Sinister Minister?

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The sudden death of Reggie White yesterday got me thinking about my entry into the world of football fan-dom.

Baseball has always been, and will always be, my sport of choice. I was never any good at it as a kid, but that hasn't stopped me from following the game day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out. Before my teenage years Sports meant baseball and nothing else. There was no secondary sport worth watching. This means that while I was idolizing Mike Schmidt, Gary Maddox and Rod Carew, I was missing out on Dr. J, Bobby Clark and Harold Carmichael.

In 1982 I was a nerdy eight-grader whose best friend was a Portuguese sixth-grader named Rui. We both loved watching baseball and playing it the way baseball geeks were meant to play it - on a computer. We were so far behind the curve on football that it wouldn’t have made sense for us to try to watch a game.

Then came the formation of a spring-summer league, the United State Football League. The USFL was our chance to get in on the ground floor of football. We would know as much about the Philadelphia Stars as anyone else. Plus the USFL teams had names and symbols that looked a lot like the juvenile ones we made up for our Atari 2600 baseball league. Not only could we finally be football fans, we could be rebel football fans of a cool new league!

The players I most remember from the USFL weren’t from the Stars (though I have always had a soft spot their coach, Jim Mora, who took the Stars to both USFL championships). The two players I remember most are Hershel Walker (of the New Jersey Generals) and Reggie White (of the Memphis Showboats). I still remember being upset when I saw a Starting Lineup figure with a “rookie” Reggie White of the Philadelphia Eagles. Did his USFL years mean nothing? [Just like today, where the Philadelphia Inquirer failed to list Memphis as one of White’s “pro” teams.]

But the USFL wasn’t around long and their players ended up being dispersed in a NFL supplemental draft. Since Reggie went to the hometown Eagles, it made sense to start following them. The USFL had taught me the fundamentals of football, and Reggie was my introduction to the “Gang Green” defense, then to Randall Cunningham, then to Mike Quick, and then to every Eagles team since.

I met White during the Buddy Ryan era when the Eagles still had open Saturday practices at JFK Stadium. I recall him being one of the more accessible players that day (especially when compared to the extremely vain Jim McMahon) and writing a bible verse alongside his autograph (which I have since misplaced). You couldn’t separate the player from the minister.

While the death of White has allowed me to think back to my childhood and being a rebel USFL fan, I’m having a hard time reconciling White on the field (as the Minister of Defense) and White off the field (as the minister of the Offensive). Of all the Inquirer coverage of White’s death, only Bob Ford writes at length on the contradiction between White as a football roll model and his homophobic and racist off-field speeches. In it he writes that White wanted to have an impact off the field but his inappropriate words betrayed his ambition. He marginalized himself with his outdated ideas. Ford finishes his column with how he thinks White should be remembered:
It is tragic that Reggie White is gone at 43. Time might have mellowed him and allowed statesmanship to overtake his stridency. We'll never know.

He should be celebrated and remembered as the great husband and father he was. Celebrated as the great football player he certainly was. And he should be mourned as the great leader he very nearly was.
It's hard to imagine anyone will bothering to mourn one of today’s defensive stars (like Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan) quite like that.


At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark, what ever happened to Rui? Ann

At 11:59 AM, Blogger eRobin said...

Thank you! I'm having the same problem in the wake of his death. You phrased it perfectly when you said you're having a hard time reconciling the two Reggie Whites. It doesn't pay to know too much about people famous for things like sports and arts if you want to keep enjoying their talents.


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