Historical Note: In October 1974 the Dallas Cowboys traded quarterback Craig Morton to the New York Giants for the right to pick second in the '75 NFL draft. Atlanta, which chose first in that draft, selected Cal quarterback Steve Bartkowski. The Cowboys then drafted Randy White, a defensive lineman from Maryland. This sequence is recorded in the two pages devoted to RANDY WHITE in the 1984 Dallas media guide. However, the bio omits mention of what happened next. Picking third, the Baltimore Colts selected Ken Huff, a guard from North Carolina. Next, the Chicago Bears selected a running back from Jackson State named Walter Payton.
Question: We all know what the Colts would have done if that draft were done over, but what about the Cowboys? Would they still pick White over Payton?
Answer: You betcha.
To all those who labor in the shadows that others might shine, let it be known that the folks in Dallas—knowledgeable fans and Cowboy management alike—have come to this conclusion: The best player on their team is a lineman. Not a quarterback, running back, pass receiver or defensive back—none of those so-called skill-position players in whose hands the ball, and most of the money, is usually found, but a grub among the butterflies, a defensive tackle. And White has the paycheck to prove it. He gets more money than any other Cowboy ever has, an estimated $800,000 annually for five years. That will take him to his 36th birthday and retirement. There's some property involved in the package, with guaranteed appreciation, which is, of course, the way they do things in Big Deal (Roger Staubach, for instance, owns the field the Cowboys practice on). If we are to believe the figures made available for public contemplation, White earns $300,000 more per year than Dallas quarterback Danny White and $400,000 more than running back Tony Dorsett, the other principal capitalists among the Cowboys.
October 21, 1984
But here's the tip-off: Nobody minds. On the contrary. When White held out for 39 days this preseason—and for a while it looked as if he might not come back at all—fellow Cowboys wore armbands of mourning (actually the colored bands cut from the tops of sweat socks) with White's number, 54, on them. At practice they taped messages to the Dallas management across the backs of their helmets: WHERE'S RANDY? Some also taped the frequently correct answer: FISHING. "Give him the moon," one Dallas player advised management. "He deserves it."
Part of this feeling could be traced to the current state of the Cowboy offense, coach Tom Landry's show of shifts, feints, bluffs and coveys of men in motion that befuddles a few rookie TV cameramen but almost no one else anymore, certainly not Washington, which held the Cowboys to two touchdowns in a 34-14 rout on Sunday. Despite that score, it was interceptions and offensive misplays that opened the door for the Redskins. At least the Dallas defense has retained some semblance of its former stature. White is its physical catalyst and spiritual leader.
That's in part because White is such an enormously appealing fellow. Make that enormous and appealing. He's 6'4" and 265 pounds, with a neck that looks like a section of the Alaska pipeline. And White is the strong, silent modest type a Texan would naturally want to wrap his heart around. "If John Wayne were alive, he'd want to be Randy White," says one Dallas newspaperman. "Not play Randy White, be Randy White. I guaran-damn-tee you."
Some of those who think White is the best lineman in the game today consider him a throwback, a player who loves the game so much for its own bone-bending sake that he'd play it for nothing if the Cowboys didn't have so much dough to throw at him.
He wouldn't. He's dedicated, but he's not dumb.
What he is—and this, we shall see, is the core of his success—is the quintessential modern player, stronger and faster and smarter than a defensive tackle could have dreamed of being in the past. That's why Dallas's vice-president of personnel development, Gil Brandt, says he would, indeed, pick White again over Payton ("But wouldn't it be great to have them both?") and why former Cowboy Charlie Waters, a teammate of White's for six seasons, might be right on the mark when he says White isn't just the best lineman in the game today, but also the best player, period.
"Bob Lilly was the best in his day," says Waters, a former All-Pro defensive back who now owns a commercial real-estate company. "Today Randy White is simply the best football player in America. He has been for a few years."
