Fury on the field, Eagles' White preaches salvation in the streets

October 06, 1991|By Mark Bowden | Mark Bowden,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA — -- PHILADELPHIA -- Reggie White took the microphone. His husky voice has just two modes, a whisper and a shout. This came out in an angry shout.

"I'm tired of drugs infiltrating the community! I'm tired of seeing young people die! And that's why we're going to be out here! And we're going to IMPACT people's lives! We might not impact everybody's life, but we're going to IMPACT some lives!"

His voice echoed off the painted brick walls of the dilapidated apartment buildings of the Richard Allen Homes in North Philadelphia. A crowd of about 200 people, half of them children -- excited children -- had gathered on a cracked asphalt parking lot strewn with beads of broken glass. White towered over them like a crew cut giant, his thick neck broadening to massive shoulders and chest. It was late Friday afternoon. Football practice was done. The Philadelphia Eagles' famous defensive end had gone to work.

He and his teammates are the talk of the city these days. Monday night, they played the Washington Redskins on national television, before an audience of millions. But that is football. And football is not important right now.

"We see the enemy DEALING in the community!" the giant exclaimed, his sentences rhythmic and concise. If White could generate electricity, he would not attract more rapt attention from this crowd. "Especially the inner-city communities! How Satan is destroying the inner-city communities! The reason we're here today is, we're TIRED of sitting back watching! The devil is destroying the communities of the inner city in America! The black community has been devastated! It's time for some MEN to stand up and start being accountable! We're going to run the devil out of here! We're coming back every week, and we're going to RUN . . . HIM . . . OUT . . . OF . . . HERE!"

When he's not wreaking havoc in the offensive backfields of NFL football teams this season, White has another mission. The 29-year-old veteran of six NFL seasons, and one season in the United States Football League, packs up speakers and tapes of upbeat modern religious music; recruits such like-minded teammates as Keith Byars, Keith Jackson, Bruce Collie and Rod Harris, and most Friday nights, brings his message of tough-guy Christianity to the hard streets of North Philadelphia.

"Things have quieted down here a lot. It ain't so bad," said 16-year-old Alphonso Williams, who watched White and the others speak in the Allen project on a recent Friday evening. "Somebody is gettin' killed here only every two weeks or so now."

White has been making these trips for years to North Philadelphia neighborhoods, and to similar places in his off-season home in Knoxville, Tenn., but the trips have gained a new urgency. He begins one chapter of his forthcoming book, "Reggie White, Minister of Defense," with a grim list of particulars: 25 percent of all abortions in the United States are obtained by black women; two out of three prison inmates are members of minorities; one of every four black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is in prison, on parole or on probation; a black man in the United States has a 1-in-21 chance of being murdered before he is 25 years old.

In cooperation with former Eagles running back Herb Lusk, who is the pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, White and his wife, Sara, and two children, along with his teammates, have turned the occasional into a regular weekly show.

"Celebrity is nothing but a platform," he said. White grew up in the projects of Chattanooga, Tenn. He knows this turf as well as he knows his way around opposing teams' backfields. His approach to the young men in the audiences he seeks out is as direct as his pass-rush technique:

"We're KILLING each other!" he roared to the audience at the Allen Homes. "We're shooting each other because we want to pocket good money! The reason that some of you are running and dealing drugs is because you're too LAZY to go out and try to work! You're too LAZY to go out and try to find something to do! Because you want to get it free! And you want to get it the easy way!"

White doesn't need to do this. He is a millionaire, a certain Hall of Famer. He's been to the Pro Bowl five years in a row, and will probably return every year that he continues to play. No more perfect physical specimen has ever been chiseled in marble, though few sculptors would dare defy normal human proportions with such enlarged shoulders and arms and chest.

On the football field, he plays like a demon, sometimes threatening offensive linemen with "Here comes Jesus!" as he unleashes his biblical fury. The God that whittled Reggie White was the Old Testament one, the God of vengeance and power, but White's heart and soul belong to Jesus Christ, the God of love. White will knock quarterbacks silly, then help them up with a massive, taped hand and the sweet words: "Jesus loves you."

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