Sometimes Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White just
talks. Other times he sounds like the evangelical minister he
is. He's testifying. His cadence quickens. His raspy voice
rumbles with emotion. His brow furrows and his eyes narrow.
Times are hard. "But you know what?" White says as he attains
full fervor. "We can't stand for this. And we won't." He's
telling you this in this way because, God knows, that's the way
it makes him feel. His deep voice is growling now. He says there
are some things he wants people to know about the awful morning
that his Inner City Community Church burned, the walls buckling
and the pews turning to ash.
Knoxville, Tenn., firefighters couldn't do much when they
answered the emergency call to Skyline Drive on Jan. 8, shortly
after four in the morning. Inner City Church sat burning on its
hilltop, and the telltale smell of kerosene hung in the air.
According to published reports, in the wee hours of a Monday,
someone had placed kerosene, gunpowder and at least 18 Molotov
cocktails in the church, ignited the blaze and fled. They left
behind graffiti on an outside wall that read, DIE NIGGER AND DIE
Five months later, White, an associate pastor at the church,
sits inside his suburban Knoxville home on a midsummer afternoon
and lets out a gust of a sigh. "Someone burned another church in
North Carolina last night," he says. His phone is ringing off
the hook. Today, he has already agreed to do a CNN show, a radio
call-in program and four print interviews. "I'm angry," he says.
"I'm fed up."
As of Sunday there have been suspicious fires at more than 70
predominantly black churches across the South since 1995; a
similar number of fires have been reported at white churches in
the region. Many of the arsons are believed to be racially
motivated, although authorities say there is no pattern to
suggest that the fires are the work of any one group. To White
the arsons appear to be an act of intimidation and hate, a blow
meant to terrorize the black community in a way that setting
fire to a black-owned bank or car dealership never could. As
Nelson Rivers, southeast regional director of the NAACP, puts
it, "Burning churches sends a message to African-Americans
because the black church is more than a place of worship. It was
a safe haven our leaders met in during the civil rights
movement. It's a place where we historically have come to find
repose and restore self-respect. During the rest of the week a
man might be abused with some racial slur like 'boy.' But on
Sunday in church, he became 'deacon' or 'mister.'"
White has continued to bring attention to the church burnings,
although Inner City senior pastor David Upton has received at
least two death threats since the fire. In the days after the
blaze, a vitriolic hate letter was received at the Knoxville
community investment bank that White founded. A postcard with
singed corners and racist epithets was sent to church offices a
couple of weeks later. It carried a Wisconsin postmark and was
addressed to White. Not long afterward, someone in a pickup
truck drove down the long tree-lined lane to White's home--past
the two-foot-high letters on the front gate that read JESUS IS
LORD--and seemed to be casing the house. Last month a bank
employee found a suspicious package at the back door of the
building. Authorities feared it was a bomb, but it proved to be
a hoax. Reggie says his wife, Sara, and their two children,
10-year-old Jeremy and eight-year-old Jecolia, have long
accompanied him on trips. But he also concedes, "The family has
been with me more than ever this year."
White fatalistically speaks of getting "knocked off" and asserts
that he's "willing to die for the things I believe in." Yet he
insists that he does not fear for his safety.
Moments later a side door to his house swings open, and Sara
enters. A beam of sunlight slants in. The signal on the security
system beeps twice, indicating the system is on. It's one in the
That White would find himself at the forefront of another battle
is hardly surprising. His life has a rolling topography: It has
been a series of triumphs and setbacks in which his pursuit of
an NFL championship and his commitment to his ministry have
seemed at odds. Then, almost magically, things somehow work out.
Asked to explain this phenomenon, White will break into a smile
and say, "God spoke to me. And he said...."
At 34, White is probably two years away from the end of his
remarkable NFL career. He's the league's career sack leader.
He'll be remembered as the biggest star to attach his name to a
1992 lawsuit that helped revolutionize free agency in the NFL.
