Professional football has achieved such popularity that its greatest players all become cultural figures of sorts. Television ads and other commercial interests burn some of these images into the national psyche: “Mean” Joe Greene tossing his game jersey to a boy in a Coke commercial; the Chicago Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle,” and so forth. Yet for a football player to achieve something more–to exert a true and lasting impact on American culture and spirituality–is so rare that arguably only one man can rightly claim such a legacy: Reggie White. His death on December 26 at the young age of 43 is accordingly an occasion that deserves more than the normal recitation of his achievements on the gridiron, immense though these were.
Reggie White became a force in both athletics and the culture in large part because he dreamed big dreams. One could not know Reggie for any period of time without hearing one of his ideas for a grand new undertaking: starting a Christian theme park outside his adopted home town of Charlotte, North Carolina; resurrecting the Freedmen’s Bureau, the bank that briefly served newly emancipated African Americans during Reconstruction; commencing vast new faith-based and other charitable programs. While many of these projects did not bear fruit, the sheer scale of his aspirations guaranteed that if only one or two were successful, the success would be huge. So it was that Reggie’s dreams and willpower proved powerful enough to propel him from poverty to a Super Bowl championship, and to help him nudge his nation toward cultural renewal.
BAPTISMS AND BULL RUSHES
Reggie grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the son of a single mother. He excelled at football in high school, and became an All-American at the University of Tennessee. During college he met his future wife Sara, a beautiful, pious, and assertive woman who would protect him from the many inevitable hangers-on who would want a piece of the future star. Reggie stayed in Tennessee for his professional debut, joining the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League in 1984. When the league went out of business the following year, Reggie joined the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League.
The game and the league were instantly changed. Reggie became the first defensive player to combine 300 pounds of strength and power with first-class speed. He became the master of the “sack,” or tackling the quarterback. He perfected techniques used by earlier players to clear a lane en route to the quarterback. Whether it was “the club” (slamming his forearm underneath an opposing player’s arm and tossing him aside) or a simple “bull rush” (overwhelming and knocking over a hapless offensive lineman), Reggie became the greatest sack artist in the history of the game. Opposing teams had to reconfigure their offenses to try to deal with him. Because of his religiosity and status as an ordained Christian minister, Reggie earned the nickname “The Minister of Defense.” His sacks came to be known as “baptisms.”
While not a litigious man, Reggie believed in compensation based on fair market value. He was one of the plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit that created the current system of free agency in the NFL. He did not profit from the suit itself, but later received one of the highest salaries in league history. In 1993, he signed a contract for $17 million with the Green Bay Packers. By then, most players regarded this storied Wisconsin franchise, which won the first two Super Bowls, as an NFL backwater and an all-white enclave hostile to African Americans. Reggie became the first star black player to sign there, and he personally recruited other top black players to join him. He and quarterback Brett Favre led the Packers to two Super Bowls. In 1997, he won what turned out to be his only championship ring, defeating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. Reggie had three sacks that day, still a Super Bowl record.
When he retired after the 2000 season, Reggie had run up a total of 198 sacks, an NFL record. He was the only player elected to the Pro Bowl 13 straight times, and was twice named the NFL’s defensive player of the year, once when he was 36. His all-time sack record was overtaken last season by another defensive end, Bruce Smith. But it took Smith 19 seasons to amass the sacks that Reggie gained in only 15, and Reggie’s 23 and a half sacks in the USFL did not count toward his NFL total. Moreover, Reggie was a left defensive end, which meant that unlike a right defensive end, he did not enjoy the element of surprise inherent in being able to tackle a right-handed quarterback from behind. Right-handed quarterbacks could plainly see him coming. He still set the sack record, and was, by consensus, one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game.
A MINISTER AND HIS PULPIT
Still, Reggie always insisted that the most important part of his game was its spiritual dimension. In this, he became that rarest of leaders, one who combines physical and moral courage. An ordained minister since the age of 17, Reggie limited his “trash talk” to telling opposing players, “Jesus is coming.” Most important, Reggie was the highest-profile player to help lead public prayer sessions on the football field. He and a handful of other NFL players commenced the practice, now common, of kneeling in prayer at the fifty-yard line after the game, with players from both teams participating.
When Reggie and his friends began these prayers, few pro football players publicly expressed their faith on the field or in the locker room. Now, when a player scores a touchdown, he is roughly as likely to kneel briefly in prayer in the endzone or lift a finger skyward in reverence to the Almighty as he is to spike the ball or dance.
