REGGIE WHITE'S 'PROFOUND IMPACT' UPON PACKERS TO BE RECOGNIZED; HIS NUMBER, 92, WILL BE FIFTH RETIRED IN TEAM ANNALS
This column also appears in the latest edition of *Packer Report.
The Green Bay Packers have been members of the National Football League since 1921, the second year of its existence.
Over those 84 years, they have had more than 1,000 players wear the team's green and gold during the acquisition of a record 12 league championships.
Only four of those have had their jersey numbers retired - a miniscule number, to be sure - all singularly honored for their multiple contributions to the Packers legend and mystique.
The obviously short list - Don Hutson, Tony Canadeo, Bart Starr and Ray Nitschke, all members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame - is about to expand with the addition of the late Reggie White's '92' to this exclusive fraternity.
Since White's sudden passing on Dec. 26, at the age of 43, Packers President Bob Harlan has confirmed that a formal retirement ceremony will be held next season - presumably in conjunction with the Packers' regular season opener in September.
Significantly, it will be the first such honor to be bestowed by the organization since 1983, when Nitschke's '66' was retired in a Lambeau Field ceremony (Dec. 4) and thus a final and appropriate testimonial to the "Minister of Defense" and his heroic contributions to the franchise.
In the interim, ironically, the team has had a moratorium on retiring numbers - one that Harlan was planning to suspend in light of Reggie's classic contributions - and the realization that another ceremony would inevitably need to be scheduled upon Brett Favre's retirement.
As a result, he had been discussing the timing of such a ceremony with Reggie since September of 2003, telling him to select the game during which he would want to be honored.
But, a man endlessly on the move via involvement in a variety of projects and causes, Reggie did not get back to him, presumably because he felt there would be ample time for such an event down the road.
An unfortunate twist of fate, certainly...For it is doubtful if any player in Packers history has had a more profound impact upon the franchise than the giant Tennessean, considered by many longtime pro football observers to have been the premier defensive end of all-time.
Larger than life, on and off the field, he was an electrifying and passionate performer, who had the rare capacity to raise his game to a new level, as circumstances necessitated.
But what set Reginald Howard White apart from his peers, more than anything else, was the sheer and imposing impact of his persona. He was a unique and charismatic leader who could singly elevate the play of his teammates to championship heights.
As great a player as Brett Favre is - and there are many experts who consider him the greatest quarterback ever to take a snap from center - he might have found it difficult to scale Super Bowl heights in the mid-90s without Reggie White to spearhead and motivate the defense.
And No. 4, assuredly, would be the first to echo that sentiment. In fact, he and Reggie quickly developed an ever-growing mutual admiration society, each of them consistently saluting the other's contributions to the cause.
Favre, in fact, paid his friend and teammate the ultimate tribute after hearing of Reggie's death Sunday, calling him "by far the greatest leader I've ever played with.
"Off the field, he did so much for so many people," Favre said. "He really reached a lot of people and was still involved in fund raising. He had just helped out a charity dinner of mine a couple of years ago and I helped him out with something last year. He was a great friend on and off the field."
Over the years they played together, White, in turn, made no secret of his admiration for Favre and what he meant to the Packers.
"I think there was a genuine love and respect between the two of them," Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "When the two of them got together you would see - in this day and age I know it's a hard word to throw out there - the love between the two of them."
Historically, Reggie's signing as pro football's premier free agent in 1993 has to rank among the three most significant acquisitions in Packers history - along with the pre-draft signing of the fabled Don Hutson in 1935 and the 1992 trade which brought Brett Favre to Titletown.
Ron Wolf, who led the Packers dedicated drive to sign White when free agency began in 1993, underscored the overall significance of Reggie's decision to come to Green Bay - far and away the smallest city in the NFL - while turning down lucrative offers from a number of other franchises.
"What he meant to us is indescribable," Wolf, now retired, said from his Jupiter, Fla., winter home. "At the time he cast his lot with the Green Bay Packers, he put us on the map as a serious player."
Harlan expressed similar sentiments, asserting that White's signing "opened up a whole new era of football in Green Bay."
Reggie himself also clearly realized how important his decision was to the Packers and their future.