Players and coaches will recall his 4.6 speed in the 40 and the
python embrace he clamped on ballcarriers. They'll laugh about
his Herculean strength, which allowed him to toss aside a
320-pound lineman with one arm, and his habit of helping up the
same foe with a reminder that "Jesus loves you." He'll leave the
game an authentic hero, an overused phrase in sports that truly
applies to him.
During five of his eight seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles,
White was the fulcrum of coach Buddy Ryan's body bag defense and
the moral center of a talented team that White believes should
have won at least two Super Bowls. When Eagles owner Norman
Braman refused to ante up the money to keep White from leaving
as a free agent in 1993, thousands of fans gathered in
Philadelphia's JFK Plaza for a "Rally for Reggie." Braman only
dug his heels in deeper. At a downtown awards luncheon later
that month, White couldn't bring himself to say goodbye. He
buried his head in a napkin and cried as a crowd of more than
300 gave him a prolonged standing ovation. When he could finally
speak, White tearfully said, "I didn't give up on the Eagles. It
seems as though the Eagles gave up on me."
He didn't want to leave Philadelphia. By then, Reggie and Sara
were deeply involved in a street ministry. On Friday nights
Reggie often coaxed teammates to join Sara and him in the north
Philly projects, where the Whites would visit with large crowds.
Reggie often returned to the same neighborhoods to lead weekday
Bible studies, to volunteer his services to surprised church
councils and to help at fund-raisers. He often told bidders at
charity auctions, "I'm not just asking for your money, I'm
asking for your time."
In March 1993, after the Eagles made it clear they were no
longer interested in him, White embarked on a 37-day, seven-city
tour that at times bordered on the ridiculous (Cleveland Browns
owner Art Modell ordered a moratorium on profanity at team
offices during the two days that Reverend White would be on the
premises). The San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins
were thought to be the finalists for White's services because
White had said he wanted to go to a contender and to continue
his inner-city work. "God will tell me where to go," he said.
But when the Packers made an 11th-hour offer--a four-year, $17
million contract that would make him the NFL's highest paid
defensive player--White took the money and went to play for a
mediocre team based in the league's smallest city. Braman
scoffed, saying White's decision "wasn't going to be made by a
ghetto or by God. It was going to be made for the reason most
human beings make decisions today: money."
It marked one of the few times White's integrity has been
questioned. He's still irked by it. "I just thought, How dare
Mr. Braman say that?" White says now. "Money was important,
because I needed resources to continue the projects I wanted to
do. But how dare he speak for what was in my heart? He doesn't
know me. We had dinner. But he never walked down any streets
with Reggie White."
Among the enduring images of last January's NFC Championship
Game was the sight of White wiping the season's final sweat from
his brow on the Packers' bench and bitterly telling a cameraman
to stop recording his pain. Green Bay--fresh off its upset of
the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers a week earlier--had led
the Dallas Cowboys, soon to be the new Super Bowl champs, by
three points with 10 minutes to play. Then Emmitt Smith split
the Packers' defense for two touchdown runs. White was
inconsolable. Green Bay's title run had stalled one quarter
short of the NFC crown.
Though Packers quarterback Brett Favre was the NFL's MVP in
1995, White is held in equal, if not greater, esteem in Green
Bay. About 2,000 fans attended White's first day of training
camp as a Packer in 1993, and he stuck around long afterward to
sign autographs. Favre, then a pup of 23, looked around and
said, "I don't want to say [Super Bowl], but deep down I think
we have a chance to go." The Green Bay Press-Gazette devoted the
cover of its special football section to an illustration
depicting White as Moses, holding a yard marker as a staff and
leading the Pack to the promised land.
So what if it sounded like a reach? Green Bay had finished a
modest 9-7 in 1992. Still, that was only its fourth winning
season in 20 years. The Packers went 9-7 again in White's first
year and not only made their first postseason appearance since
the strike-shortened '82 season but also won a road playoff
game, in Detroit. The defense leaped from a ranking of 23rd in
'92 to No. 2 in '93. Coach Mike Holmgren said it was no mystery
why. "Reggie has changed everything--the way we play, the other
team's offensive scheme," he said. "And that's just one player.
Some teams may have two or three guys with that kind of impact."