White would never say such a thing. Blue-collar heroes don't talk like that. Blue-collar heroes are straightforward guys who say, as White does, that college was "what I went to so I could play football and chase girls," and "as much as I hate to admit it, that's all I ever really wanted to do."
A sly smile lifts the corners of White's bushy brown mustache. "Play football. It's still the most fun I have," he says. "The rest of it, the awards and things, don't mean much. There are a lot of awards." When White won the Outland Trophy as the best college lineman of 1974, his late father, Guy, called from up home in Wilmington, Del. to congratulate him. "Oh, you heard?" said Randy. "Yeah," said Guy. "O.K., well, goodnight," said Randy.
White says things like "Football isn't really that complicated," and "I just do my job," and that he "has no idea" what he'll do when his playing days are over, but "it won't be selling real estate or working in a bank." Once, in his teens, he laid bricks. "I made good money. I enjoyed it," he says. That part, of course, is the throwback in him, and though it has nothing to do with his football ability, it contributes to the appealing image. What you see, happily, is what you get.
White does not drive a Mercedes, he drives a pickup. He doesn't have a condominium in Vail for the off-season, he has a 22-acre farm in Landenberg, Pa. His widowed mother, La Verne, lives on it, too. He doesn't attend premieres or make the gossip columns. And he doesn't read the stock quotations. He goes out for a beer instead. He chews tobacco, and comes from a long line of men who did. (His maternal grandfather could chew tobacco and his dinner at the same time.) He has been married only once, and his vivacious 5-year-old daughter, Jordan, wears him around her little finger like a signet ring. He has a tattoo. And a yellow Labrador named Daisy. And the tails of his plaid shirts obviously were meant to be out.
On off days, White goes fishing, and he's good at it. Sometimes he fishes all night. He takes karate lessons, ostensibly to find better ways to discourage offensive linemen from holding. On a night out, he's willing to try the posh Mansion restaurant downtown to satisfy a Dallas visitor, but on his barrel chest a coat and tie look like silly decorations on an upright freezer. Giggling, expensively groomed women ask for his autograph and promise to "sleep with it tonight," and when they leave. Randy says, "They probably thought I was Danny [White]." He's at home at Campisi's Egyptian on Mockingbird Lane, where there's a ravioli named in his honor, and at Joe T Garcia's, where the proprietor brings him platters of nachos and settles in at his table.
White is also a sucker for animals. One summer when the Cowboys wound up training in California he hid a stray mutt in a cardboard box and took him home on the team plane, because he'd heard that the local dogcatcher would kill dogs that were found hanging around after camp broke. He's loyal to friends, ever patient with reporters asking cliché questions and long-suffering with fans.
White's new $500,000 house in north Dallas is handsome and formal, with plenty of marble and parquet and a pool of Italian tile; the man himself is handsome and informal, and looks out of place there. In 1978, when he married Vicci Hanes, a Dallas model, he didn't tell anybody except teammate Burton Lawless, who had arranged for Randy to meet Vicci. She prefers the house, he prefers the farm.
Vicci treats strangers like process servers—"She hides," says Randy, who calls her Smiley when she reappears and chides her about her absences—and frequently turns down invitations to social events. Many times Randy accepts them and goes without her.
Having had difficulty blending what appears to be contrasting natures, they were separated briefly a couple of years ago. Randy discovered then that independent as they seemed, life apart—and apart from Jordan—wasn't the answer. He says he now thinks they are making a better go of it because, "When you get to know her, Vicci's really a very warm, entertaining person." And he admires her competitiveness. "She even tries to beat me bass fishing."
Competitiveness is an attribute White much admires in anyone. When his mother visits Dallas, he ridicules her views on football, and he has been known to tell hair-raising stories about her fights in the stands when he was a high school player in Wilmington. "I looked up one time and she was using her umbrella on a guy," he says. But when he drives her to the airport he walks her all the way to the gate and waits to be sure her flight gets off safely.
