reggie white career retrospective

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Reggie White is the best defensive end ever to play the game. In this career retrospective, we’ll appreciate his greatness.

 

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Born and raised in Tennesse

Born and raised in Tennesse

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Reggie White was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was introduced to football at a young age and caught on quickly. During his senior year at Howard High School, White won All-American honors, logging 140 tackles and 10 sacks. One of the top recruits in the state, White committed to Tennessee University.

 

Reggie's faith

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A devout Christian, White became an ordained minister at 17. He was dedicated to using the gospel to better the lives of others. His faith guided him through his life. It also inspired his nickname, The Minister of Defense.

 

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College career at Tennessee University

College career at Tennessee University

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As a freshman, White was a rotational player on the defensive line.

He played a more significant role in his sophomore season, recording 95 tackles and a team-leading eight sacks. The Tennessee Volunteers capped their season off with a 28-21 victory over Wisconsin in the 1981 Garden State Bowl. 

White had 47 tackles and seven sacks in a junior campaign hindered by a nagging ankle injury. Still, White dominated in the Peach Bowl with eight tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble in a 28-22 loss. 

 

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White wins 1983 SEC Player of the Year

White wins 1983 SEC Player of the Year

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In his final college season, White recorded 100 tackles and a single-season school record 15 sacks. The Volunteers defeated the Maryland Terps 30-23 in the Citrus Bowl. White won the 1983 SEC Player of the Year for his sensational senior year. He was also an All-American. A surefire campus legend, his jersey number (92) has been retired by the Tennessee Volunteers. 

White was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

 

The USFL days

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White left college and joined the USFL instead of the NFL. The new football league wanted to secure as much talent as possible to rival the NFL. And the defensive end fresh out of college had what they were looking for. The Memphis Showboats selected him in the 1984 draft. The 6-foot-5 phenom terrorized quarterbacks and notched 23.5 sacks over his USFL career. 

The USFL folded in 1986. Most recently, a new version of the league had its inaugural season in 2022.

 

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The Minister of Defense arrives in Philly

The Minister of Defense arrives in Philly

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The Philadelphia Eagles signed Reggie White after the USFL folded. He was ready to prove he had what it took to succeed in the NFL. It was the beginning of something special. An NFL legend would rise in the City of Brotherly Love.

 

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Breakout rookie year

Breakout rookie year

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White took the league by storm in 1985. He piled up 13 sacks in his rookie year. White’s breakout season placed him among the premier pass rushers in the NFL.

 

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First Pro Bowl season in 1986

First Pro Bowl season in 1986

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1986 was another incredible outing for The Minister of Defense. The rising star logged 18 sacks in 16 games played. White earned First-Team All-Pro honors and went to his first Pro Bowl.

 

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Winning 1987 Defensive Player of the Year

Winning 1987 Defensive Player of the Year

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For the season opener, White strip-sacked Washington quarterback Doug Williams, recovered the fumble, and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown. The play set the tone for the rest of the season. In a lockout-shortened season, White racked up a league-leading 21 sacks in just 12 games. His superhuman performance awarded him AP Defensive Player of the Year honors. White also won First-Team All-Pro and a spot on the Pro Bowl roster.  

Imagine if Reggie White played an entire 16-game season in 1987. It’s entirely possible the stud pass rusher breaks the single-season sack record by a wide margin.

 

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Leading league in sacks in ’88

Leading league in sacks in '88

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White’s 18 sacks led the league in 1988. His relentless drive and brute strength gave would-be blockers fits all season long. He finished second in voting for Defensive Player of the Year, losing the award to Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary. 

His finest game of the year came against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 25, 1988. The Minister of Defense bulldozed his way to four sacks, a career-best.

In the playoffs, The Philadelphia Eagles lost to the Chicago Bears 20-12 in the Fog Bowl.

 

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Named to ’80s All-Decade Team

Named to '80s All-Decade Team

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Reggie White dominated in the 1980s, totaling 81 sacks in only five seasons. He had 10 sacks or more every season in the ’80s. The epitome of an impact player, White was named to the 1980s All-Decade Team. The scariest part: White was just getting started. 

 

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1991 Gang Green defense

1991 Gang Green defense

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The 1991 season marked the first time Buddy Ryan wasn’t White’s head coach since 1985. The defensive mastermind drew up effective schemes that got White to the quarterback. New head coach Rich Kotite took over the reins. Regardless of who was calling the plays, White notched 15 sacks and three forced fumbles, and a whopping 13 passes defended.

