A lot of people, maybe most of us, stop living long before we die. Reggie White wasn’t one of them.
He was arguably the greatest defensive end the NFL has ever seen, certainly the best between Deacon Jones and today. But what truly distinguished him was that the end of football marked the beginning of an intellectual quest that was as courageous and intense as any battle he ever had on a football field.
White was always a good man, but, like so many of us, his charity and good works came not from any conscious contemplation of his beliefs, but from a blind adherence to things he had learned before he was old enough to know what he was being taught.
What sets Reggie White the person apart is that he came to understand that truth must be discovered for one’s self, not accepted in a pretty package, no matter how prettily wrapped that package is. At the end of his too brief life, he was probably living more than he ever had, even when he was the most feared force in football.
It’s not necessarily bad, if your goal in life is to be happy. There’s probably nothing quite as satisfying as knowing you have a complete handle on life. Dogs know everything there is to know about being a dog and they’re the happiest critters on earth. And people who go overboard asking “What does it all mean?” can become tortured souls.
The problem arises when what you believe to be right involves inflicting your own beliefs of physical harm on others.
The Middle East is full of true believers who manifest their certainty about their own beliefs by killing or wishing dead everyone who doesn’t agree with them. America has more than its share of people who would force everyone to believe the same as they if it weren’t for that pesky Constitution and Bill of Rights.
I once thought Reggie White was one of those people who assumed he knew it all. It didn’t make him evil; he was always pious and charitable. It just made him common.
A Christian minister since he was 17, he was the Minister of Defense with the Eagles through the 1980s and then the heart and soul of the Packers beginning in 1993 and including their Super Bowl win in 1996. Those who played with him remember him as the most influential, the most inspiring, and the best teammate and person they ever hoped to know.
But the joy I got from watching him play was tempered by his pronouncements off the field. The idea that Jesus wanted him to squash the quarterback I always found to be annoying. His declaration that God wanted him to sign with the Packers I found to be absurdly self-serving, a convenient end run around the truth that his decision was helped by the enormous contract Green Bay dangled in front of him.
In 1997, he was invited to speak to the Wisconsin legislature, and he used the pulpit to decry homosexuals. He was parroting what he’d been taught, and it wasn’t pretty. That was when I wrote him off as someone whose opinions were worth listening to.
When he died of a heart attack the morning after Christmas at the age of 43, I learned what he had been up to, and it was as noble as any enterprise anyone has ever taken up: He was pursuing truth.
Back in 1996, when White thought he already knew everything there was to know about life, the Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tenn., burned down. Jerry Upton, a friend of White’s, was a top officer in the church and White helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild the church and help the congregation.
Three years later, Upton pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. The money White helped raise was gone. It was more than a rude awakening.
White began to question the whole structure of organized religion. He felt that the money he raised could have gone directly to help people who needed it rather than to paying munificent salaries to church leaders and building ostentatious buildings.
He also came to realize that the crowds who came whenever he preached were there not to learn about religion but to see him. So he quit.
But he didn’t stop believing. At core, White was still a Christian, which to him meant believing in Christ but not the institutions that had grown up in his wake. He also realized he had been taking the word of others about who Christ was and what he represented.
If he could read the scriptures in Hebrew, he felt, he could decide for himself what they meant.
Had he lived, he would have found that he needed to learn Greek, the language of much of the New Testament, as well. I have no doubt he would have learned that, too, if that was what it would take to complete his quest.
He learned a lot in the time he had. White has in the past couple of years said he greatly regrets the statements he made about homosexuals and about god directing him to sign with the Packers. He knows he made them out of ignorance only because he dared to challenge his own beliefs.
The search for truth is far more difficult than playing football. It’s so much easier to take what you are handed and take it to the grave. But if you do that, you also face an end to thought and growth long before the end of physical life.
Reggie White was a great football player and a good man. But it was in his final quest, the one he was pursuing at his death, that he became great. We’ll miss him for what he was. We’ll miss him more for what he still might have been.
PFT: Defensive end finally finds a new team in San Diego — and for a honey of a deal that would be worth a max of $13.35 million.
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