CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There was no warning, no lingering illness, just the shocking news Sunday that Reggie White was dead.
On the day after Christmas, one week after his 43rd birthday, the rock of a man known as “the Minister of Defense” during his NFL playing career was gone.
“I still don’t believe it,” said Eugene Robinson, a teammate of White with the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers. “When I saw it flash on television … I said `I’m not even going to fight my tears. I’m just going to cry.'”
Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who coached White with the Philadelphia Eagles, said he had to close his door when he heard the news.
“I was overwhelmed,” said Fisher. “Reggie was larger than life, one of those guys you thought would live forever.”
Cornelius, N.C., police received a call from White’s wife, Sara, at 6:57 a.m. Sunday. An ambulance took him from his Lake Norman home to Presbyterian Hospital in Huntersville, N.C.
The cause of death was uncertain, but Sara White said through a family pastor that she believed her husband died of respiratory failure related to his sleep apnea, which he has had for a number of years. Police said they are not investigating the death. It was unclear whether there would be an autopsy.
Funeral arrangements, being handled by the A.L. Jinwright Funeral Service in Charlotte, were incomplete.
“Today our beloved husband, father and friend passed away,” Sara White said in a statement. “His family appreciates your thoughts and prayers.”
White is survived by his wife and their two children – son Jeremy, a freshman at Elon University, and daughter Jecolia, a junior at Hopewell High.
By early afternoon Sunday, cars and SUVs crowded the driveway and street in front of the Whites’ home. An off-duty Cornelius police officer was monitoring traffic.
White is considered one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, an almost certain first-ballot inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next year when he becomes eligible.
He was a ferocious pass-rusher and run-stopper from the defensive end position, ranking second on the league’s all-time sacks lists with 198.
He was drafted out Tennessee by the United States Football League’s Memphis Showboats in 1984, and when that league folded after two seasons he joined the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, who held his rights.
In the NFL, White was selected to a record 13 consecutive Pro Bowls (1986-98) with the Eagles and Packers, and was named defensive player of the year in `86 and `98. He was chosen to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.
He also had impact for today’s players. In 1993, he was a plaintiff in a suit against the NFL that set up the league’s current form of free agency.
White retired after the `98 season and moved to the Charlotte area. He had 5.5 sacks in a comeback with the Panthers in 2000 as Carolina went 7-9.
“Like everyone who knew Reggie White, we are saddened and shocked by his passing,” said Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. “We were fortunate to get to know him during the season he played with the Panthers and he remained a good friend of the team after his playing career. We’ll miss him.”
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called White a gentle warrior. “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,” said Tagliabue.
White was an imposing figure at 6-foot-5, 300-plus pounds, with a gravelly baritone voice.
“You remember when and where you shook his hand for the first time,” sand Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. “He carried that kind of stature.
“He was one of those special people who had an affect on everybody he met.”
Family friend Keith Johnson, a former NFL chaplain, said White had gone to see the movie “Fat Albert” Christmas night with family.
Another close friend, Rick Joyner, pastor of MorningStar Fellowship Church, said the Whites recently purchased and received a certificate of occupancy for a new mountain cabin. “It’s just a tragedy for him to leave like this,” said Joyner. “I think he certainly had one of the great lives of anyone I know. He probably lived more in 43 years than most people live in a lifetime.”
White was widely known as a devout Christian involved in numerous ministries around the country and in Charlotte.
“Reggie was a man who had a heart for God, a man who challenged people to walk with God,” said former Panther Tshimanga Biakabutuka.
Said former Carolina linebacker Kevin Greene:
“What Reggie did on the field can’t compare to what he did off the field and what kind of person he was. I told him not there’s too many guys I tell them I love them. But I told him I loved him. A lot of people loved him. You have to stand in line when you say you loved Reggie.”
White had some detractors, too, especially after making controversial remarks to the Wisconsin state assembly in 1998. White called homosexuality a sin according to the Bible, and said anyone who practiced it made a conscious decision to do so. He also pointed out differences in ethnic groups that some considered stereotypical.
White told the Observer after signing with the Panthers in 2000 that he stood behind his remarks. He said he stood against sin, not sinners, and that his comments about ethnic groups was merely to point out how God made people differently.
“Reggie never, ever meant to make any kind of disparaging remark about anybody,” said Joyner.
In recent years, friends say, White intensely studied ancient Hebrew to learn more about the original language that was translated into the Old Testament of the Bible. His studies connected him with the Jewish community.
“I’ve never, ever in my life seen anybody devote themselves to wanting to know the truth like Reggie,” said former Panthers defensive back Leonard Wheeler, a close friend who participated in Bible studies with White. “Jesus spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, and Reggie wanted to understand what the Messiah spoke.”
Wheeler said he received a voice mail message from White on Saturday night, but didn’t immediately return it because it was so late when he heard it. When Wheeler called White’s private number Sunday morning, White’s son Jeremy answered and tearfully shared the news that his dad had passed away.
“It was so surreal,” said Wheeler. “It just puts everything in perspective.”
Charlotte Observer Staff writers Pat Yasinskas, Stan Olson, Ken Garfield, Rick Rothacker and Kytja Weir contributed to this article.