Franchise quarterback Randall Cunningham tore his ACL in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers. An aging Jim McMahon was the starter going forward. It would be up to the defense to pull the weight for a team missing their superstar. 

White anchored the number-one defense in the league. A formidable cast of Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Eric Allen, Jerome Brown, Wes Hopkins, Andre Waters, and Byron Evans made their presence known every game. Nicknamed Gang Green, this defense led the league in every major statistical category and is considered one of the best

Gang Green still missed the playoffs despite compiling a 10-6 record. Who knows how far this team could’ve gone if Cunningham had stayed healthy?

 

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Tragedy strikes the Eagles

Tragedy strikes the Eagles

Reggie White (92) and Jerome Brown (99) in action.
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On June 25, 1992, Eagles defensive tackle Jerome Brown tragically passed away in a car accident. He was 27. White announced the news to a shocked crowd at Veterans Stadium. A two-time Pro Bowler, Jerome Brown was on a path toward greatness when his life was taken too soon. White, Brown, and Clyde Simmons were on the defensive line of Gang Green, one of the greatest defenses ever. Brown’s jersey number (99) was retired by the Philadelphia Eagles.

 

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1992 Pro Bowl season

1992 Pro Bowl season

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The motto for the Eagles 1992 season was  “Bring it home for Jerome.” White racked up 14 sacks and three forced fumbles on the year, earning a Pro Bowl nod. The Eagles went 11-5. They beat the New Orleans Saints by a score of 36-20 in the Wild Card. They lost to their NFC East rival the Dallas Cowboys in a 34-10 loss. The heartbreaking loss was Reggie White’s last game as an Eagle. 

Over his eight years in Philly, White had 124 sacks in just 121 games.

 

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Leaving Philly for Green Bay

Leaving Philly for Green Bay

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The 1993 offseason was the first time free agency existed in the NFL. It gave birth to the Salary Cap/Free Agency era of today. NFL players had the right to test the open market and sign with a team willing to show them the money.

Instead of resigning with the Eagles, White embarked on a free agency tour. He was the most sought-after free agent. The Green Bay Packers made headlines when they signed White to a four-year, $17 million deal. The splash signing shocked fans and analysts. Green Bay, a small market team, was seen as an undesirable location compared to the San Diegos and Miamis of the world. Plus, the Packers hadn’t seen success since the Vince Lombardi era.

White flipped Green Bay’s fortunes and helped usher in a new era of winning football in Green Bay that is still going strong today. White, the first great free agent, helped set the standard for how football players should navigate free agency.

 

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Named to NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team

Named to NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team

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The NFL turned 75 in 1994. For the occasion, the NFL assembled a team featuring the best players in league history up until that point. Reggie White was voted onto the 75th Anniversary All-Time Team as a defensive end. He was one of the only active players inducted onto the legendary team.

 

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Could this be the year?

Could this be the year?

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White logged 33 sacks in his first three seasons with the Cheeseheads. At this stage of his career, White accomplished everything a defensive end is supposed to. The only thing he was missing on his resume was a Super Bowl. That would change in 1996.

Under head coach Mike Holmgren, gun-slinging quarterback Brett Favre commanded an excellent West Coast offense while Reggie White remained the heart and soul of the defense. The Green Packers went 13-3 in 1996 and crushed the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers to earn their first Super Bowl berth since 1967.

 

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The Green Bay Packers are Super Bowl champions

The Green Bay Packers are Super Bowl champions

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Super Bowl XXXI was a grudge match between the Packers and the AFC Champion New England Patriots. White didn’t shy away from the Super Bowl spotlight. The Minister of Defense harassed quarterback Drew Bledsoe all game, sacking him three times. The Packers won by a score of 35-21. It was his first championship at any level (Pop Warner, high school, college, the NFL). 

The Lombardi Trophy was back in Green Bay! White savored every moment of the post-game celebrations.

 

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Almost going back-to-back

Almost going back-to-back

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The Green Bay Packers were hungry for more. They went 13-3 on the year and were favorites to go back-to-back. White had 46 tackles, 11 sacks, and two fumble recoveries.

