). Pro Football Weekly named White to its 1980s All-Decade Team. United Press International chose him Defensive Player of the Year for 1991, and White was the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1998. In 2000 White was voted to the NFL All-Time Team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters. His uniform number was retired by two teams: the Green Bay Packers in 1999 and the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005. White’s religious beliefs remained controversial. His conviction led him to condemn homosexuality but also to devote great effort to helping the poor and to standing bravely against racist violence.

White’s autobiography is Reggie White with Jim Denney, Reggie White in the Trenches (1996). Reggie White with Steve Hubbard, God’s Playbook: The Bible’s Game Plan for Life (1998), uses examples from White’s life to discuss morality. Mark Bowden, Bringing the Heat (1994), describes White’s play for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1992. Johnette Howard, “Up from the Ashes,” Sports Illustrated (2 Sept. 1996), features an interview with White in the wake of the bombing of his church. Obituaries are in the Charlotte Observer and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (both 26 Dec. 2004) and New York Times (27 Dec. 2004).

Arthur D. Hlavaty