PHILADELPHIA — During his days in the National Football League, Reggie White was listed at 6 foot 5 inches and 300 pounds. But if you asked anyone who ever played against him, they would tell you that he played even bigger, that he might have been the greatest gridiron warrior to line up on the defensive side of the ball.
But, as demonstrated from the national outpouring following his death this week at 43, reportedly from respiratory disease and other health complications, White’s legacy transcended his ability to sack the quarterback. He became the archetype of a new breed of Bible-thumping, Jesus-loving, God-praising athletes unashamed to wear their religion on their jersey sleeve.
Nicknamed the Minister of Defense, White was a clergyman, ordained at the age of 17, who was dedicated to helping the poor.
During his football career, White would tell people he’d been motivated to become a great player so that he could get more people to listen to him as he spread the word of God. In an October interview with NFL Films, White described his realization that he had been a motivational speaker, rather than a teacher of the word, during his playing days.
“His point was, it was presumptuous to think that something as silly as a game was necessary for people to recognize the importance of God in their life,” said Ray Didinger, a senior producer at NFL Films. According to Didinger, White insisted, “I decided I needed to read God’s word in its original form and draw my own conclusions, not ones that had been passed on to me.”
To that end, in the past year, White had stopped preaching and attending church entirely, instead spending up to 10 hours a day studying and translating Hebrew, according to Didinger, who visited White at his North Carolina home in October.
“There was a young Hebrew scholar in Israel that Reggie would talk to on the phone a couple of times a week, several hours at a stretch,” Didinger said. “He would talk Reggie through a lesson and he would practice it.”
Didinger recalled White saying that his new studies were a lot tougher, requiring much more discipline than playing football required.
“When we went down to visit him, he took out the Old Testament and he started reading it and then translating it for us,” Didinger said. “It was an amazing thing to see.”
Cynical fans who bristled at his displays of public devotion probably will be happy to learn that White had soured to a degree on the idea of ministering through big-time athletics. Other detractors will wonder whether White was finally prepared to show a bit more love to all his neighbors — in particular the gay ones he bitterly disparaged.
White, a star with the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, was strongly criticized in some circles for a 1998 speech to the Wisconsin legislature, in which he invoked several racial and ethnic stereotypes. But the aim of White’s unintentional ode to Archie Bunker and George Jefferson was to convey a noble point: “God made us different because he was trying to create himself. He was trying to form himself, and then we got kind of knuckleheaded and kind of pushed everything aside.”
No such attempt can be made at downplaying White’s long history of verbal swipes against gays and homosexuality. On several occasions, he was quite clear on his literal reading of the Bible: Homosexuality is a sin, and gays have the choice to stop sinning. Furthermore, he felt America was courting divine punishment with its increasing approval of the gay “agenda.”
With such remarks, White undoubtedly struck some as bigoted and small minded. Yet those who played with the man or covered him knew that nothing could be further from the truth: Reggie White was a giving, selfless person, without any hatred in his heart.
When White would lead prayer groups on the field immediately after the games, they included both teammates and opponents. He embraced players and coaches of all races, though he never shied away from talking about discrimination that he felt infused many corners of American society.
Off the field, he would wrestle with the social plight facing black Americans and establish programs to help minister and support poor people trapped in decaying inner-city neighborhoods.
The final destination of White’s Hebrew-laced journey was unknown, but his ability to love and grow was clear.