Payton says the hardest hit he has ever taken in the NFL was a head-on collision with White in a 1977 playoff game. "I had to come out," he says. Even Waters, White's erstwhile teammate, knows the feeling: "We were blitzing against the Eagles, and the quarterback stepped aside, and I flew past him and hit Randy in the stomach. It knocked me out and broke my helmet. The first thing I remember was Randy leaning over me, shaking my face mask. 'Charlie, you still with us?' he said."
Assistant head coach Joe Bugel of the Redskins says White is so fast that he has offensive guard Russ Grimm practice blocking a variety of players, even wide receivers, in order to approximate White's quickness. Bugel says it's "like using sparring partners. In games I assign a couple of people to [White] now and then. You don't want to show him any lack of respect."
So is the best player in the game really a defensive tackle? A so-called down lineman? Let's equivocate for a minute. What have been our notions about defensive linemen over the years, beyond their having laid-back ears—as in "he really laid his ears back to make that sack"—and flared nostrils and a glazed, subhuman look? Offensive linemen were thought to be reflective, controlled and highly skilled at following intricate game plans. Defensive linemen didn't respond to game plans but to exhortations such as "Kill, Bubba, kill." They grunted a lot. And drooled. And as the television commercials still suggest, they thought the way you got a birdie in golf was to throw your club at one.
The image was never accurate, of course. The best and brightest athletes on the field have often been on defense, and the better defensive linemen were rugged individualists who nevertheless were disciplined enough to know exactly when to make things happen.
It was in the late '70s that the NFL's rules committee, conspiring against the mayhem that had characterized the game, made radical changes. It effected, in fact, an almost diametric reversal of the linemen's roles. In pass blocking the offensive lineman was granted what amounted to holding privileges. He was no longer obliged to keep his fists to his chest. Instead he was allowed to fully extend his arms and make liberal use of his hands—to reach out, reach out and touch just about anyone he wanted to. "Look how much more area they can cover now," says White, spreading wide his own arms. "It's like trying to get past two men." The defensive lineman, on the other hand, was saddled with more and more restrictions. No more head slaps. No more clubbing or clotheslining or brutalizing of quarterbacks. No more gratuitous violence.
Now it's the defensive player who has to have better technique, and think faster on his feet, and somehow find a way to get through the picket lines of flailing hands and arms. The defensive lineman had to become a superior player, or else he would never set hands on a quarterback again. Pass rushes would be things of the past.
Enter White and, to a lesser degree, the Dallas "flex," a defensive scheme that, in essence, goes against a player's natural instinct to attack at will. Lilly used to say that "by the time you've learned the flex, you're too old to play it," but he exaggerated. White says "it's not that complicated." But then, the tattoo on his thigh is a roadrunner, not an anvil. Because he's so fast and strong and smart, he has thrived on the flex. It's second nature to him now—so much so that he's not its captive but its champion. "I'm surprised more teams don't use it," he says.
In Super Bowl VI, in '72, Lilly sacked Miami's Bob Griese for a 29-yard loss on a play from which the Dolphins never recovered. In Super Bowl XII, in '78, White and Harvey Martin were named the most valuable players after intimidating Denver's Craig Morton, helping force eight turnovers and limiting the Broncos to 156 yards in total offense (35 passing). Since then, free-lancing more and more within the system, White has made All-Pro six straight times (Lilly did it seven times, six consecutively).
Even if you can't always see them, White is constantly contributing game breakers. By forcing every team to double-and sometimes triple-team him and still generating pressure, he "disrupts the flow," says Cole. He puts an offense out of sync. He forces teams to devise new blocking schemes, says offensive line coach Tom Bresnahan of the Giants. Bresnahan has a standing order that any time a blocker is free he's "to look for Randy White"—presumably from sometime early in the week. By making offenses run away from him. White allows Dallas to load up its defense in other areas.
Through it all White continues to make big plays himself—over and over again. In the last three minutes of the opening game this season, playing without benefit of a full training camp—he'd held out to the last day—and with the Rams driving for what would have been the tying touchdown. White broke through a double team on a fourth-and-one at the Dallas 29 and stopped Eric Dickerson cold. "The Manster is back," said Dallas's other defensive tackle, John Dutton. Two weeks later at Dallas's home opener, there were signs displaying the same sentiment, Manster being the nickname Waters hung on White, denoting "half man, half monster."