When White shows a friend through his house in Dallas, he pauses at the 10½-pound bass mounted on a den wall and tells of the thrill he had catching it, but he dismisses the Out-land Trophy and the Lombardi Award (also for best college lineman) as "dust gatherers." "There were a lot of guys who played just as hard and as well as I did those days," he says.
But, of course, there weren't. Probably not as well, certainly not as hard.
Landry says no one ever played football with more intensity than White, except perhaps Ernie Stautner. A square-rigged man with aluminum-colored hair that looks as if it were hammered into his scalp, Stautner, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, played his way into the Hall of Fame as a 235-pound tackle with the Steelers in the '50s. He was listed as being six feet tall then, but the pounding apparently cost him a couple of inches. He had to undergo surgery on both hands recently for the damage done whamming helmets for 20 years. The pain was keeping him awake nights.
Stautner loves White. He reminds him of himself. If the head slap were still legal (it was banned in 1978), Stautner says, "Nobody would ever be able to block Randy." And as for intensity, Stautner says that not even the Cowboys' great Lilly, another Hall of Famer, could match White's relentless pace. "I don't say either one was better, but by comparison, Lilly was more up and down," says Stautner.
"Why was that?" he's asked.
"Lilly was human," Stautner says, with a hint of a smile.
White and Lilly are often compared because Lilly virtually passed the baton to White after the 1974 season. But White spent two years at linebacker before switching to tackle, while the Cowboy coaches played out a Brandt fantasy. He saw White as the successor to Lee Roy Jordan in the middle. What threw that idea off the rails was that White's "legitimate" 4.6 speed forward applied only to one direction. He never learned how to go backward.
Lilly was naturally strong. In college, at Texas Christian University, he used to pick up Volkswagens, from one end and then the other, and move them onto sidewalks to make room to park his car. White made himself strong. After playing fullback and linebacker at 210 pounds in high school, he was told by Maryland coach Jerry Claiborne that if he wanted to be an All-America he would have to make it as a lineman and he'd have to get a lot bigger. White didn't need a dormitory after that—he lived in the weight room. Russ Potts, then the Maryland promotions director, recalls seeing the lights on at night and hearing clanking noises and saying, "That must be Randy." White now bench presses 501 pounds, the Cowboy record.
Both Lilly and White have been almost impervious to pain. Lilly once pulled his own tooth in the locker room, using a pair of pliers. He played 14 years without missing a game. White played the 1979 season with a broken bone in his right foot. He was kept out of one game that year because of it.
Lilly was said to be "quicker." He once "intercepted" a hand-off from Minnesota quarterback Joe Kapp in the Viking backfield. White is "faster." In a game against Philadelphia in 1980, he was rushing quarterback Ron Jaworski when Jaworski passed over the middle to wide receiver Scott Fitzkee. White turned in pursuit, and 49 yards downfield ran Fitzkee down. Witnesses still marvel over the play.
Lilly was more animated than White, says Larry Cole, who played for seven years with Lilly and six with White. "Lilly bitched and moaned a lot," Cole says. White is more stoic, but he has what Stautner calls "a mean streak," which is not to be confused with being a dirty player. Nobody ever accuses White of being that.
Waters says White's "a guy who'd love to have you throw the first punch, if you're stupid enough." White never makes the first.
Other Cowboys say that to mess with White is to reveal a serious flaw in your education, but because he usually keeps his mouth shut—Waters was impressed initially by White's "great modesty"—there have been times when even a teammate couldn't resist messing with him. Linebacker Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson said a little too much in the dressing room one afternoon after practice, and compounded that with a slap to White's face. White quickly put Henderson on the floor. "Thomas," he said, "let's just let this drop right now." But when he got back up, Henderson didn't let it drop. White then stuffed him in a locker.
