Minister of Titletown: Reggie White Resurrects Packers Fortunes
Some ministers make their points through gentle persuasion, guiding their flock with the delivery of heartfelt homilies, messages of inspiration and uplifting sermons.
Late, great Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White, better known as the “Minister of Defense,” had a slightly different approach to his line of work and there was nothing gentle about what he delivered.
Over his 15 NFL seasons as a defensive lineman with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Packers, and the Carolina Panthers, White spent his Sundays pile-driving quarterbacks, upending running backs and otherwise striking fear in the heart of every offensive line that squared up against him.
White, a 13-time Pro Bowler, still ranks No. 2 on the list of NFL sack leaders with 198 (though if one could add in the 23.5 sacks he racked up in his first two pro seasons with the Memphis Showboats of the ill-fated USFL, White would top that list).
White set records for average sacks per game and consecutive seasons (nine) with at least 10 sacks per season. He led the Packers to consecutive Super Bowls, including the championship win in Super Bowl XXXI against the Patriots. And in 2006, just two years after his untimely death at the age of 43, White was a shoo-in induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the stats and trophies are only a part of the Minister’s football legacy, because beyond the numbers he put up, White was, essentially and fundamentally, a game-changer — an athlete whose skills and approach were so impactful that the very nature of a sport was altered.
“In the history of the NFL, there have been two dominant free agents: Reggie White and Deion Sanders,” said former Packers GM Ron Wolf shortly after White’s death. “From that standpoint, he was as good as they come.”
Certainly there were plenty of fearsome defensive linemen before White — big guys who could hurt you. But at 6’5” and nearly 300 pounds, White wasn’t just another big guy. He was strong, yes, but also astonishingly quick and remarkably agile. He could steamroll an offensive tackle or take a guard head-on if he needed to, but right from his record-setting college days at Tennessee, his ability to read plays, time gaps and slice through the pass protection made him much more than a body to get around. White was, from the start, an offense-altering factor — a singular player that had to be constantly accounted for if an opponent had any chance of winning.
Mark Schlereth put in 12 seasons as a guard with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, and in an interview with ESPN.com shortly after White’s death, described what it was like to face him on the field.
“Reggie White was one of the greatest football players I’ve ever seen or lined up against. He was amazingly dominant and someone that a team spent a week preparing for. When an offensive line stepped onto the field, it was imperative to locate where White was lined up to have some semblance of a chance at figuring out how he was going to disrupt your offense.”
White’s innovative approach to his position may have had something to do with his spending those first two pro seasons in Memphis — NFL scouts and coaches weren’t sure at first how his speedy, attack-oriented style of play would mesh with more established defensive units.
The answer was made bone-crunchingly clear after White was finally picked up by the Eagles in a supplemental draft and made his NFL debut in week four of the 1985 season. In that game, against the Giants, White collected 2.5 sacks and deflected a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Even with his late start in that debut season, he ended up with a team-leading 13 sacks and was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
To some, White’s on-field success may have looked like a triumph of brute strength, but inside observers such as analyst Len Pasquarelli saw a much craftier player at work.
“From a football standpoint, one angle I think people missed on Sunday night as they spoke about his talents on the field, was how disruptive and destructive White was when defensive coordinators moved him down inside to tackle on some passing downs. White is recalled, correctly so, as being a great pass-rushing force from the outside. But a great many of his sacks came when he was at tackle, where he could use his speed and trademark “hump” move to get inside of overmatched guards. As a Pittsburgh native, I possess a bias toward Joe Greene as the best defensive lineman I’ve ever seen. Truth be told, as far as the complete package and the ability to author game-altering plays, Reggie White was probably peerless.”
