CORNELIUS, N.C. — Reggie White, a fearsome defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers who was one of the great players in NFL history, died Sunday, his wife said. He was 43.
The cause of death was not immediately known, but White had a respiratory ailment for several years that affected his sleep, according to Keith Johnson, a pastor serving as family spokesman. An autopsy was to be performed.
“Today our beloved husband, father and friend passed away,” White’s wife, Sara, said in a statement. “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.”
White died at Presbyterian Hospital, where he was taken after his wife called 911. A police officer was outside White’s Tudor-style home in a gated community, and would not let a reporter approach the house.
A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and ordained minister who was known as the “Minister of Defense,” White played a total of 15 years with Philadelphia, Green Bay and Carolina. He retired after the 2000 season as the NFL’s all-time leader in sacks with 198. The mark has since been passed by Bruce Smith.
“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.”
A member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team, White was elected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 straight times from 1986-98. He was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1998.
“A 43-year-old is not supposed to die in his sleep,” Johnson said. “It was not only unexpected, but it was also a complete surprise. Reggie wasn’t a sick man ... he was vibrant. He had lots and lots of energy, lots of passion.”
Johnson is the head of Christian Athletes United for Spiritual Empowerment, a ministry that White helped found. He said White had gone to see the movie “Fat Albert” on Christmas night with family and friends.
“He was a family person, a person who liked to have fun. Obviously, we’re all going to really miss him,” Johnson said.
White and his wife had a son and a daughter: Jeremy, a freshman at Elon University, and Jecolia, a junior in high school.
After an All-American senior season at Tennessee, White began his pro career with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL in 1984. He joined the Philadelphia Eagles, who held his NFL rights, after the USFL folded in 1985. For eight years, he was as an integral piece in Philadelphia’s “Gang Green Defense.”
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie called White “one of the greatest men ever to play the game of football” and said his “legacy on and off the football field will never be forgotten.”
White played a key role in free agency — he was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the current system.
White signed as a free agent with Green Bay in 1993 for $17 million over four years. His signing, along with a trade for Brett Favre, helped make the Packers champions again. He was the first major black player to sign with the Packers as a free agent.
“He meant as much to us off the field as much as on it,” said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. “He had his name on the lawsuit and he didn’t get one penny. That’s just the type of guy he was. His character, his integrity was everything any NFL player should aspire to be.”
His decision to choose the Packers was a surprise. While visiting various teams, he suggested he would prefer a major city, where he could minister to black youth.
“That’s what changed the football fortunes of this franchise. It was huge,” Packers president Bob Harlan said Sunday. “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.”
The Packers made consecutive Super Bowl appearances, including a win against New England in 1997, when White set a Super Bowl record with three sacks.
“He was just a wonderful player, first of all,” said Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, who coached White at Green Bay. “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. I’m a better person for having been around Reggie White.”
White worked tirelessly in the offseason with inner-city youths. But his image was tarnished when he gave a speech in which he denounced homosexuality and used ethnic stereotypes. White later apologized.
White was 39 when he finished his NFL career with Carolina — his third retirement. He retired for one day before the 1998 season, but then said God had told him he needed to play again, and he returned to the Packers.
White retired again after the 1998 season and took a year off from football. After the Packers allowed him out of his contract, White returned to play for the Panthers. His last season was disappointing. He recorded a career-low 5 1/2 sacks with 27 tackles, and didn’t show the same pass-rushing skills that made him such a force.
“I will always miss the locker room and the guys, but I know God’s will for me to move on to other challenges because it’s not in me like it used to be,” White said at the time.
White spent eight years with the Eagles and six with the Packers before a final one with the Panthers. Remarkably durable, White missed only one game in his last 12 seasons and started all but three games during that span.