Each Sunday, Reggie white lines up at defensive left end for the Philadelphia Eagles and prepares to meet disaster. It can come in any number of ways: a 300-pound tackle flying down the line of scrimmage at him from the blind side, or a 240-pound fullback delivering a cut block, or just a jumble of bodies—teammates and opponents alike—falling across the back of his legs. "Getting caught in the wash," the players call it.
The bigger the star, the bigger the target he is for the special mayhem devised to stop him. And no star is bigger than the 6'5", 285-pound White. In the living room of his house, which he shares with his wife, Sara, and two small children in Sewell, N.J., are 12 Eagle game balls. In Philadelphia's press book, under Honors Received by Eagles in 1988, White has 17 mentions (including his third consecutive start in the Pro Bowl), five more than quarterback Randall Cunningham. In an SI poll conducted this year, in which NFL players were asked to choose the best defensive player in the league, the 27-year-old White was named on an amazing 38% of the ballots, more than three times as many as any other performer.
Oh, White gets paid very well to put everything on the line each Sunday—$6.1 million for four years, under the terms of the contract he signed in August. But his career could be ended in the blink of an eye. All he needs to avoid catastrophe are eyes everywhere, an uncanny feel for where disaster is coming from and the athletic ability to avoid it an instant before it arrives.
Case in point: Oct. 8, 1989, the Eagles versus the New York Giants on a cloudy, cool day in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Philly figured to be New York's main competition for first place in the NFC East, and the Giants had special plans for White. In their first meeting of the previous season, White had 2½ sacks. In the second, he knocked Giants quarterback Phil Simms out of action. The Eagles won both games.
November 27, 1989
This time, two Giants—245-pound tight end Mark Bavaro and 275-pound tackle Doug Riesenberg—would occupy White most of the game. Plus, on occasion the Giants would line up three tight ends on White's side. "Just to give him something to think about," said Giants offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt before the game. "Just another scheme to try to control him. Of course, we have other plans for him too."
White made his presence felt on New York's fourth play from scrimmage. Three tight ends were lined up on his side. "I knew it was a run coming my way," said White later. Bavaro and Riesenberg double-teamed him. White stayed high, fought the blocks with his favorite move, the rip—an uppercut with the right arm—split Bavaro and Riesenberg and tackled running back O.J. Anderson after a two-yard gain. It was the kind of play the speed-rush ends, the spin-and-agility guys, would never have made.
"In high school and college you're taught to hit the ground on a double team," says White. "Here you're expected to take it on. I get double-teamed on every play, so I expect it. Sacks are great, and they get you elected to the Pro Bowl. But I've always felt that a great defensive lineman has to play the run and the pass equally well."
White takes great pride in the 133 tackles he made last year—96 of them unassisted—to go along with his league-leading 18 sacks. In 1987, when his 21 sacks were one shy of the modern NFL record, he had 76 solo tackles. After Philadelphia's 10-9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, he had 50 unassisted tackles and seven sacks for 1989, and he has led the Eagles in quarterback "hurries" all year.
"The 133 tackles last season is the most satisfying to me," he says. "The defensive ends I respect most are the ones who play both the run and the pass—Charles Mann of the Redskins, Howie Long of the Raiders. Guys in Minnesota, for instance, just come off the ball and go upfield. We have to read. The so-called men of the game pride themselves on being complete players."
White got his first sack of the Giants game on New York's second series. He sprinted past Riesenberg, with a right-arm rip and a shoulder slap with his left hand. Both moves were performed with the speed of a featherweight throwing a combination. White circled in from a wide-angle rush, leaning to his inside like a cyclist going around a velodrome, and swooped down on Simms before the ball could be released.
That one play demonstrated the essence of what makes White superior: power, hand-eye coordination and speed. He has been clocked by the Eagles at 4.69 in the 40. That's more speed than a 285-pound man should be allowed to have.
"Oh, yeah, he can kill you with his speed," says San Francisco 49er tackle Harris Barton, who faced White earlier this year. "But if you overplay it and open up too wide, he'll bull-rush inside and you're finished. The first thing you have to worry about is his power. If he gets his hands into you, then he's like an offensive lineman—hell drive you right into the backfield. You've got to be perfectly balanced, and you can't let him get those hands into you."