Over the course of eight seasons with Philadelphia, White continued to pile up impressive stats and plow down terrified QBs. He was a leader and lynchpin of the “Gang Green” defense, which included such other fierce tacklers as Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown, Eric Allen and Wes Hopkins (if that bunch of players doesn’t always get its proper due, blame Philly’s trouble at mounting an equally potent offense in those years). If White’s career had ended after his time with the Eagles, he’d still be remembered as one of football’s defensive greats. But as luck — and Mike Holmgren — would have it, the Minister was just getting ready for a phenomenal second act.
Despite White’s stellar years in Philadelphia, the franchise made it clear they were not going to be offering him a contract for the 1993 NFL season. White made a bit of off-field history by lending his name to the Players’ Association lawsuit that would result in the establishment of limited free agency, allowing eligible players to shop their talents to the highest bidder. White was the first big name player to take advantage of this new free agency, and in the winter of 1993 he embarked on a city-by-city visiting tour, looking for a contract that would reward his talents dollar-wise, but also, and perhaps more importantly, looking for a staff and team that he truly wanted to play with and win for.
Green Bay was not going to be one of White’s planned stops, but when Packers General Manager Ron Wolf heard that White was coming as close as Pontiac, Michigan to talk to the Detroit Lions, he convinced White to make a Wisconsin stop as well.
The Redskins, 49ers, Giants and Jets all made serious bids for the Minister, but Green Bay won out by offering White a four-year, $17 million contract that at the time made him the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player. To many, that seemed like crazy money to spend on a player with eight seasons’ worth of mileage, bangs and bruises on his sizable frame. But, as Wolf later put it: “When Reggie White came in here, that signaled to the rest of the National Football League that the Packers were for real and, more importantly, that Green Bay is for real.”
Sure, a 33-year old White was a half-step or so slower than a 25-year old White, and maybe he wasn’t going to slice through offensive lines quite as effortlessly as he once had. But his still formidable talents along with his tremendous football IQ and unparalleled team leadership were crucial to a newly energized Packers franchise. Three years later, White shut up the skeptics and naysayers by helping to lead the squad to its first Super Bowl title in 29 years.
Recalling White’s arrival in Green Bay, Packers President Bob Harlan remarked, “That’s what changed the football fortunes of this franchise. It was huge. Everyone thought the last place he would sign was Green Bay and it was monumental because not only did he sign, but he recruited for Green Bay and got guys like Sean Jones to come here. He sent a message to the rest of the NFL that Green Bay was a great place to play.”
White continued to work his hard-charging magic for the Packers until his retirement in 1998 (retirement didn’t sit well with the Minister, and after a year off he returned to the NFL for a final season with Carolina). And, of course, “Minister” wasn’t just a nickname for White — he’d become an ordained preacher at 17 and, throughout his career, was frequently in the news for public statements that reflected his personal, spiritual beliefs. These statements could range from heroically noble stands to deeply controversial opinions, but however one feels about what White said off the football field, what he did on the field created a legacy that should be celebrated.
“If you’re a defensive end, a guy who loves to sack the quarterback, how could you not admire Reggie White and everything he accomplished?” asked Dwight Freeney of the Colts, no slouch himself when it comes to putting the hit on QBs. “I’ve watched a lot of pass rushers and he was special. He did things his way, invented moves to get him to the quarterback, and was just a great player. Sure I’ve studied him. But I could never be so bold as to say I could duplicate him. He was just a great player and, from what I understand about him, a great person, too.”
For those who did know White, his enduring legacy is both professional and personal.
“He was just a wonderful player, first of all,” recalls Mike Holmgren. “Then, as a person, he was just the best. He was one of the leaders, along with Brett Favre, of our football team in Green Bay. I’m a better person for having been around Reggie White.”
No doubt countless Packers fans feel the same way.
Chuck Crisafulli is a lifelong Packers fan who has been writing professionally for over 25 years. He has written several books including: “Teen Spirit: The Stories Behind Every Nirvana Song,” “Moonlight Drive: The Stories Behind Every Doors’ Song,” “Me and A Guy Named Elvis,” “Elvis My Best Man,” and “Go To Hell: A Heated History of the Underworld.”