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.
firefighters couldn't do much when they answered the emergency call to Skyline
Drive on Jan. 8, 1996, 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 that 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 N------ and DIE N----- 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, "The
black church is more than a place of worship. 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.'"
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 after 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 was
addressed to White. Not long afterward someone in a pickup truck drove down the
long tree-lined lane to White's home and seemed to be casing the house. 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."
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