Reggie White dies at 43

Originally Published: December 5, 2004
ESPN.com news services

Reggie White, a fearsome defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers who was one of the great players in NFL history, has died. White turned 43 on Dec. 19.

Reggie White
White acknowledges the crowd when the Packers retired his number in 1999 -- then he unretired and played for Carolina in 2000.

Through the family pastor, Sara White confirmed her husband's death.

"Today our beloved husband, father and friend passed away," Sara White said through the pastor. "His family appreciates your thoughts and prayers as we mourn the loss of Reggie White. We want to thank you in advance for honoring our privacy."

White died at Presbyterian Hospital, where he was taken after his wife called 911. A police officer was outside White's Tudor-style home in a gated community, and would not let a reporter approach the house.

The cause of death was not immediately known. White, however, had a respiratory ailment for several years that affected his sleep, according to Keith Johnson, a pastor serving as family spokesman.

The Mecklenburg County medical examiner said Monday that an autopsy was scheduled and that there may be preliminary information in the afternoon.

A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and ordained minister who was known as the "Minister of Defense," White played a total of 15 years with Philadelphia (1985-92), Green Bay (1993-98) and Carolina (2000). He retired after the 2000 season as the NFL's all-time leader in sacks with 198. The mark has since been passed by Bruce Smith.

"Reggie White was a gentle warrior who will be remembered as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "Equally as impressive as his achievements on the field was the positive impact he made off the field and the way he served as a positive influence on so many young people."

Former teammate Tunch Ilkin spoke of White's strong religious beliefs -- and his commitment to helping people -- but he added that White also could be a lot of fun.

"His impressions were hysterical," Ilkin said. "From Muhammad Ali to Rodney Dangerfield, he could make us all laugh with his impressions."

A member of the NFL's 75th anniversary team, White was elected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 straight times 1986-98. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1998.

"He was just a wonderful player, first of all, as a player," said Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, who coached White at Green Bay. "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."

White earned Favre's respect on and off the field.

"He may have been best player I've ever seen and certainly was the best I've ever played with or against," the Green Bay quarterback said Sunday. "Off the field, he did so much for so many people. He really reached a lot of people. ... He was a great friend on and off the field. We'll all miss him."

"It just seems so odd, so surreal," said former Packers teammate Eugene Robinson, now a commentator for Carolina, where White spent his final season. "I'm still like, `I don't believe it.' When I saw it flash on the television -- 1961 to 2004 -- I was just like, 'I'm not going to try to fight back any more tears. I'm just going to cry.'"

After an All-American senior season at Tennessee, White began his pro career with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL in 1984. He joined the Philadelphia Eagles, who held his NFL rights, after the USFL folded in 1985. For eight years, he was as an integral piece in Philadelphia's "Gang Green Defense."

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie expressed condolences.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of one of the greatest men ever to play the game of football," Lurie said in a statement. "On behalf of the entire Eagles family, our condolences go out to his wife, Sara, to his children, and to all those who have been touched by Reggie throughout his life. His legacy on and off the football field will never be forgotten."

White played a key role in free agency -- he was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the current system.

White signed as a free agent with Green Bay in 1993 for $17 million over four years. His signing, along with a trade for Favre, helped make the Packers champions again. He was the first major black player to sign with the Packers as a free agent.

"He meant as much to us off the field as much as on it," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "He had is name on the lawsuit and he didn't get one penny. That's just the type of guy he was. His character, his integrity was everything any NFL player should aspire to be."

His decision to choose the Packers was a surprise. While visiting various teams, he suggested he would prefer a major city, where he could minister to black youth.

"That's what changed the football fortunes of this franchise. It was huge," Packers president Bob Harlan said Sunday. "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."

" We are deeply saddened by the passing of one of the greatest men ever to play the game of football. On behalf of the entire Eagles family, our condolences go out to his wife, Sara, to his children, and to all those who have been touched by Reggie throughout his life. His legacy on and off the football field will never be forgotten. "
 Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie

The Packers made consecutive Super Bowl appearances, including a win over New England in 1997, when White set a Super Bowl record with three sacks.

White worked tirelessly in the offseason with inner-city youth. But his image was tarnished when he gave a speech to the Wisconsin Legislature in which he denounced homosexuality and used ethnic stereotypes. White later apologized for any harm his comments may have caused.

He put his oratorical and star powers to less controversial use in 1996 after his Tennessee church was burned down.

White, who was the associate minister of Inner City Church in Knoxville, spearheaded the church's rebuilding efforts after the January arson. He led the fund-raising drive and condemned the rash of suspicious fires across the South that started in 1995.

White was 39 when he finished his NFL career with Carolina, leaving the game with 198 sacks. That was actually White's third retirement. He retired for one day before the 1998 season, but then said God had told him he needed to play again, and he returned to the Packers.

White retired again after the 1998 season and took a year off from football. After the Packers allowed him out of his contract, White returned to play for the Panthers.

"I will always miss the locker room and the guys, but I know God's will for me to move on to other challenges because it's not in me like it used to be," White said at the time.

White's last season was disappointing in many respects. He recorded a career-low 5.5 sacks with only 27 tackles. He didn't show the same pass-rushing skills that made him a dominating force for much of the past two seasons.

White spent eight years with the Eagles and six with the Packers before a final one with the Panthers. Remarkably durable, White missed only one game in his last 12 seasons and started all but three games during that span.

"Reggie's records and accomplishments say it all," said George Seifert, who coached him on the Panthers. "He is a Hall of Fame player and possibly the best defensive lineman ever to play the game."

Wayne Russell, a manager at A.L. Jinwright Funeral Service in Charlotte, said funeral arrangements were still incomplete early Monday.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.