"It changed the stigma that was on this team, that black players couldn't have fun up here, that the town was racist," he said following his retirement from the team in January of 1998. "I think by me saying 'I'm going to play for Green Bay' and then liking it here, it changed a lot of guys' attitudes, black and white. I think it made guys want to play here."
Reggie never made mention of it, but a touch of humor injected by Packers coach Mike Holmgren during the ongoing pursuit of No. 92 could have been a peripheral factor in his decision.
During a routine press conference prior to White's ultimate decision, Holmgren was asked whether there had been any progress in the wooing of White, and he deftly replied, "I put in a call for Reggie's home in Tennessee and there was no answer, so I left a message on his phone. I said, 'Reggie, this is God...Go to Green Bay.' "
There are those who feel that White, named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time team in 1994, may have been the most dominant defensive player ever to play the game, although there could be some sentiment favoring such as Deion Sanders, Lawrence Taylor and/or Ted Hendricks.
Be that as it may, Willie Davis, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was himself a premier defensive end with the Packers (1960-69), and he readily acknowledges that Reggie might well have been the most complete defensive end ever to play the game.
"Reggie could very well have been that one player," Davis said, adding, "His ability to play end with almost tackle skills and, ultimately getting outside and playing as a typical defensive end would play it today - when you take those two things and hook them together - Reggie could very well have been that player."
White, a Pro Bowl selection for a record 13 consecutive years over his remarkable career, began to unveil those spectacular skills for the Packers faithful in Week Five of the 1993 season, his first in Green Bay. Off to a slow 1-and-3 start, the Packers found themselves with a tenuous, 30-27 lead over Denver in a "Sunday Night Football" encounter - with the Broncos in possession of a first down at the Green Bay 43...the product of an interception, with 2:05 left to play.
After linebackers Johnny Holland and Wayne Simmons had stopped the Broncos' Rob Bernstein for no gain on first down and a John Elway pass to Shannon Sharpe was incomplete, Reggie took personal charge of the situation - as only he could.
With the redoubtable Elway in the shotgun on third down, White stormed into the Broncos' backfield and felled the Denver field general for an 8-yard loss.
On fourth down, with only 1:33 left, the Broncos had no choice but to go for it. With Elway again in the shotgun, White burst through a second time to prostrate Elway for a 14-yard loss - setting the Broncos back to their own 35-yard line and turning the ball over to Brett Favre to run out the clock.
It in turn, set off the first of many "Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!" chants that were to resound in Lambeau Field periodically for the better part of six more seasons - and establish Reggie as a legitimate folk hero.
He had other such episodes of dominance during his Titletown tenure, but chief among them would have to have been the "show" the Minister of Defense staged in Super Bowl XXXI at New Orleans in January of 1997.
Sensing victory after Desmond Howard returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to mount a 35-21 lead over New England late in the third quarter, Reggie proceeded to sack New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe three times, setting a Super Bowl record as the Packers "held serve" the rest of the way.
The first two sacks - for 8- and 6-yard losses - came on back-to-back plays following Howard's heroic, forcing a New England punt and sending a "message" to the Patriots.
Defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, a 40-year coaching veteran, later described White's exploits in classic terms. "This is the biggest game," he said, "and Reggie has his biggest day. That tells you something about him."
As dominating as he was on the field, Reggie White was an equally potent factor and influence off the gridiron. He had hardly settled in Green Bay and he was calling team meetings, something he did routinely during his tenure - whenever he felt the situation "called for it."
Mike Sherman, who was the Packers' tight ends coach during White's last two seasons in Green Bay (1997-98), summed up his unique football skills with succinct and meaningful appreciation.
"I don't think there will ever be another player like Reggie White," he said, simply. "I hear his name thrown around sometimes when comparing players and watching tape of college guys - and I don't think there will ever be another guy like him...that put fear in offensive linemen like he did. I think he won some plays out of fear alone.
"Not that his abilities didn't help in many ways, but there's not many people who wanted to line up against Reggie White - even at the end of his career."
There also, of course, was the gentle, God-fearing side of Reggie White, a warm-hearted human being and an ordained minister who preached his beliefs to anyone who would listen - anywhere - and who never was too busy to lend a helping hand.
Holmgren, his former coach, put Reggie's life in poignant and profound perspective.
"I'm a better person," he said, "for having been around Reggie White."