When I first found out that Philadelphia Eagles great Reggie White had played for the Tennessee Volunteers, I couldn't believe it.
You've got to remember, this was pre-Peyton Manning, so he was really one of Tennessee's first nationally-known football stars. He was one of the biggest stars in the NFL, a man who would transcend the defensive end position and redefine dominance as an edge-rushing passer. It gave me great pride to know that this man who was such a great ambassador for the game was also representing the University of Tennessee. When you throw in the things for which he stood and the manner in which he lived his life, it was even cooler.
White played both defensive tackle and defensive end during his NFL career. He retired as the NFL's all-time sacks leader with 198, and he is a member of both the NFL and College Football Halls of Fame.
But before White was a legend, he was a four-year letterman for the Vols out of Chattanooga Howard High School who enjoyed a remarkable Volunteer career from 1980-83. Though it was before my time, I've researched White's days a bit and realize just how remarkable that career was. As a freshman, he amassed 51 total tackles, forced two fumbles, caused two, registered two sacks and had a pass breakup. Those number escalated the next year when he finished with 95 tackles, a fumble recovery, eight sacks, seven tackles for a loss and three pass breakups. He was a freshman All-American and also was named as a Sporting News Sophomore All-American in '81.
A lackluster junior year where he had just 47 tackles and seven sacks while being hampered by a nagging ankle injury was followed up by one of the greatest single seasons in Tennessee history and the greatest by a defensive lineman. That '83 season, the team captain had an amazing 100 tackles, a fumble recovery, nine tackles for a loss, a pass breakup, an interception and FIFTEEN sacks. The season earned him SEC Player of the Year honors, and he was a Lombardi Award finalist, an award won by Nebraska offensive lineman Dean Steinkuhler. White holds school records for career sacks, single-season sacks, and the four sacks he registered in a single game against The Citadel in '83. Here's some footage of his Tennessee days.
White played two seasons for the Memphis Showboats of the USFL and was then signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1984. He won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers before finishing his career with the Carolina Panthers.
In 2004, White died from a fatal cardiac arrhythmia at the young age of 43. According to doctors, the cardiac and pulmonary sarcoidosis he'd suffered from for years was probably the cause of death. He had his No. 92 jersey retired by the Vols, Packers and Eagles in 2005.
White's Christian beliefs and outspoken nature made him somebody I looked up to. Long before Tim Tebow, he used his abilities as a platform for something in which I believe strongly, and it excited me that he was a Tennessee Volunteer to boot. Later, when I worked professionally for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I spoke to several old sports writers who knew White and vouched for how good a man he was who donated plenty of money to charities in the area. For several years, he and other NFL players hosted a free clinic for Chattanooga-area youths.
"Reggie also never forgot his family and one of my fondest memories from his college days was that at Thanksgiving, he would bring home several Tennessee teammates and we would have a great meal and just being together," White's mother Thelma Collier told The Chattanoogan in a Mother's Day story earlier this year.
Another great story from that article tells of how White and high school teammate Charles Morgan signed with Tennessee out of Howard as a package deal. Morgan left Tennessee after two years, and White was planning on doing the same. Until he talked to his mother.
“I told Reggie to get on his knees and pray to the Lord for guidance and if he decided to leave UT and come home then I would take things into my own hands and chase him all the way back to Knoxville with a broom handle,” Mrs. Collier said with a laugh.
Thankfully, the fear of the Lord -- or, perhaps, the fear of Ms. Collier -- kept White in school. Years later, his impact is known throughout Knoxville as well as the NFL. White was a great player who was also a great man. After UT suffered through a rough patch where many of their superstars later ran into trouble with authorities or many of their good kids never turned into good football players, it's nice to look at guys like White, Manning and Eric Berry and take a lot of pride in how well-rounded their lives and careers were.
White wasn't perfect, and he ran into some controversy at times, but he was always the kind of player and person who I am thankful we can claim as our own. He's truly a Tennessee legend and one of the reasons I'm proudto be a Vol.