Players on other teams interpret White's intensity as simply a matter of "never letting up," and their testimony bears witness to the effect it has. Guard Billy Ard of the Giants says White "never gives you a play off," and if you're not up for every one, he'll knock you on your reputation. John Hannah of the Patriots has said the butterflies in his stomach turn to eagles when he plays against White.
Lilly now says he would "love to have played on the same team as Randy." It's the opinion of Cole, who did, that if you were in the mood to start a franchise, you could do a lot worse than beginning with those two. What Lilly and White have in common is something not ordinarily associated with their position—the ability to alter the course of play, to apply the "game breaker's" heavy touch. In other words, to have such impact that the other team's offense gets thrown off course.
Well then, in the final analysis, is it a reasonable conclusion or just minty-fresh brainwash to say that White really is worth more to the Cowboys than Walter Payton is to the Bears? On the basis of their teams' relative success—Chicago hasn't had a whole lot, you may have noticed—you would have to say so. But is it reasonable to argue that White is just as much a "game breaker"? Probably not, considering that most good defensive play is reactionary and never makes the box scores. Even sacks and interceptions and fumble recoveries aren't reliable statistics because they are often caused by someone other than the person credited.
Certainly White's physical attributes stand out clearly enough. See a local offensive player for an estimate. San Francisco guard John Ayers says White "has no weaknesses." Halfback Joe Washington of the Redskins says the only way he can block White effectively is to "hold, tackle and grab." He says the sensible thing to do when you know you're going to have to tangle with him is to "call in sick." To Waters, White is "like a shark in water. Nothing's wasted. You know those love handles everybody has? The rolls at the waist? I jabbed him there once. His were as hard as biceps."
Offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick of the 49ers exclaims over White's "excellent techniques"—such as his lightning-quick "escapes" and "shakes," the moves (a thrust or a jab or a swing of the arm) that get him past a block.
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."
Without White, the Cowboys gave up 278 yards passing to Green Bay in a preseason game. With him, seven weeks later, they held the Packers to a net 82 and were credited with six sacks, two by White, for minus 39 yards. Almost every running play that worked for Green Bay that day went to the side of the field away from White. White's play late in the game was typical of his contribution. White stuffs a run at the line of scrimmage, no gain. White occupies both the guard and the tackle and leaves an alley open for a blitzer to sack quarterback Steve Wright—minus three yards. Wright rolls away from White's side to pass, but White beats two blockers and chases Wright, who makes a hurried throw that flutters to the ground incomplete. Green Bay punts. "Where the hell did White come from?" asked a Packer assistant coach.
As good an answer as any is this: from lifelong immersion in athletics. A three-sport star at Thomas McKean High, White was consumed by athletics. He was good enough at baseball—hitting .500 his junior and senior seasons—to have scouts Jocko Collins of the Orioles and Peanuts Lowrey of the Phillies come around for a look, and by then he was already demonstrating the competitiveness that is his bright, particular trademark.
"Randy was playing first base," says his baseball coach at McKean, Earl Batten, "and this kid on the other team got on. The kid had a big mouth, and he took a long lead, taunting us. Our pitcher kept throwing the ball over there, and every time the kid got up from beating the throw he told Randy we were wasting our time. About the sixth throw, Randy kind of backhanded him in the face with his glove, knocked him off the bag and tagged him out."
White never picked up a baseball again after high school. His father had other plans. Guy, a butcher, had played three years of football at West Chester (Pa.) State. He wanted his son to go to college, and he wanted his son to play football. "He made the decision," says Randy, "but it really wasn't a big deal. From the time I was nine, that's all I wanted to do anyway. But the truth is, I didn't have much of a choice as to where I would go. Our high school team won five games in two years. I didn't even make first team all-state. In Delaware. [He made second team, as fullback and linebacker.] Only three colleges were interested. I went out and had a look at Arizona State. Maryland was closer." Virginia Tech really wasn't in the running.
