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Minister of Defense mixed faith and football

8/4/2006 - NFL

Reggie White was one of the few truly great athletes who
transformed his game and changed the people around him.

"Where do we begin? Great player, great person, great
teammate," Brett Favre said as he reflected on the legacy of his
friend who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on
Saturday, a final, fitting tribute to the most honored and perhaps
most feared defensive end in NFL history.

"It goes without saying that he's deserving of this, and just a
shame he passed this young."

White, who suffered from sleep apnea and sarcoidosis, died a
little more than 18 months ago at age 43.

When news of his stunning death reached Mike Holmgren in
Seattle, the man who helped lure the Minister of Defense from
Philadelphia to Green Bay in the biggest free-agent move in league
history, said simply: "I am a better person for having been around
Reggie White."

Amen to that, said LeRoy Butler.

"A lot of leaders wait until you get to the locker room to
lead," Butler said. "Not Reggie. He'd go to your house if he had
to. You never needed to go looking for Reggie. He came to you."

White had his critics, to be sure, especially after his infamous
speech to Wisconsin lawmakers in 1998 when he blasted homosexuality
and used ethnic stereotypes when describing the gifts each race
brings to the tapestry of humanity.

White apologized for offending so many, but never backed down
from what he considered his true calling: to sack sin as much as
quarterbacks.

"I hope that my life serving God and doing what he called me to
do would overshadow anything I did in football," White told The
Associated Press in 1998.

Preaching, praying or playing, White was fervent.

"He'd be picking quarterbacks up saying, 'God bless you,' but
he'd be whooping the guy in front of him every time," recalled
Denver safety John Lynch. "Really, I think he's as good a football
player as there's ever been. This guy was dominant. He had a
presence that was just bigger than life."

White took that same passion from the football field to the
pulpit, to inner-city schools, to the streets, to the homeless.

"He ministered to everybody, but his first ministry was to his
teammates," Butler said. "Because he knew that if he could get
you to live right, the team was better off."

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.

"Where do we begin? Great player, great person, great
teammate. It goes without saying that he's deserving of this, and just a
shame he passed this young."
Brett Favre on Reggie White

White combined size, speed and strength like no defensive
lineman before him, getting a league-high 21 sacks in only 12 games
in the strike-shortened 1987 season.

Buddy Ryan, who coached the Eagles from 1986-1990, agreed with
Holmgren that White was "probably the best defensive lineman that
ever played."

When the NFL welcomed unfettered free agency and the salary cap
in 1993, many figured Green Bay, the league's smallest outpost, was
doomed. Instead, with White leading the way, the Packers
experienced a reversal of fortunes.

His selection of the Packers also proved to other players,
particularly blacks, that Wisconsin wasn't a winter wasteland.
Before his arrival, Green Bay, a quarter-century removed from the
glory days of Vince Lombardi, was known as the frigid outpost where
other teams threatened to send their malcontents, the NFL's very
own Siberia.

"If he hadn't have come over, we never would have gotten Bruce
Wilkerson, Sean Jones, Ron Cox, Andre Rison, Desmond Howard, all
these guys we won a championship with," Butler said. "He changed
us from a place nobody wanted to go to a place where, by the mid
'90s, we had to turn free agents away."

White and his wife, Sara, appreciated the unpretentious nature
of Green Bay. While they were being wined and dined at the finest
restaurants across the country, the Packers took them to Red
Lobster to make their pitch.

"I told him, 'You're already a great football player. Come here
and you'll be a legend,"' recalled former general manager Ron
Wolf.

He did, and a faded franchise shined anew.

Opponents game-planned around White and his enormously powerful
club move, and so did the Packers.

"You just knew," said Keith Jackson, who played with White in
Philadelphia and Green Bay, "that if you needed a game closed out,
he was going to be the guy to close it out."

That's precisely what he did in the biggest game of his life,
the Super Bowl following the 1996 season, when he sacked Drew
Bledsoe a record three times to secure Green Bay's 35-21 win over
New England.

White played 15 seasons with Philadelphia, Green Bay and
Carolina. He retired after the 2000 season as the NFL's career
sacks leader with 198, a mark that was subsequently passed by Bruce
Smith. A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, White was
elected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 straight times from 1986-98.

"As intimidating as he was on the field, he was probably the
biggest kid in the locker room," Favre said. "And guys were able
to go up and talk to him and it didn't feel like he was too big."

Jackson once boasted while they were in Philadelphia that he
could block White 1-on-1 and White accepted his challenge. But at
the whistle, Jackson stepped to the side and White fell flat on his
face, got up laughing and a lifelong friendship was born.

Butler said White was a locker room cutup who could hold his own
with Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock.

"He was just a naturally funny guy," Butler said, "a
6-foot-5, 315-pound gentle giant making everyone laugh. I'm
laughing right now just remembering him."