Each Sunday, Reggie white lines up at defensive left end for the Philadelphia Eagles and prepares to meet disaster. It can come in any number of ways: a 300-pound tackle flying down the line of scrimmage at him from the blind side, or a 240-pound fullback delivering a cut block, or just a jumble of bodies—teammates and opponents alike—falling across the back of his legs. "Getting caught in the wash," the players call it.
The bigger the star, the bigger the target he is for the special mayhem devised to stop him. And no star is bigger than the 6'5", 285-pound White. In the living room of his house, which he shares with his wife, Sara, and two small children in Sewell, N.J., are 12 Eagle game balls. In Philadelphia's press book, under Honors Received by Eagles in 1988, White has 17 mentions (including his third consecutive start in the Pro Bowl), five more than quarterback Randall Cunningham. In an SI poll conducted this year, in which NFL players were asked to choose the best defensive player in the league, the 27-year-old White was named on an amazing 38% of the ballots, more than three times as many as any other performer.
Oh, White gets paid very well to put everything on the line each Sunday—$6.1 million for four years, under the terms of the contract he signed in August. But his career could be ended in the blink of an eye. All he needs to avoid catastrophe are eyes everywhere, an uncanny feel for where disaster is coming from and the athletic ability to avoid it an instant before it arrives.
Case in point: Oct. 8, 1989, the Eagles versus the New York Giants on a cloudy, cool day in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Philly figured to be New York's main competition for first place in the NFC East, and the Giants had special plans for White. In their first meeting of the previous season, White had 2� sacks. In the second, he knocked Giants quarterback Phil Simms out of action. The Eagles won both games.
This time, two Giants—245-pound tight end Mark Bavaro and 275-pound tackle Doug Riesenberg—would occupy White most of the game. Plus, on occasion the Giants would line up three tight ends on White's side. "Just to give him something to think about," said Giants offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt before the game. "Just another scheme to try to control him. Of course, we have other plans for him too."
White made his presence felt on New York's fourth play from scrimmage. Three tight ends were lined up on his side. "I knew it was a run coming my way," said White later. Bavaro and Riesenberg double-teamed him. White stayed high, fought the blocks with his favorite move, the rip—an uppercut with the right arm—split Bavaro and Riesenberg and tackled running back O.J. Anderson after a two-yard gain. It was the kind of play the speed-rush ends, the spin-and-agility guys, would never have made.
"In high school and college you're taught to hit the ground on a double team," says White. "Here you're expected to take it on. I get double-teamed on every play, so I expect it. Sacks are great, and they get you elected to the Pro Bowl. But I've always felt that a great defensive lineman has to play the run and the pass equally well."
White takes great pride in the 133 tackles he made last year—96 of them unassisted—to go along with his league-leading 18 sacks. In 1987, when his 21 sacks were one shy of the modern NFL record, he had 76 solo tackles. After Philadelphia's 10-9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, he had 50 unassisted tackles and seven sacks for 1989, and he has led the Eagles in quarterback "hurries" all year.
"The 133 tackles last season is the most satisfying to me," he says. "The defensive ends I respect most are the ones who play both the run and the pass—Charles Mann of the Redskins, Howie Long of the Raiders. Guys in Minnesota, for instance, just come off the ball and go upfield. We have to read. The so-called men of the game pride themselves on being complete players."
White got his first sack of the Giants game on New York's second series. He sprinted past Riesenberg, with a right-arm rip and a shoulder slap with his left hand. Both moves were performed with the speed of a featherweight throwing a combination. White circled in from a wide-angle rush, leaning to his inside like a cyclist going around a velodrome, and swooped down on Simms before the ball could be released.