Sometimes Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White just talks. Other times he sounds like the evangelical minister he is. He's testifying. His cadence quickens. His raspy voice rumbles with emotion. His brow furrows and his eyes narrow. Times are hard. "But you know what?" White says as he attains full fervor. "We can't stand for this. And we won't." He's telling you this in this way because, God knows, that's the way it makes him feel. His deep voice is growling now. He says there are some things he wants people to know about the awful morning that his Inner City Community Church burned, the walls buckling and the pews turning to ash.
Knoxville, Tenn., firefighters couldn't do much when they answered the emergency call to Skyline Drive on Jan. 8, shortly after four in the morning. Inner City Church sat burning on its hilltop, and the telltale smell of kerosene hung in the air. According to published reports, in the wee hours of a Monday, someone had placed kerosene, gunpowder and at least 18 Molotov cocktails in the church, ignited the blaze and fled. They left behind graffiti on an outside wall that read, DIE NIGGER and DIE NIGGER LOVERS.
Five months later, White, an associate pastor at the church, sits inside his suburban Knoxville home on a midsummer afternoon and lets out a gust of a sigh. "Someone burned another church in North Carolina last night," he says. His phone is ringing off the hook. Today, he has already agreed to do a CNN show, a radio call-in program and four print interviews. "I'm angry," he says. "I'm fed up."
As of Sunday there have been suspicious fires at more than 70 predominantly black churches across the South since 1995; a similar number of fires have been reported at white churches in the region. Many of the arsons are believed to be racially motivated, although authorities say there is no pattern to suggest that the fires are the work of any one group. To White the arsons appear to be an act of intimidation and hate, a blow meant to terrorize the black community in a way that setting fire to a black-owned bank or car dealership never could. As Nelson Rivers, southeast regional director of the NAACP, puts it, "Burning churches sends a message to African-Americans because the black church is more than a place of worship. It was a safe haven our leaders met in during the civil rights movement. It's a place where we historically have come to find repose and restore self-respect. During the rest of the week a man might be abused with some racial slur like 'boy.' But on Sunday in church, he became 'deacon' or 'mister.' "
White has continued to bring attention to the church burnings, although Inner City senior pastor David Upton has received at least two death threats since the fire. In the days alter the blaze, a vitriolic hate letter was received at the Knoxville community investment bank that White founded. A postcard with singed corners and racist epithets was sent to church offices a couple of weeks later. It carried a Wisconsin postmark and was addressed to White. Not long afterward, someone in a pickup truck drove down the long tree-lined lane to White's home—past the two-foot-high letters on the front gate that read JESUS is LORD—and seemed to be casing the house. Last month a bank employee found a suspicious package at the back door of the building. Authorities feared it was a bomb, but it proved to be a hoax. Reggie says his wife, Sara, and their two children, 10-year-old Jeremy and eight-year-old Jecolia, have long accompanied him on trips. But he also concedes, "The family has been with me more than ever this year."
White fatalistically speaks of getting "knocked off and asserts that he's "willing to die for the things I believe in." Yet he insists that he does not fear for his safety.
Moments later a side door to his house swings open, and Sara enters. A beam of sunlight slants in. The signal on the security system beeps twice, indicating the system is on. It's one in the afternoon.
That White would find himself at the forefront of another battle is hardly surprising. His life has a rolling topography: It has been a series of triumphs and setbacks in which his pursuit of an NFL championship and his commitment to his ministry have seemed at odds. Then, almost magically, things somehow work out. Asked to explain this phenomenon, White will break into a smile and say. "God spoke to me. And he said...."
At 34, White is probably two years away from the end of his remarkable NFL career. He's the league's career sack leader. He'll be remembered as the biggest star to attach his name to a 1992 lawsuit that helped revolutionize free agency in the NFL. Players and coaches will recall his 4.6 speed in the 40 and the python embrace he clamped on ballcarriers. They'll laugh about his Herculean strength, which allowed him to toss aside a 320-pound lineman with one arm, and his habit of helping up the same foe with a reminder that "Jesus loves you." He'll leave the game an authentic hero, an overused phrase in sports that truly applies to him.
During five of his eight seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, White was the fulcrum of coach Buddy Ryan's body bag defense and the moral center of a talented team that White believes should have won at least two Super Bowls. When Eagles owner Norman Braman refused to ante up the money to keep White from leaving as a free agent in 1993, thousands of fans gathered in Philadelphia's JFK Plaza for a "Rally for Reggie." Braman only dug his heels in deeper. At a downtown awards luncheon later that month, White couldn't bring himself to say goodbye. He buried his head in a napkin and cried as a crowd of more than 300 gave him a prolonged standing ovation. When he could finally speak, White tearfully said, "I didn't give up on the Eagles. It seems as though the Eagles gave up on me."