From Siberia to Titletown

Green Bay was once known as the NFL's version of Siberia. The arrival of Reggie White didn't quite make it the Garden of Eden, but he certainly helped put the woebegone franchise back on the map.

When the book is closed on this chapter of the Green Bay Packers, the main characters will be former general manager Ron Wolf, former coach Mike Holmgren, quarterback Brett Favre and White. The arrival of White helped put the "title" back in Titletown.

"He's part of a quartet that turned this franchise around," Packers president Bob Harlan said of that foursome.

Luring White to Green Bay seemed little more than a dream. He was part of the first NFL free agency period in 1993, and was courted hot and heavy by marquee teams such as Washington, San Francisco and the New York Jets and Giants. While those teams wined and dined White and his wife, Sara, the Packers simply talked football. While White wanted to make a difference in a troubled community during his free time, Green Bay was as middle class as middle class can be.

"I had to be honest. I wasn't sure we had a prayer in the world because there wasn't any talk about him coming to Green Bay," said Harlan, noting that it was only the constant pestering to his agent that landed a "courtesy" visit.

Even White didn't think he'd wind up here.

"Reggie and I talked about it several times (thereafter)," Harlan recalled. "He said, ‘I had no intention of ever coming to Green Bay. But once I got here, it was a totally different story.'

"I think maybe it sank in with the tradition that was here. Whatever it was, it was a godsend."

The tradition was the hook, Wolf guessed.

"I told him, ‘You're already a great football player. Come here and you'll be a legend,' And a legend he is," Wolf recalled, adding: "To this day I don't know what sold him on us other than everybody was real."

Maybe it was Holmgren's legendary phone call.

"Reggie, this is God. Go to Green Bay," Holmgren said in a voicemail to White.

Having Favre didn't hurt, however. White separated Favre's shoulder while a member of the Eagles. Favre stayed in the game, however, and that moment stuck in White's mind.

"That was the game that proved to me that Brett was going to be the player that he is today," White recalled several years later. "I knew he had separated his shoulder. When he came back out, the first thing that ran through my mind was, ‘This guy's going to be good.'"

Favre turned out to be great. And White was as great as advertised. With Favre throwing the ball and White making life a living hell for opposing quarterbacks, the Packers returned to the top. They reached the playoffs following White's first season in Green Bay, got to the NFC championship after the 1995 season and won the Super Bowl following the 1996 campaign.

"Had it not been for Reggie, we don't make it to the Super Bowl. That's how important he was to the team," Favre said.

White was his dominating best in the Super Bowl. Engaged in an unexpected dogfight against New England, White used his famed "club move" — in which he used his amazing strength to simply shove aside the offensive lineman with one arm — to record back-to-back sacks of Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe to stem the tide. The Packers won 35-21, with White collecting a Super Bowl-record three sacks.

It was hardly a one-man show, however. With White showing the rest of the league that Green Bay was a great place to be, he helped lure a cadre of talented players such as tight end Keith Jackson, defensive tackle Santana Dotson and defensive end Sean Jones.

"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."

Beyond that, he was the ultimate leader. Even with his immense talent, White worked as hard off the field as he did on it. His enthusiasm was contagious. He was a rare athlete who could lead by words and lead by example.

"I think his enthusiasm and his fun playing football," Holmgren said when asked what stood out about White. "I've never seen a guy enjoy it more. It was contagious. He set the tone for the whole football team that way. You couldn't help but get caught up in it."

White concluded his Packers career when he retired after the 1998 season. Despite a bad back, he went out with a bang, tallying 16 sacks to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second time. He remains Green Bay's all-time leading sacker with 68 1/2 — recording 13 in 1993, 8 in 1994, 12 in 1995, 8 1/2 in 1996, 11 in 1997 and 16 in 1998. He came out of retirement to play for Carolina in 2000 and had 5 1/2 sacks to finish with 198 in his career. He stands second on the NFL's all-time list after being passed by Buffalo's Bruce Smith. It took Smith 19 seasons to accomplish what White did in 15; and none of White's 22 1/2 sacks from his two years in the USFL do not count in his amazing total.

"I don't know if Reggie had a weakness as a player," Wolf said. "It's like Bum Phillips once said about Earl Campbell, ‘I don't know if he's the best, but it won't take long to call the roll.'

"He had everything — his size, his speed, he was amazingly strong, unbelievably quick. He'd give you that club move he had where he'd get by (linemen) in a heartbeat and head right for the quarterback."

Packers coach Mike Sherman, who saw a television program about White on Thursday and called him before departing for the game against Minnesota, said White is a one-of-a-kind legend.

"I don't think there ever will be another player like Reggie White," Sherman said. "I hear his name thrown around sometimes, when you're comparing players or watching tape of college guys. I don't think there ever will be another guy like him, that put the fear in offensive linemen like he did.

"I think he won some plays just out of fear alone. Not that his ability 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."


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