Dale Haupt, Philadelphia's defensive line coach, remembers seeing White play at Tennessee in the early 1980s, before White signed with the Memphis Showboats for a two-year stint in the USFL. "What you really noticed was his strength and explosion," says Haupt. "He was just bull-rushing his guy backward. He had the speed, of course, but he didn't have much finesse. When he came here in '85, he had picked up the rip move, but since then he's learned other things to go with it. He'll fake the rip, then pull his arm out and club with it to knock the guy off him. A couple of years ago he sacked [Washington quarterback] Doug Williams, grabbed the ball from him and ran for a touchdown."
White's strength is God-given. He didn't spend much time in the weight room until recently. He began weight training this off-season, according to Ronnie Jones, the Eagles' strength and linebacker coach, "but he had bench-pressed 425 before that, unbelievable for a guy without much training."
Late in the first quarter of the Giants game, White lined up over center Bart Oates in Ryan's 46 defense. In 1986, when Buddy Ryan took over as coach in Philadelphia after being defensive coordinator of the Bears, he started moving White to different positions, as he had done with defensive tackle Dan Hampton in Chicago. "That way we can scare the hell out of a whole bunch of people instead of just one," says Ryan.
This was the second time in the game that White had lined up over the center. The first time he had gotten off the ball late, Oates had pulled him down by the jersey and Simms had scrambled for 14 yards. "Oates is very good at it. snatching you down like that," says White. "No, I didn't say anything to him, not that time. Next time, maybe."
But the next time, White was through the center-guard gap before anyone could react. He wound up crashing into Simms, forcing an incompletion and a Giants punt. When Haupt graded the films, he credited White with a hurry. White would have seven hurries that day. It is a statistic that never appears on the official tackle and assist sheet.
Disaster loomed on the second play of the second quarter, White's third appearance over the center. New York's blocking scheme was brutal. Oates stood White up, and Jumbo Elliott, the Giants' 6'7", 305-pound left tackle, came flying down at White's knees. The maneuver is universally feared by defensive linemen. It's known as the wipeout block or, among some players, the bastard block. Elliott, not the most agile of linemen, picked a weird way to perform it. He did a somersault, giving White a pair of flying feet to worry about. White barely pulled his knee back in time.
"It's a vicious blocking scheme," says White. "It can wipe a guy's knee out, but you can't complain because it isn't illegal, not on a running play, which that one was. On a pass, yes, it's illegal, but it's seldom called. All you can do is try to be aware of everything happening around you—keep the searchlights going, we call it."
Soon New York was leading 10-0, and the Eagle fans were getting bored by their team's lethargic offense. If they had focused on the action in the pits, though, they would have seen White's best play of the day—not a tackle or a sack or a hurry, but a survival. While Riesenberg blocked White on a running play, fullback Maurice Carthon dived low to the outside, his legs whipping toward White's ankles. A pile formed, and Riesenberg went for White's back, trying to push him over the pile or into it. White moved like a matador—a quick skip backward to avoid Carthon's legs, a spin to get away from Riesenberg—and he ended up walking away from the floundering mass. You had to see the play in slow motion to appreciate his grace and dexterity.
Watching the tape of the play in Haupt's office, White sees nothing unusual. It's something you have to do. If you don't, you won't line up next week. "You don't say, 'O.K., now I'm going to pull my ankle away, now I feel pressure from the back, so I'll spin,' " he says. "It's all reaction. Sometimes I have to look at the film to find out what happened.
"You don't say to yourself, 'Gee, that one could have ended my career.' I only thought about that once, when I saw Joe Theismann's [career-ending leg] injury on TV. That really scared me more than anything. For a few weeks I couldn't get it out of my mind. You see something that bad, you start thinking about yourself. You say, 'God, that could happen to me.' "
God. It's not a word White uses lightly. He's an ordained Baptist minister. He has preached since he was 17 in more than 100 churches. His mother, Thelma Collier, says that when he was 12 he wanted to be two things—a football player and a minister. White says his idol while growing up in Chattanooga was a preacher named Reverend Ferguson.
"A white minister in an all-black church," he says. "Reverend Ferguson was the greatest man of God I ever saw. He had a way with kids and teaching. I always wanted to be a Christian, but I never knew how. He said that understanding was the first thing I had to know."
