Reggie White dies at 43

Flags at Lambeau Field were lowered to half-staff, and fans, former teammates and football aficianados across the country were stunned Sunday morning at the news that Reggie White died unexpectedly late Christmas night at age 43.<P>

White, who celebrated his 43rd birthday just a week ago, is believed to have died of respiratory failure related to sleep apnea, according to wire services and a statement released by Reggie's wife Sara White through the family's pastor.

The future Hall-of-Famer died in the early hours of Sunday morning at his home in Huntersville, N.C.

"Today our beloved husband, father and friend passed away," Sara White said through the pastor. "His family appreciates your thoughts and prayers as we mourn the loss of Reggie White. We want to thank you in advance for honoring our privacy."

The team had plans to retire White's number before his death — his jersey was retired during a 1999 ceremony — according to team president Bob Harlan. Harlan said he and White had discussed it several times but no date had been finalized.

"On Christmas Eve, (coach) Mike Sherman and I were talking about it on the plane back from Minnesota," Harlan said. "I told him I wanted to do it before we have to do Brett's number. Mike said, ‘Let's do it at the opener next year.' What a great idea, I said. Unfortunately, we didn't get it done in time."

White, a former Packer, Philadelphia Eagle and Carolina Panther, retired following the 2000 season and was the NFL's all-time sacks leader. The mark has since been surpassed by Bruce Smith, but White will always be remembered for his fitting moniker, the "Minister of Defense."

"Reggie White was a gentle warrior who will be remembered as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "Equally as impressive as his achievements on the field was the positive impact he made off the field and the way he served as a positive influence on so many young people."

White compiled 198 career sacks with the Eagles (1985-92), Packers (1993-98) and Panthers (2000). He went to two Super Bowls, both with the Packers, and helped bring the Vince Lombardi trophy back to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI, following the 1996 season.

"He was just a wonderful player, first of all," said former Packers coach and current Seattle coach Mike Holmgren. "Then as a person, he was just the best. He was one of the leaders, along with Brett Favre, of our football team in Green Bay."

White was the Packers' first major free-agent acquisition and played a huge role in the Packers' return to the Super Bowl. His signing helped lure other cogs to those Super Bowl teams, including defensive end Sean Jones, defensive tackle Santana Dotson, linebacker Seth Joyner and tight end Keith Jackson. The latter two played with White in Philadelphia.

White signed for four years and $17 million in 1993, a surprising decision that he said was based on God's calling.

"That's what changed the football fortunes of this franchise. It was huge," Harlan said. "Everyone thought the last place he would sign was Green Bay and it was monumental because not only did he sign but he recruited for Green Bay and got guys like Sean Jones to come here. He sent a message to the rest of the NFL that Green Bay was a great place to play and before that this was a place people didn't want to come."

White helped the Packers reach the NFC championship game following the 1995 season and then win the Super Bowl following the 1996 season. Against New England, he recorded three sacks of Drew Bledsoe and dominated the second half of the 35-21 victory. The Packers got back to the Super Bowl the next season but lost to Denver.

He was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, earning the honor in 1987 with Philadelphia and 1998, his final season in Green Bay. He went to the Pro Bowl a record 13 straight seasons, from 1986-1998. He missed only one game during his career and was a member of the NFL's 75-year team.

Despite making his mark in Philadelphia, White had said he wanted to enter the Hall of Fame as a member of the Packers, saying those were "the most memorable years of my career."

He retired after the 1998 season with Green Bay but came out of retirement to play on season for Carolina in 2000. He finished with only 5.5 sacks.

"Reggie's records and accomplishments say it all," said George Seifert, who was White's coach in Carolina. "He is a Hall of Fame player and possibly the best defensive lineman ever to play the game."

White made his mark off the field as well. White, an ordained minister, helped with the creation of hundreds of small businesses through his Urban Hope program. Through Urban Hope, White helped with money and training for budding entrepreneurs. He was an advocate for inner-city children, as well.

"As great a player as Reggie was, he was a better person, and it isn't close. Every life that Reggie touched is better for it. This is a very depressing day," Lions CEO Matt Millen said.

Before coming to Green Bay, the Whites spent many hours talking to Philadelphia youth about the dangers of drugs and alcohol as well as the importance of getting an education.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of one of the greatest men ever to play the game of football," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement.

White's sterling reputation was scarred after his career during a speech to the Wisconsin Legislature when he bashed homosexuals and made comments that could have been construed as racist toward Asians and Hispanics.

When his Tennessee church burned down, thousands of fans sent roughly $250,000 — often in $92 increments — but the church was never rebuilt. White was not accused of any wrongdoing but Jerry Upton, a church leader and close friend of White, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on cocaine trafficking in 2000. Law-enforcement officials at the time were dubious on Upton's answers about the missing money but no charges were filed.

When he signed with Green Bay, White had said he wanted to move to Milwaukee to start a ministry. That didn't happen.

Those, however, are but blemishes on a life that was infinitely more positive than negative.

"I'm a better person for having been around Reggie White," Holmgren said.

The news comes midway through some bonus time off for the Packers, who already were reeling from a series of events through this calendar year. Vice president of player personnel Mark Hatley died suddenly before the season began, and quarterback Brett Favre has suffered a series of personal tragedies including the death of his father and brother-in-law, and the diagnosis of his wife's breast cancer. In the last month, Nick Barnett's father and Donald Driver's father-in-law died. Longtime coach and scout Red Cochran died, as well.

"This has been a year filled with not only ups and downs on the football field, but ups and downs in life," Harlan said. "It's amazing how it affects this organization and the family that this organization stands for."

Harlan said the team would hold a tribute for White before the home playoff game that will be played on the weekend of Jan. 8-9.

— Bill Huber of contributed to this report

Packer Report Top Stories