When you write the story of the Green Bay Packers, as I have often tried, there may be no greater protagonist than Reggie White. Even if he never played one down for Green Bay, the influence he projected onto the league changed the way that small-market teams can compete in the megalopolis-dominated NFL landscape. Putting even that aside, to take a page or two from Peter King, Reggie White made Green Bay cool again. He will always be one of this author’s favorite players as he was an integral part of the 1996 championship season. But there is much more to that story than young gun Brett Favre, White was the beginning of it all, the alpha and omega of modern championships in Title Town.
Reggie White is also the owner of the league’s all-time coolest nickname: The Minister of Defense. He earned this name by setting records at his alma mater, The University of Tennessee, while also becoming an ordained Baptist minister. White’s faith is what guided most of his actions and his religious attitude created an unorthodox locker room–with a large portion of the team attending religious meetings led by “The Minister”. It is undeniable his personality was infectious, no matter what you believe. But his career as an athlete was where White stood tallest. He had 15 sacks in his Senior season at UT including one game in which he had four. Those 15 sacks are still a school record and his 32 career sacks in Tennessee stood as the most until 2016. For all this, he was elected to the College Football Hall of fame. However, Reggie was just getting started.
You may not know this, but he wasn’t drafted into the NFL. White was one of a handful of stars to go to the USFL first. There’s so much dirt regarding this time of his life, and the USFL in general, it’s almost dangerous to delve too deeply, but it’s nearly impossible to resist. Did you know that Donald Trump owned the USFL team the New Jersey Generals? Did you also know that the USFL, led by Trump, sued the NFL in an anti-trust lawsuit in 1985 and won to the tune of a whopping $3? That’s no typo, it was really 3 bucks. The league collapsed soon after due to mismanagement and a failed attempt at forcing the NFL to merge with it by winning this lawsuit. The Jury would explicitly state that it was aware the lawsuit was an obvious ploy to dupe the NFL into merging and would go on to say that the USFL’s problems were all self-inflicted. So it goes.
Suffice to say that Reggie was good enough to be drafted into the NFL by the Eagles as the fourth overall pick in the 1984 USFL and CFL Supplemental Draft. From that point forward, he was a dominating force. His 124 sacks in Philly are the most in franchise history and he once recorded 21 sacks in a strike-shortened 12 game 1987 season. Reggie became a football icon in Philadelphia and played 8 seasons there. But in 1993, Reggie (already a veteran at football and the civil justice system) was involved in a class-action lawsuit that opened the flood-gates of free agency in the NFL and brought talent back to Green Bay. Not to mention he was, himself, the biggest free agent acquisition ever at the time and possibly the biggest since.
Immediately, Reggie and the Green Bay front office featuring HOFer Ron Wolf, set about changing the culture of the franchise. For too long Green Bay was considered a wasteland of talent and a terrible destination for a rising star like White and others. According to Keith Jackson in the aforementioned Peter King article, “Among players, Green Bay was depicted as some Russian place where you go and no one ever hears from you…” That’s the same Keith Jackson that is now a valued Packer alumnus.
So what changed with White and Wolf? To start with, Green Bay didn’t match up with the primarily urban and minority communities many players called home–especially demographically. Before White and Wolf, African American players would drive across the state to Milwaukee just to get a haircut. The only barber in town that knew how to cut African American hair was the local barber for the prison. Besides that seemingly trivial though inherently awkward state of reality, there was also the fact that the Packers hadn’t been any good for quite some time. Changing that was the ultimate goal, but the new culture of the locker room helped in ways that can never be fully quantified.
So, White led the charge in creating a mid-90’s dream team in Green Bay and we haven’t stopped since. The defense in the championship year of 1996 was the best in the whole league–not to mention the Packers fielded the best special teams and offense to boot. There is much to be said about the staying power of dynasties, but White and the Packers dominated a calendar year and ended up with the Lombardi trophy. During White’s short 5-year tenure in Green Bay he amassed 68.5 sacks and was crowned the 1998 Defensive Player of the Year. White fed the franchise in ways that have never been duplicated by a free agent, at least in Title Town, but it wasn’t just because we paid him like an offensive player. He actually really liked it here.
White was never one to shrink on a big stage, but it seems like he was most comfortable in a small town. Green Bay was really the only place that could offer that to him. To use Keith Jackson and MMQB once again, “He saw it as an opportunity to go somewhere where the people are super fans. And when you lose a game, there’s nobody screaming at you saying you’re a bum. The media is reporting the facts and not trying to create a controversy. It was actually an oasis to play football, and you really concentrated on being a football player.” Coming from a former Philadelphia Eagle, that seems really understandable.
Basically, all of the great things fans tout about Green Bay were created or strengthened by White: being a big team in a small market, commanding respect without demanding attention, and being one of the only places in the NFL that you could go to escape the oft-harmful glitz and glamour that surrounds pro-athletes. Coming into the locker room on any given practice could have meant walking into a cheerful prayer session or a sermon about inequality. In this way, White was larger than life but still humble enough to fit into our small town.