Remembering Reggie White
It was the day after Christmas seven years ago that Reginald Howard White died. Had he lived, he would have been only 50 years old today.
A study of more than 300 NFL players cited in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 found a sleep apnea rate of 14 percent, which is five times higher than males of similar ages. The rate among linemen was alarmingly higher — 34 percent. That rate was even worse with retired linemen. Reggie White was a retired lineman when he passed away from cardiac arrhythmia, enabled by the cardiac and pulmonary scardosis that he lived with for years. It was sleep apnea that likely triggered a fatal chain of events. The tragedy of it is that it was easily preventable.
When he was an active lineman, Reggie was the best of his time, and arguably the very best of all time. NFL.com ranked Reggie as the seventh greatest NFL player of all time. Not the seventh greatest lineman, the seventh greatest player. There were 13 Pro Bowls, 10 times as first-team All Pro, twice the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and of course a Super Bowl ring. He set the NFL record for sacks in a career (198, which was later eclipsed). It all led to his jersey being retired by two separate NFL teams (Philadelphia and Green Bay), the first time that honor had ever been bestowed on a player. He was posthumously inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
But Reggie was alive for his 2002 induction into the College Football Hall of fame, the 19th Tennessee Volunteer player to gain admission into that hallowed institution. A first-team All American his senior season (1983), Reggie White recorded 100 tackles, 72 of them were unassisted. He was credited with 15 sacks that season (a UT season record), including four against The Citadel (a UT single-game record). He tallied 32 sacks in his four-year career wearing orange (a UT career record). He still holds those three records. His number is one of the handful that are retired to never be seen again on the front, back, and shoulders of a Tennessee player.
I choose not to remember Reggie White for his comments during a 1998 address to the Wisconsin State Legislature, invoking racial stereotypes. I choose not to remember Reggie White for his comments on ABC’s 20/20 regarding homosexuals. And, I would rather not have to remember the fact that his church in Knoxville (he was an associate minister) was burned to the ground in 1996 during a time when several predominantly African American churches were dealt a similar fate.
I choose to remember Reggie White as he was on a crisp November 1982 afternoon in Jackson, Mississippi. I took my soon-to-be wife to her first Tennessee game. We had just begun our new lives as a couple in New Orleans, and so it felt natural to drive a couple of hundred miles north to christen her into her adopted faith. The Vols were a mediocre team that season, finishing 6-5-1. But, Reggie was seemingly everywhere on that afternoon, a man among boys. The defensive end in the orange pants and white jersey was utterly dominating in a comfortable 30-17 win. It has been and still remains a pleasant memory. In my mind’s eye, the Minister of Defense still looks better in an orange jersey than all the others he wore after leaving his native Tennessee. Always will.