It was 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning when the senior producer of CBS' NFL Today show came into a room I was sitting in with Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason and Shannon Sharpe and announced that Reggie White passed away earlier in the morning.
The first thought I had about the man I tried to recruit to the New York Jets was, "That's impossible." How could a man who seemed invincible on the football field and inspirational off the field be gone at such a young age?
I had the pleasure of knowing White from the days of battling the Packers to acquire his services, and whenever I saw him, we would talk about our time in New York with his agent, Jim Sexton. At the time, I asked White what the most important thing he was looking for above and beyond the football experience, and he said, "I'd like to save the planet."
White was a terrific human being who not only accepted the role model image so many athletes deny they are responsible for, but relished in helping people everywhere. Young players, poor people living on the streets of Philadelphia and unwed mothers who needed a place to raise their children were just some of the issues he was trying to lend a hand to when I knew him best.
I took him to a luncheon with some of the most concerned New Yorkers at a restaurant in Harlem in hopes of showing White why he could make the biggest impact if he came to New York. The people in the room on 125th Street that day all shared a very special experience with a man who inspired all of us and invigorated those at the table that they could get things done with or without him because of the energy inside them. He was amazing in so many ways. Humble, powerful and real were the thoughts that I had of him when we left that meeting.
Was there a football player who was better at what they did for their team than White? He took a defense ranked 23rd in the NFL when he arrived in Green Bay without any significant personnel changes and pulled it to the top of the league. He was the first big free agent in the NFL, and to this day may be the most important player ever signed.
When White spoke, people listened. While he was on his visit to the Jets, he held a press conference and a reporter asked him would he ever really consider joining the Jets. He said he would if they had a top quarterback like Boomer Esiason. We traded for Boomer the next day.
The last time I spoke with White was in the Packers' weight room a little over a year ago. I was surprised to see the retired defensive end at the facility. He was sitting on a bench talking to a young player about what it took to be a great Packer. It was great to see him back in Green Bay doing what he did best: lending a helping hand to anyone he thought needed his help.
When he decided not to join us at the Jets, a colleague of mine said that the missed opportunity probably changed my professional life. I really felt that whether he ever signed with us or not didn't matter. Just meeting the man and spending enough time with him to know that he meant it when he said he would like to save the planet changed me. I was just one of the lucky ones who had their life touched by a very special person who also happened to be a great football player.