Packers sucker punched by tragedy again

Updated: December 27, 2004, 7:36 PM ET
Associated Press

Reggie White's unexpected death is the latest tragedy to touch the Green Bay Packers.

Two years ago, defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila lost his mother in a car crash on the same day he became a father. After missing practice all week, flying back and forth to Los Angeles to be with his family and then staying up nights with his wife and their newborn son in Green Bay, Gbaja-Biamila had the game of his life, helping the Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings.

Last year, Brett Favre's father, Irvin, died of a heart attack at 54, and Favre had the best game of his career the next night. He led the Packers past Oakland 41-7 on Monday Night Football in a performance so spectacular that at the funeral on Christmas Eve, the Rev. John Ford said, "I do not come to give a eulogy for Big Irv, folks. If you want to hear and see a eulogy for Irvin, go back to the game his son played on Monday night."

Then, on the eve of training camp last summer, Mark Hatley, the Packers' vice president of football operations, died of a heart attack at 54. John "Red" Cochran, a scout and former NFL player and assistant coach, died of heart failure at 82 in September.

Also that month, offensive coordinator Tom Rossley had an emergency heart operation to clear a major blocked artery.

In October, Favre lost his brother-in-law to an ATV accident on his property in Mississippi and the quarterback's wife was diagnosed with breast cancer a week later.

Through it all, the Packers persevered, becoming just the ninth team in NFL history to recover from a 1-4 start to reach the playoffs.

They clinched their third straight NFC North title on Christmas Eve with a dramatic 34-31 win at Minnesota in a game they dedicated to injured wide receiver Robert Ferguson, who still has numbness on one side after a clothesline hit by Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius on Dec. 19 left him temporarily paralyzed in his legs.

Wide receiver Donald Driver, who had a career-best 162 yards on 11 receptions against the Vikings, teared up afterward, saying he'd played his best game ever for Ferguson, whose return to football is uncertain, and for his own father-in-law who died this month in Mississippi.

Linebacker Nick Barnett also lost his father this month, and his family delayed the funeral in California so he could play that week in his honor.

"It's been a tough year for this franchise," team president Bob Harlan said. "It's been a year filled with not only ups and downs on the football field but ups and downs in life."

White remained close to the organization after his farewell season in 1998 and often visited Green Bay.

Favre called White "the best player I've ever played with or against," and said the Super Bowl ring they won after the 1996 season wouldn't have been possible without the "Minister of Defense."

"When he signed as a free agent, he changed the way people in and out of football looked at Green Bay as an NFL city," Favre said in a statement. "He helped the franchise get back to where it had been -- at the top."

Sherman got to know White while serving on Mike Holmgren's staff and occasionally had him address his team in recent years.

"I don't think there'll ever be another player like him that put the fear in offensive linemen like he did. I think he won some plays just out of fear alone," Sherman said. "There's not many people that wanted to line up against Reggie White, even at the end of his career."

Sherman said he called White last week after watching a television program about sports and spirituality that featured him.

"I talked to him about where he was with his life and with his family and football," said Sherman.

The Packers are exploring ways to honor White at their wild-card playoff game next week. Next year, they plan to make him the fifth Packers player to have his jersey retired, joining Don Hutson, Tony Canadeo, Ray Nitschke and Bart Starr.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press