Consider also today’s post-game celebrations. When triumphant teammates celebrate in the locker room or on the field following the game, often they join in prayer or praise God or Jesus. This generally reduces the secular journalists and TV commentators covering the event to stammering or embarrassed silence. If you enjoy watching this amusing discomfiture, think of Reggie when you next witness it–as you likely will at some point during the upcoming playoff season. This spectacle is a dividend of his leadership.
There was also his off-the-field ministry. Reggie and Sara started Urban Hope, a ministry that focused on inner-city youth. He generously supported faith-based causes across the country, and personally preached to young people in some of the tougher neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Milwaukee. On one occasion, he arranged for a troubled youth who fancied himself a potential pro athlete to have a tryout with the Packers. When the youth did not receive an offer from the Packers, the young man first grew resentful. He later became grateful for the opportunity and his subsequent friendship with Reggie. He became a street minister and devoted his life to counseling gang members and at-risk youth.
Toward the end of his career, and with no premeditation on his part, Reggie became a leader of the many Americans alarmed over the baleful trends in the culture. In 1998, he delivered a speech to the Wisconsin state legislature in which he criticized the gay-rights lobby for comparing its cause to the civil-rights movement–a tactic that, as a black man, he found deeply offensive. “Homosexuality is a decision. It’s not a race,” he stated. He also called homosexuality a sin.
Reggie was the first major African American leader to publicly oppose the drive toward same-sex marriage. As such, he was the first to give voice to the vast resentment then building among the many black and Hispanic Americans who, for religious reasons, staunchly opposed the gay-”rights” movement. The political repercussions of this backlash would not be seen until the 2004 presidential election. This year’s election was a resounding political echo of the warning cry Reggie made to lawmakers that day.
For this act of political bravery, Reggie paid dearly. He lost a multimillion-dollar contract with CBS Sports, which had orally agreed to sign him as a commentator for their Sunday football broadcasts but then backed out after receiving protests from the gay-rights movement. Reggie received other threats and denunciations, including racial slurs. He was lampooned by virtually all the major media, which denounced him variously as a bigot and an idiot. Reggie stood firm, saying, “I’m only stating what the Bible states. You might as well be calling the Bible racist or God a racist.”
I came to know Reggie a few days after his speech to the Wisconsin legislature. I wrote an article defending him and his remarks for the Wall Street Journal. On the same day the article ran, Reggie tracked me down and called to thank me. It was the only time in almost ten years of writing for national conservative publications that this has happened to me. His phone call was all the more unexpected because Reggie was not widely considered somebody who read such publications or thought much about political or social issues. We eventually became friends and wrote a book together (Fighting the Good Fight), in which Reggie expounded on the views he was expressing to the legislature that day.
HIS OWN MAN
On the subsequent occasions when I saw Reggie–in Green Bay when we were writing the book, in San Francisco when he played the 49ers during his last NFL season–I received a small, vicarious dose of the celebrity life he endured with great forbearance. That little glimpse has since made me much less judgmental about the stars who wear baseball caps and sunglasses and rent out entire islands to avoid the madding crowds. After seeing Reggie repeatedly interrupted during his meals or in mid-conversation by well-meaning but insensitive autograph hounds, I could only marvel at his patience. (The rapper Snoop Dogg once summed it up well: “You can’t give autographs to all 19,000 people after a concert. After a while, a man’s hand gets tired.”) Likewise, despite all the pains that are the lifelong residue of scores of football injuries, I never heard Reggie complain about them.
Over the years, as we kept in touch, Reggie spoke of his new passion: studying Hebrew and learning about the roots of Christianity. He began to follow some of the practices of orthodox Judaism. He was always his own man.
We last spoke a few weeks ago. He called to ask me how I had done in the recent election (he and Sara had supported me in both of my runs for elective office in Arizona). I told him I had just won the election for Maricopa County Attorney (district attorney for the Phoenix metropolitan area), and that his jersey would soon be hanging in the DA’s office in Phoenix. His response, in his trademark gravely voice, was a strong and sincere, “Good.”
He died the morning after Christmas and a week after his 43rd birthday.
As I think of Reggie, I find my mind turning to the epigraph that appears at the beginning of the book we wrote together, a quotation from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy. It was a quotation that Reggie liked, I think because it’s one of the Bible’s very few references to athletics. As the apostle Paul speaks of his coming death, he summed up his life: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
So did Reggie. The world is a better and nobler place because he did.
–Andrew Peyton Thomas is an attorney and author in Phoenix.