Bill Bates saw the talent and the passion in Reggie White before nearly anyone else, back when they were teammates at Tennessee more than 20 years ago.
"He was so raw then,'' Bates said. "The talent was there, he just hadn't found it yet.''
On Wednesday, Bates was one of the many mourners who streamed into a funeral home to say farewell to the NFL great during a public visitation.
White died three days earlier at Presbyterian Hospital in Huntersville, a northern suburb of Charlotte.
A preliminary autopsy report showed White might have died because of a respiratory disease combined with other health problems. Determining a final cause of death might take up to three months.
Bates, a former safety with the Dallas Cowboys, played against White for years in the NFL, but their friendship transcended the game.
"Reggie was just a great person,'' Bates said.
"Everyone knows what kind of ambassador he was for the NFL. He was a fun-loving guy.''
White's family released a statement through spokesman and confidant Shawn White thanking everyone for their support.
"Reggie lived the essence and the spirit of life by faith,'' the statement read. "The entire family and our extended families have cherished and will continue to cherish every moment and memory of him.''
Mourners began lining up at A.L. Jinwright Funeral Service about 2 1/2 hours before doors opened at 3 p.m., and fan Orlando Jenkins was one of the first 10 through the door to view the open casket.
He donned a replica of White's No. 92 Green Bay Packers jersey, a prized possession he handed down to his stepson a couple of weeks ago.
On this day, Jenkins needed it back.
"He was a very positive man,'' Jenkins said. "Everybody knows he was a minister, and he was trying to teach those other guys about life. It's real sad.''
A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and ordained minister who was known as the "Minister of Defense,'' White played 15 seasons with Philadelphia, Green Bay and Carolina. The 43-year-old retired after the 2000 season as the NFL's career sacks leader with 198. The mark has since been passed by Bruce Smith.
A member of the NFL's 75th anniversary team, White was elected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 straight times from 1986-98. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1998.
Outside the funeral home -- the same one that held services for Charlotte Hornets guard Bobby Phills and Panthers tailback Fred Lane -- giant cards were set up for visitors to sign.
Harriet Jinwright, who runs the business with her husband, J.L., said authorities told her to expect between 5,000 and 8,000 people to attend the viewing. A private funeral for White's family and friends will be held Thursday at an undisclosed location.
Current Panthers players Brentson Buckner and Mike Minter didn't plan to attend either service.
Minter cited his game-week schedule, while Buckner admitted he felt uncomfortable in that type of setting.
"I'm just bad with things like that,'' he said after Carolina's practice Wednesday. "My wife is going to go pay respects for us. I want to go, but I'm not good with death.''
Although White had already retired by the time Buckner joined the Panthers, the two defensive linemen hit it off immediately when they did meet.
"Being a fan of football, I can tell you everything about him,'' Buckner said. "Him playing at the University of Tennessee, in the USFL with the Memphis Showboats, with the Eagles and the Packers.
"When I got a chance to meet him, I was just like a little kid.''