White tithes to two churches, one in Tennessee and one in New Jersey. "Some players find this hard to understand," he says. "They ask me, 'You really do that?' I say, 'Yeah, I have to give it back to the Lord.' They say, 'That's a lot of money, man' "
No one, it seems, has ever heard him curse. He won't fight on the field. "Maybe a little pushing or shoving sometimes, but that's it," says White. Two years ago he decided that he was no longer fit to preach, because he lacked the necessary knowledge. "God was pulling me out of preaching," he says. Since then his religious activity has taken the form of further study and participation in church programs, discipleship he calls it. "That's his commitment," says Sara, whom he met in church at college.
The inevitable question arises: How can White reconcile the brutality of football—the fact that he can say, "Every time I have a chance to get a lick in on Phil Simms, I've got to take it"—with his devotion to Christianity? "That's something I've had to live with all my life," he says. "When I was a child, I was always bigger than the other kids. Kids used to call me Bigfoot or Land of the Giant. They'd tease me and run away. Around seventh grade I found something I was good at. I could play football, and I could use my size and achieve success by playing within the rules. I remember telling my mother that someday I would be a professional football player and I'd take care of her for the rest of her life.
"When I sign an autograph now, I write next to my name II Corinthians 7:9-11, which preaches repentance. But I used to write Colossians 3:23, 'And whatever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.'
"I believe that I've been blessed with physical ability in order to gain a platform to preach the gospel. A lot of people look at athletes as role models, and to be successful as an athlete, I've got to do what I do, hard but fair. That's the only reason I'm playing the game. I don't go around preaching in the locker room, but I try to live a certain way, and maybe that'll have some kind of effect. I think God has allowed me to have an impact on a few people's lives."
For a while he didn't have much impact on the press. His responses to reporters sometimes bordered on sermons. "When we played at Soldier Field in '86, it was a big game for us—you know, Buddy Ryan's return to Chicago," says Eagle p.r. director Ron Howard. "After the game, the locker room was swarming with media. They went over to Reggie, who wasn't very well known then, and asked him some questions. When he started talking about religion, there were all these clicks, like it had been scripted. Ten tape recorders all being shut off at once. Reggie said, 'I guess I scared you off.' "
In the third quarter of the Giants game, the Philadelphia defense took command. White got his second sack. He lined up at noseguard and beat Oates and 290-pound right guard Eric Moore, who grabbed a piece of White's jersey and pulled him down, drawing a flag. White rolled to his feet and ran Simms down for a four-yard loss.
"Coach Haupt wrote, 'Great Hustle!' on my grade sheet," says White. "Sounds like kid stuff, that something like that is important to you, but it is. You want to be complimented."
The game had one more dramatic moment involving White. Late in the third quarter the Giants ran a power rush at him, behind the three tight ends. Everyone went down in a heap, and White didn't get up. His right elbow, on which he had undergone surgery in '83, was hurt on the play. He lay on his back while the trainers tended to him and the stadium got quiet. "It was a sharp pain, but it went away," he says. "Our trainer said, Take a rest. Don't get up until you're ready to come back in again.' So I lay there."
White's mother was watching the game on TV with other members of the family in Chattanooga. "Everyone got scared," she says, "but I told them, 'He's just resting. He'll be back in." That happened once before, in a game in college when he hurt his ankle. I told everyone he was just resting."
Was he just resting then? "No, he missed the rest of that game and another one too."
The Eagles scored on two Cunningham runs, one late in the second quarter, another early in the fourth, and on a two-yard plunge by Anthony Toney with a couple of minutes remaining, to take a 21-19 lead. The win was locked up on New York's first play after Toney's touchdown, when nickelback William Frizzell intercepted a Simms pass.
After the game, White sought out Lawrence Taylor. "He'd injured his elbow," says White. "He was really hurting. I asked him if he was all right. I said, 'Both of us got two sacks and both of us got hurt elbows.' He just nodded. We shook hands."
When the grades for the game were given out by the Philly coaches, White got a 92. Clyde Simmons, the defensive right end, was high man with a 96. But the marks didn't take into consideration the fact that White had fought off two, sometimes three blockers. "No, I don't grade that," says Haupt. "Reggie expects it. Special people get special treatment."