It's an hour and a half up I-95 from College Park to Wilmington. White drove it every weekend. "I had a girl there, which was some incentive, but I really just wanted to be home," he says. And as the mileage on his Dodge Challenger rose, so did two much more significant numbers—his weight and Maryland's national ranking. It was not a coincidence.
Jerry Claiborne, a Bear Bryant disciple, had been brought in to coach the Maryland team in 1972. The Terrapins had made one of those Bottom 10 rankings the year before Claiborne arrived. They were weak, and they were small. Claiborne ordered up a weight-training program. At the time. White had just completed a season as a 212-pound fullback and defensive lineman on the freshman team. Against Virginia he ran 17 yards for a touchdown the first time he carried the ball. Maryland publicist Jack Zane never forgot the scene. "All 11 Virginia players had a shot at him," says Zane. "He carried three of them into the end zone. They looked like they were riding a streetcar."
But before White's sophomore season Claiborne called him in and said no more fullback, "not if you want to make All-America and play in the pros." It sounded like a good deal to White. "I do," he said. The vows having been said, White headed for the weight room. In the ensuing two years he went from 212 pounds of fullback to 248 pounds of tackle, and from bench-pressing 260 pounds to 430. And Maryland moved from the Bottom 10 list to an ACC championship, the Liberty Bowl and the Peach Bowl.
As a senior White was a shoo-in for the Outland Trophy. Among his credentials was the fact that the season before, when Maryland played Penn State, he tackled John Cappelletti—the eventual Heisman winner—10 times, twice for big losses. (Years later, when Cappelletti was with the Rams, a White tackle would separate his shoulder.) Because of White's notoriety, Syracuse coach Frank Maloney, tried to neutralize him by using two offensive tackles directly in front of him, instead of a tackle and a smaller guard. When the tackles still couldn't block White, Maloney inserted a third, with no more success. Maloney called White "the greatest lineman I've ever seen." Such compliments apparently went unnoticed by White.
If by this time one personality trait had emerged besides his amazing single-mindedness—a girl who knew him then said White's idea of a date "was to go back to his room and watch a replay of a Maryland football game"—it was his inability to see himself as others did.
At the end of his junior season at Maryland, Claiborne's office ordered White to come in. While waiting outside, he asked one assistant, then another, "What's wrong? What'd I do?" He knew it was serious. Finally, Claiborne summoned him inside. "Congratulations," he said. "You made the All-America team."
When Landry reviews films of Cowboy games. White sits in the back and squirms, convinced that he's in for a dressing down—which of course never comes. Waters says White "used to do that even after he'd gotten the game ball. He'd sit next to Larry Cole and say, 'Bubba, he's going to get me today. I really screwed up this time.' And then Landry would say something like, 'Randy, if you'd stepped over here, the flex probably would've worked a little better.' Then he'd go on and really chew out the next guy. And Randy would sit there next to Cole shaking his head and saying, 'Bubba, they're really on my butt now.' "
Perhaps, in the end, it's this view of himself more than his physical prowess that serves White best. Certainly he seems unlikely ever to be satisfied with himself. He's absolutely incapable of being smug. It's an exercise in frustration to try to get him to remember the good parts of his life. Ask him about his college feats and he tells you about David Vissagio, a fellow defensive lineman who was "oblivious to pain." His dark, fierce eyes light up when he tells you of the time Vissagio crushed his finger with a 100-pound weight and, trailing blood, showed up at a party right on time. "Dave didn't want to miss anything," White says. But of himself, he's virtually dry of anecdote, or anything really positive. "I don't analyze," he says, "I just play."
The other day Tex Schramm, the Cowboys' president, was talking about White's holdout and how unthinkable a season without him was. A Dallas writer had compared White's action, in light of his well-established dedication to duty, with "John Wayne going gay." Schramm said it really didn't matter that much after all because he didn't know anybody who didn't have the very best thoughts about White. He said he wished he could have him "bottled."
Which, of course, should give White something to worry about next winter after he's been named All-Pro for the seventh straight time.