Reggie White was known as a gentle giant off the field, but he was anything but gentle on it. Equally effective against both the run and pass, White consistently destroyed double teams en route to the backfield. His combination of size, speed and strength made him virtually unblockable.
White’s domination began at the University of Tennessee, where he earned the nickname “The Minister of Defense.” In four seasons, he recorded 293 tackles and 32 sacks. He was named both First Team All-American and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 1983, finishing with 15 sacks.
After graduating from Tennessee, White signed with the Memphis Showboats of the upstart United States Football League. He was named to the All-Rookie Team in 1984 after recording 12 sacks, and earned All-League honors the next season with 11.5 sacks.
Following two seasons in the USFL, White decided to bring his talents to the NFL. He was chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles with the fourth pick of the 1985 Supplemental Draft.
After playing 18 regular and two postseason games with Memphis earlier in the year, White made his NFL debut in Week 4 of the 1985 season. He was an immediate success, with 2.5 sacks and a pass deflection that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by a teammate. In 13 games, he had 13 sacks, 100 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The next season he had 18 sacks, 98 tackles and was honored with his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections. In 1987, White had perhaps the greatest season ever by a defensive lineman. In 12 games in the strike-shortened campaign, he had 21 sacks, 76 tackles, four forced fumbles and a fumble return for a touchdown. The 21 sacks led the NFL, and White was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
White’s relentless assault on quarterbacks continued in 1988, as he led the league with 18 sacks and posted a career-high 133 tackles. “The Minister of Defense” would go on to record double figures in sacks in all eight seasons as an Eagle, finishing with an astonishing 124 in only 121 games. He was also named First Team All-Pro six straight seasons from 1986-91.
Preventing White from getting to the quarterback was something that kept coaches up at night. What was most frustrating was that there was no specific move to focus on. He used bull rushes, speed rushes, or a combination of both. His famous “hump move” left many helpless offensive linemen lying on the turf.
At the end of the 1992 season, the Eagles’ All-Pro found himself in uncharted territory. His contract was up with Philadelphia, making him an unrestricted free agent under the NFL’s new free agency rules. In a move that surprised many, White signed a 4-year, $17 million contract with the Green Bay Packers. The Packers franchise was rich in tradition, but had only two playoff appearances in the past 25 years.
It turned out to be a match made in Heaven for “The Minister of Defense.” In his first season with Green Bay, White had 13 sacks, 79 tackles, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. On one of the recoveries, he pitched the ball to safety Leroy Butler, who after scoring a touchdown, proceeded to jump into the stands to celebrate. It was the first ever “Lambeau Leap.” The season also marked the Packers’ first playoff appearance since 1982.
Green Bay would go on to make the postseason in each of White’s six seasons as a Packer. In 1996, he experienced the pinnacle of team success, as the Packers won their first Super Bowl since 1967. White led the NFL’s #1 ranked scoring defense with 8.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. In Super Bowl 31, he set a record with three sacks in Green Bay’s 35-21 victory over the New England Patriots.
The Packers returned to the Super Bowl in 1997, but lost to John Elway’s Denver Broncos 31-24 in a hard-fought contest. White was still at the top of his game, though, with 11 sacks and yet another Pro Bowl selection.
By the age of 37, most players are either retired or running on fumes. In 1998, White was still the game’s best defensive lineman, recording 16 sacks and four forced fumbles on the way to being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the second time. White was also selected to his 13th consecutive Pro Bowl, and was named First Team All-Pro for the eighth time.
Having accomplished everything a player could ever hope for, White retired after the 1998 season. He would return to play one more season in 2000, this time with the Carolina Panthers, before retiring for the final time.
Four years later on December 26, 2004, White tragically passed away at the age of 43. The Packers and Eagles legend was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years later in 2006. His career numbers include 198 sacks, 33 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries and over 1,100 tackles.
White’s status as one of the NFL’s all-time greats is undeniable, but his legacy extended far beyond the gridiron. He started preaching as early as 17, and was later ordained as a minister. White used his influence to help many in need, especially in his home state of Tennessee. Through his church, he helped build homes for low-income residents, and provided loans for individuals and small businesses who did not qualify for traditional bank loans.
From NFL players who were inspired by his play on the field to the countless citizens who have benefited from his generosity off it, White’s influence continues to loom large.