Holmgren paused. "Can you imagine?"
Green Bay's ascent hasn't stopped. Last season the Packers won
their first outright NFC Central title since 1972. They trounced
the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the playoffs and then
stunned the 49ers 27-17. On the flight home from San Francisco,
White--who had experienced only one playoff win with
Philadelphia but already had four with Green Bay--sat down next
to Holmgren and said, "Coach, I've never been this far. I just
want to thank you." There was silence. Then Holmgren came up
with a good punch line. "Nice try," he said. "But you still
can't have my Bud Light."
White is the locker room sage to whom the younger Packers turn
for inspiration or advice. Older teammates kid him about
everything from his habit of calling team meetings--"He calls
more meetings than Congress," says safety LeRoy Butler--to his
staunch refusal to listen to almost nothing but gospel music
during his and Butler's shared rides to practice.
White's teammates know that his preaching about putting the team
first isn't just talk. Despite the meat-grinder nature of the
position he plays, until last season he had never missed a
nonstrike NFL game. After an All-America senior season at
Tennessee and a two-year stopover with the Memphis Showboats of
the USFL, he came into the NFL in 1985 saying that he wanted to
be the best defensive lineman ever, and more than a decade
later, he's still rolling toward quarterbacks like a wave of
lava, burying whatever is in his path. He burns to win. His
example has been contagious.
White gets after teammates he views as slackers. "When I got to
Green Bay I told some of our guys, 'You make more excuses than
anyone I've ever seen,'" he recalls. "We had some guys who
walked around like they didn't care if we lost."
Before the playoff game against the 49ers, White told his
defensive teammates that he would hand out cash bonuses for big
plays, like interceptions, fumble recoveries and cobweb-inducing
hits. Shaking his head now, White says with a groan, "I wound up
paying out almost $9,000. You'd be amazed how guys who are
making hundreds of thousands of dollars get up and go after that
$100. They'll sit in the film room the next week saying, 'Ooh! I
caused a fumble and recovered it. That's $200!'"
Already, he's pounding home the message that the way Green Bay
played against San Francisco on that charmed afternoon last
January is the standard that the Packers must meet consistently
in the regular season. "To be a championship team," White says,
"you have to do those things all the time."
A man with less conviction than White might alienate his
teammates with his frequent insistence that "God spoke to me"
and his statements that he's on "a mission from God" and that
football is merely his platform. As Packers tight end Keith
Jackson says, "The walk with God that Reggie has is almost, you
White tends to see a divine hand at work in almost everything.
He still insists that it really was the voice of God that told
him to sign with Green Bay. He says he spent the entire night
before his announcement on his knees, sobbing and praying,
because "I thought, I know God told me go to San Francisco.
What's the deal? And the Lord spoke to me. And when the Lord
spoke to me, he said, 'Let me ask you a question: Where did the
head coach, the defensive coordinator and the offensive
coordinator all come from before they went to Green Bay?' I
said, 'San Francisco?' And he said, "That's the San Francisco
I'm talking about!'"
As incredible as that image is--the idea of God's knowing the
curricula vitae of the Packers' coaching staff because, well,
God is God--nothing left fans shaking their heads like White's
seemingly miraculous recovery from a torn hamstring last season
on the eve of Green Bay's playoff run. (During afternoon soap
operas, local stations ran a crawl across the bottom of the
television screen with the bulletin that White would miss the
postseason.) "What most people don't realize is that was
actually the third time God healed me," says White, who
previously had almost been sidelined by an elbow injury in 1994
and a thigh bruise in 1995.
Two aspects made White's hamstring injury unique: It took God
nine days to get around to healing it, instead of the usual two
or three; and by then White had sat out the first game of his
NFL career, he had scheduled season-ending surgery, and he had
called a meeting--what else?--at which he tearfully told his
teammates, "You have to believe you can win the rest of the way
That same night, however, White noticed that his leg, though
still sore, felt better. He was so excited that he called Green
Bay strength and conditioning coach Kent Johnston, and the two
met at the Packers' training facility at about 10 p.m. Once
there, White worked on weights and drove the blocking sled,
neither of which he had been able to do the day before without
excruciating pain. "Then," White says, "I looked at Kent, and I
started smiling. And Kent--see, Kent's from Texas and he's got
this Texas kind of twang--Kent said, 'Man! God done healed you
The hamstring has still not been surgically repaired. "I'm
working out the same way I have in the past," White says, "so I
just believe it's going to be all right."
