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Up from the ASHES
Johnette Howard
September 02, 1996
Packer Reggie White preaches that God can raise a man to the Super Bowl and a church from ruins
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September 02, 1996

Up From The Ashes

Packer Reggie White preaches that God can raise a man to the Super Bowl and a church from ruins

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He didn't want to leave Philadelphia. By then, Reggie and Sara were deeply involved in a street ministry. On Friday nights Reggie often coaxed teammates to join Sara and him in the north Philly projects, where the Whites would visit with large crowds. Reggie often returned to the same neighborhoods to lead weekday Bible studies, to volunteer his services to surprised church councils and to help at fund-raisers. He often told bidders at charity auctions, "I'm not just asking for your money, I'm asking for your time."

In March 1993, after the Eagles made it clear they were no longer interested in him, White embarked on a 37-day, seven-city tour that at times bordered on the ridiculous (Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell ordered a moratorium on profanity at team offices during the two days that Reverend White would be on the premises). The San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins were thought to be the finalists for White's services because White had said he wanted to go to a contender and to continue his inner-city work. "God will tell me where to go," he said. But when the Packers made an 11th-hour offer—a four-year, $17 million contract that would make him the NFL's highest paid defensive player—White took the money and went to play for a mediocre team based in the league's smallest city. Braman scoffed, saying White's decision "wasn't going to be made by a ghetto or by God. It was going to be made for the reason most human beings make decisions today: money."

It marked one of the few times White's integrity has been questioned. He's still irked by it. "I just thought, How dare Mr. Braman say that?" White says now. "Money was important, because I needed resources to continue the projects I wanted to do. But how dare he speak for what was in my heart? He doesn't know me. We had dinner. But he never walked down any streets with Reggie White."

Among the enduring images of last January's NFC Championship Game was the sight of White wiping the season's final sweat from his brow on the Packers' bench and bitterly telling a cameraman to stop recording his pain. Green Bay—fresh off its upset of the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers a week earlier—had led the Dallas Cowboys, soon to be the new Super Bowl champs, by three points with 10 minutes to play. Then Emmitt Smith split the Packers' defense for two touchdown runs. White was inconsolable. Green Bay's title run had stalled one quarter short of the NFC crown.

Though Packers quarterback Brett Favre was the NFL's MVP in 1995, White is held in equal, if not greater, esteem in Green Bay. About 2,000 fans attended White's first day of training camp as a Packer in 1993, and he stuck around long afterward to sign autographs. Favre, then a pup of 23, looked around and said, "I don't want to say [Super Bowl], but deep down I think we have a chance to go." The Green Bay Press-Gazette devoted the cover of its special football section to an illustration depicting White as Moses, holding a yard marker as a staff and leading the Pack to the promised land.

So what if it sounded like a reach? Green Bay had finished a modest 9-7 in 1992. Still, that was only its fourth winning season in 20 years. The Packers went 9-7 again in White's first year and not only made their first postseason appearance since the strike-shortened '82 season but also won a road playoff game, in Detroit. The defense leaped from a ranking of 23rd in '92 to No. 2 in '93. Coach Mike Holmgren said it was no mystery why. "Reggie has changed everything—the way we play, the other team's offensive scheme," he said. "And that's just one player. Some teams may have two or three guys with that kind of impact." Holmgren paused. "Can you imagine'?"

Green Bay's ascent hasn't stopped. Last season the Packers won their first outright NFC Central title since 1972. They trounced the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the playoffs and then stunned the 49ers 27-17. On the flight home from San Francisco, White—who had experienced only one playoff win with Philadelphia but already had four with Green Bay—sat down next to Holmgren and said, "Coach, I've never been this far. I just want to thank you." There was silence. Then Holmgren came up with a good punch line. "Nice try," he said. "But you still can't have my Bud Light."

White is the locker room sage to whom the younger Packers turn for inspiration or advice. Older teammates kid him about everything from his habit of calling team meetings—"He calls more meetings than Congress," says safety LeRoy Butler—to his staunch refusal to listen to almost nothing but gospel music during his and Butler's shared rides to practice.

White's teammates know that his preaching about putting the team first isn't just talk. Despite the meat-grinder nature of the position he plays, until last season he had never missed a nonstrike NFL game. After an All-America senior season at Tennessee and a two-year stopover with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL, he came into the NFL in 1985 saying that he wanted to be the best defensive lineman ever, and more than a decade later, he's still rolling toward quarterbacks like a wave of lava, burying whatever is in his path. He burns to win. His example has been contagious.

White gets after teammates he views as slackers. "When I got to Green Bay I told some of our guys, 'You make more excuses than anyone I've ever seen,' " he recalls. "We had some guys who walked around like they didn't care if we lost."

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