The Cheeseheads flattened the competition in the NFC playoffs, beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers by a combined score of 44-17. In Super Bowl XXXII, The Packers lost a close one against John Elway’s Denver Broncos, 31-24.

 

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Defensive Player of the Year at 37

Defensive Player of the Year at 37

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Reggie White played like a man on a mission in 1998. The NFL legend racked up 46 tackles, 16 sacks, and four forced fumbles. There were times during the season when White looked unstoppable. At 37 years old, he became the oldest player ever awarded Defensive Player of the Year honors.

 

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First retirement

First retirement

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After winning Defensive Player of the Year, White decided it was time to hang up the cleats. He retired at the end of the 1998 season. There was nothing left for the legend to prove.

 

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Named to 1990s All-Decade Team

Named to 1990s All-Decade Team

Reggie White going after fellow great Barry Sanders
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White was named to the 1990s All-Decade Team. His totals for the decade are 503 tackles, 111.5 sacks, 23 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries, and three interceptions. As a member of the ’80s and ’90s All-Decade Teams, White became one of the only players selected to two all-decade teams, exemplifying the longevity of his dominance.

 

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Signing with the Carolina Panthers

Signing with the Carolina Panthers

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White took the 1999 season off in retirement. But the gridiron called him back. White signed a five-year, $20 million contract with the Carolina Panthers. He piled up 16 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and a forced fumble in 2000. It was his last season in the NFL before retiring for good.

 

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Retiring as NFL’s sack leader

Retiring as NFL's sack leader

Reggie White being double-teamed against the Detroit Lions
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Reggie White retired as the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 198. In 2003, he was passed on the all-time sack list by Bruce Smith, who has 200 career sacks. However, if we factor in White’s 23.5 sacks with the USFL, his career sack total is 221.5. This makes him professional football’s all-time sack leader.

 

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Reggie White’s tragic death shocks NFL world

Reggie White's tragic death shocks NFL world

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Reggie White died on December 26, 2004, from arrhythmia. He was 43 years old. His death shocked the NFL world. A true legend, his legacy lives on as one of the greatest defensive players of all time.

 

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Posthumously enshrined into Hall of Fame

Posthumously enshrined into Hall of Fame

Sara White giving her enshrinement speech
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White was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame as a member of the 2006 class. His wife, Sara, and his son, Jeremy, gave enshrinement speeches in his honor.

 

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Honored by Eagles and Packers

Honored by Eagles and Packers

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Both the Eagles and Green Bay Packers retired White’s jersey number (92). He was also inducted into both teams’ Hall of Fames respectively. Reggie White is the Eagle’s all-time leader in sacks with 124.

 

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Named to All-Century Team

Named to All-Century Team

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In 2019, the NFL embarked on creating a team that commemorated the NFL’s 100th anniversary. White was named to the NFL All-Century team. White is one of just seven defensive ends given a spot on the team. 

 

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Reggie White’s trophy shelf

Reggie White's trophy shelf

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A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, White went to 13 straight Pro Bowls and is an eight-time First-Team All-Pro. He led the league in sacks twice and retired as the NFL’s all-time sack leader. The best moment of this Hall of Fame career was when Reggie White had three sacks in the Packers’ Super Bowl victory. 

 

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The legacy of The Minster of Defense

The legacy of The Minster of Defense

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The Minister of Defense single-handedly took over games. He was an offensive tackle’s worst nightmare. Double and triple-team blocks were often required to slow him down. He could line up as a defensive end, nose tackle, or defensive tackle. It didn’t matter. He could stuff the run in the backfield for a loss. His bull rush, swim move, rip move, and hump move made him unblockable. He struck fear into the eyes of every quarterback unfortunate enough to face him. 

He played in an era of smash-mouth football, not the pass-happy league of finesse we see today. White’s statistics would be even more impressive if he played in the modern era.

Reggie White is one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, if not the greatest. Few defensive ends have accomplished more. He sits alone on top of the mountain of NFL immortality.

David J. Hunt is a freelance writer based out of Philadelphia. He ran cross country at Penn State, became a volunteer firefighter during COVID-19, and is a self taught journalist. He’s a diehard Philly sports fan. When he isn’t watching sports, he enjoys working out, fishing, and traveling. You can find more of his writing at The Chestnut Hill Local and The Temple News. You can follow him on Twitter at @dave_hunt44.

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