Until the church fires started rolling across the South, White
planned to spend this off-season the way he usually
does--getting himself in condition for another run at an NFL
championship, spending time with his family, tending to his busy
ministry and filming Reggie's Prayer, a semiautobiographical
movie that is scheduled for theatrical release later this month.
Instead, it was one of the most hectic and difficult times of
The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the
civil rights division of the Justice Department and other local
organizations continue to investigate the fires. White, however,
is among the many black church leaders who have been critical of
the federal government's efforts. "The response was too slow,"
he says. "The fires can't all just be a coincidence."
What happened at Inner City Church remains unclear. Among the
possibilities that authorities have pursued is whether a church
leader or a congregant was involved. All 13 parishioners who had
a key to the building agreed to take polygraph tests. White
estimates that 200 church members have been questioned. Church
financial records dating back to 1992 were subpoenaed. By March,
White was so unhappy with the insinuations that he took his
complaints to a fellow Tennesseean--Vice President Al Gore.
White also joined other church leaders in clear-the-air meetings
with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary
Robert Rubin, who oversees the ATF. During these meetings White
pounded home the message that many of the burned churches are
poor and underinsured and would need financial assistance to
rebuild. Then he initiated an NFL Players Association's
Although White wasn't among the Inner City Church members
questioned about the fire, he was visited by two ATF agents last
spring. According to Sara, it was not the friendliest of
meetings. "It could've ended in five minutes," she recalls. "It
took about an hour. They didn't want Reggie speaking out, that
was the bottom line."
If those were the authorities' intentions, they picked on the
White wonders if Inner City's emphasis on the economic
empowerment of blacks and other poor people has ruffled feathers
in Knoxville. White's church has a congregation of about 450. It
is in a struggling, mostly black inner-city neighborhood on the
east side of Knoxville. As Harold Smith, one of White's fellow
ministers, says, "We're not just a good-time, hand-clapping,
shouting-hallelujah church that holds services on Sunday and
then forgets about people come Monday."
No. The church has a community development arm that refurbishes
condemned houses for resale and builds affordable homes. Using a
$1 million gift from White as seed money, the church in late
1994 opened the investment bank, which lends money to people who
can't qualify for a loan from a full-service bank. The bank also
runs finance and job-skill seminars, and it provides
small-business owners with credit lines, planning help and
access to office equipment. Before the sanctuary and adjoining
church offices burned down, the congregation ran an AM radio
station with religious programming, and it was about to open a
low-cost day-care center in the basement that would have created
at least 40 jobs. In short, White says, "we get people off
welfare and help them become tax-paying citizens." He and Sara
also opened Hope Palace, a home for unwed mothers on the same
property on which they built their own house.
As Dewey Roberts, president of the Knoxville chapter of the
NAACP, says, "I would think even a racist would have to like
some of the things Reggie does."
As a youngster growing up in Chattanooga, White attended a
Baptist church. He began giving sermons at 17, and in 1992 he
was ordained as a nondenominational minister. His ministry is
part community outreach, part old-fashioned preaching because he
believes that "people are tired of you jibber-jabbering at them,
just telling them what they need."
In a typical summer White preaches four to five times at Inner
City Church, and he travels around the country to help with
street ministries. He sits on the Inner City executive board and
runs a football camp in Knoxville because, he says, "I want to
keep in touch over a number of years with the kids I meet." In
addition to giving the community development banks a nationwide
presence, he would like to start all-male private schools for
black youths and other minorities and hire an all-male teaching
staff as role models. "Our kids are dying in the streets," he
White has strong opinions about politics and government, and his
beliefs are grounded in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Among other things, he doesn't smoke, swear, gamble or drink. He
regards welfare as a failed policy that breeds dependency and
undermines the nuclear family. Unwed mothers, gang members and
homosexuals are among the people his street ministry tries to
reach because he believes more traditional churches have shown
such groups too much contempt. "We need to be making them feel
loved," White says.
