I'm off to Canton, Ohio, this weekend. A lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, I'm making my pilgrimage to help welcome Troy Aikman to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He'll be inducted Saturday, along with Rayfield Wright, Warren Moon, John Madden, Harry Carson, and the late Reggie White. I'll be wearing Cowboy blue on this trip, and I know I'll be flooded with memories of the many wins Aikman orchestrated behind center for Dallas. (He won more games in the 1990s -- 90 -- than any other quarterback has in any other decade.) But as I plan my trip here in Memphis, and consider the latest class to be given football's highest honor, I find myself remembering a fellow Tennessean, and wishing Reggie White might come down for this one special day.
An ordained minister, White was given the somewhat oxymoronic nickname, "Minister of Defense," as a senior at the University of Tennessee. Recruited by Johnny Majors, White left his native Chattanooga for the Big Orange in 1980 (a year after my parents -- UT alumni -- moved our family from Knoxville to Southern California). White grew into that fabled nickname by becoming the most fearsome pass-rusher Neyland Stadium had seen since the days of Doug Atkins. As great as White became during his college days (he was named SEC Player of the Year and an All-America as a senior in 1983), his Volunteer teams couldn't match the standard. As a 12-year-old, very out-of-place UT fan, I may have seen White at his college nadir, a 43-7 drubbing at the hands of Marcus Allen and the USC Trojans in the L.A. Coliseum on September 12, 1981 (Allen rushed for 211 yards on his way to the Heisman Trophy). That '81 team would finish 8-4 after beating Wisconsin in something called the Garden State Bowl. White's senior campaign in 1983 was marginally better, Tennessee beating Maryland in the Florida Citrus Bowl to finish 9-3.
Turning pro in 1984, White followed Herschel Walker's path and snubbed the National Football League for the upstart United States Football League, signing to play for the expansion Memphis Showboats. Think about that: high school ball in Chattanooga, college in Knoxville, pro ball in Memphis. If there is a face of Tennessee football for perpetuity, it has to be that of Reggie White. Big number 92 compiled 23.5 sacks over his two years in Memphis, leading the 'Boats to the USFL semifinals in 1985, the league's final season. (During a visit here to see my grandmother, my dad and I saw a June 1984 game between Memphis and the Birmingham Stallions. Reggie White was 0-2 with a Murtaugh in the stands.)
When the USFL folded, White landed where he belonged, with an old-school NFL franchise (the Philadelphia Eagles), soon to be coached by a defensive mastermind (Buddy Ryan). It should be noted that between Memphis and Philadelphia, White played in 31 football games in 1985. Over his eight years in Philly, White became his era's Deacon Jones, arguably the greatest pass-rusher the NFL had ever seen.
If White is the face of Tennessee football, he's also the face of NFL free agency, as he became the most prominent player to leap teams in 1993, the first year of unfettered free agency. Having taken the Eagles to the brink of Super Bowl dreams, White partnered with Brett Favre to help the Green Bay Packers end almost 30 years of broken dreams, winning Super Bowl XXI in January 1997. White would dance across the game's ultimate stage a year later, then retire after the 1998 season as the NFL's all-time sack leader.
As he neared age 40, White made some decisions that raised eyebrows, on the field and off. He invoked insensitive stereotypes -- from behind the pulpit no less -- by suggesting, for example, that Hispanics were more accustomed to living as large families than other ethnic groups. As beloved and kindhearted as White was his entire career in the public eye, his followers took the comments more as the weak utterances of naivete than any mean-sprited attack they might otherwise have been considered. But they ruined any chances White had at a career in front of the camera. When he came out of retirement to play one more year (2000) with the Carolina Panthers, you had to wonder if this minister felt somewhat defrocked when away from the gridiron.
Reggie White died in his sleep the day after Christmas, in 2004. He was the victim of cardiac arrhythmia, compounded by sleep apnea, an all-too-deadly disorder casually dismissed as intense snoring by most of us. Exacerbating the sorrow sure to be felt this weekend in Canton is the knowledge that, had White not come back for that last quarterback chase in Charlotte, he would have been alive for his Hall induction, in August 2004.
My heart will be racing for Troy Aikman this weekend as six men are immortalized for their otherworldly football talent. The lump in my throat? That'll be for Reggie White.