As compassionate as that sounds, gays might run from White if
they knew he believes the Biblical passage that calls
homosexuality "an abomination" or if they overheard him say,
"Homosexuals have problems, and that's why they're homosexuals."
Likewise, many people who applaud his self-help themes might
chafe when White talks passionately about the way blacks in the
U.S. have historically been mistreated.
He is an ardent student of black history. The church fires keep
taking him back to the long hot summers of the 1960s and the
lynchings that were still going on in the '50s, the days when
racists rode through Southern neighborhoods in the dead of night
and terrorized places like the 16th Street Baptist Church in
Birmingham, where in 1963 four young girls were killed in a bomb
explosion. Now, as then, White believes political rhetoric has
fanned white resentment. And he believes the historic echoes in
today's church burnings shouldn't be missed.
"That's why these militia groups are rising," he says. "That's
why these skinhead groups are rising--those racist attitudes are
still there, and, too often, we've forgotten our history. We
don't want to think about lynchings, we don't want to think
about burning the churches, or anybody who would compare slavery
to how the Jews were treated during the Holocaust. What
history's not telling us about is the slaves who died on the way
over here or the others who were lynched, who were castrated,
whose feet were cut off. Our women were raped. We don't want to
"But if you remember it, and you begin to look at it, then you
begin to say, 'This can't happen anymore.' Then you begin to
understand me. Then you'll begin to understand why I hurt like I
hurt. And why I get so mad."
He is leaning forward in his chair now. He glares, and his
expression is pained. He is saddened that more athletes haven't
taken a vocal stand on the church burnings. "I'm out there by
myself," he says.
For now, the Inner City congregation holds its services in a
nearby high school auditorium. All that's left of the church is
the hole where the foundation used to be, a few shards of
charred wood and twisted metal and a mud-smeared patch of
cobalt-blue tile that marks where the basement kitchen once was.
Smith stood on the lip of the crater late one June afternoon and
wistfully said, "Our day-care center would have been letting out
about now, and this area would have been full of little
children, all kinds of children running around and giggling and
screaming when they saw their parents coming to pick them up."
By June more than $250,000 had been donated to Inner City
Church. The outpouring has been so great that White changed his
unannounced plan to retire when his contract expires after this
season. "One boy sent us 92 pennies taped to a piece of
cardboard," he says. "Those people forgot about me being a
football player and said Reggie White, the man, needs our help.
They revived me, to be honest."
Inner City Church will be rebuilt; work crews are scheduled to
break ground for the new foundation this month. There are plans
to go forward with the day-care center, and the church's radio
station--"WDMF, What the Devil Mostly Fears," Smith says with a
buoyant lilt--was already back on the air when White left for
training camp in mid-July.
The same Sunday that White was away meeting with Reno, a
middle-aged black woman in a sharp blue suit was bustling toward
the front door of Inner City's interim home to attend church
services. She is old enough to remember the Birmingham bombing.
But when asked for her impressions of the recent church fires,
she smiled ever so faintly, lifted her chin a little and said,
"The devil's been mighty busy. But that don't mean he gets the
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER White stands tall in the drive to rebuild Inner City Church, which was torched. [Reggie White standing amid debris of church]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER White says he signed with the Packers in 1993 only after some timely divine intervention. [Reggie White praying]
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT White, the NFL's career sack leader, is a one-man wrecking crew, changing the way the Pack and its foes play. [Reggie White in game]
COLOR PHOTO: J. MILES CARY/AP/KNOXVILLE NEWS-SENTINEL White became frustrated when investigators questioned so many Inner City members regarding the blaze. [Men in shell of burned-out church]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER After the arson and the disturbing events that followed, Reggie has kept closer tabs on (from left) Jeremy, Jecolia and Sara. [Jeremy White, Reggie White, Jecolia White, and Sara White]