After football, Eagles' White preparing to tackle politics Star lineman takes religious approach

December 06, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- If one measure of a man is his goals, then consider the ambition of Philadelphia Eagles all-pro defensive end Reggie White.

As for football, he wants to win a championship, something he's never done, and he wants to be recognized as the best defensive end to ever play the game after it's all over. Some would say he's already done that -- "No, no, I've still got years to go," insists the 31-year-old athlete.

But, beyond that, what about his goals as a man?

"I want to be able to use my finances to build an empire," he says. "So that I can help put people to work, help people build low-cost housing. Whatever needs people have, I want to help fulfill that need. Because fulfilling that need is going to give me an opportunity to let people know who Jesus Christ is and what he means to me."

It's hard to frame Reggie White. His dimensions keep spilling over the edges. Seated like a serene, smiling giant before his locker under Veterans Stadium, he seems in but not of the world of pro football, with its petulant superstars, petty rivalries and bare-knuckled greed. Football great, fundamentalist preacher, multimillionaire, community activist, radio talk-show host, husband, father . . . all this, but more.

He's also a lead player in a landmark lawsuit of NFL players seeking to revolutionize free agency. And he's also quietly at work building a consortium of investors, including teammates and prominent Philadelphia businessman James N. Wade, to establish a chain of non-profit enterprises to help train poor people and put them to work rebuilding their communities. White hopes to get a pilot program started in Philadelphia this year, and then another back home in Chattanooga, Tenn., and another in Knoxville.

"Eventually, I want them all over America," he says. "An empire."

Reggie White is, quite literally, on a mission from God. Most players dread life after football as an inevitable tumble into uncertainty and obscurity. White, on the other hand, can hardly wait. After 9 1/2 seasons of pro ball, he sees football, fame and fortune as mere steps on the path toward his larger goals. And he is already contemplating where that work might lead . . . perhaps into politics.

"Things can be changed through politics," says White. "I have no plans now, but if God leads me that way, I'll go. I know some Christians feel that they shouldn't be involved in politics, but that's wrong. In order for things to get changed, you have to go through politics a lot of times. I know that a lot of the things I want to do will involve politics, and if you look at the Bible, you'll see godly men who led kingdoms, like David and Moses. They were involved in politics because they had to make decisions on behalf of the people. If God moves me that way, I would love to."

Who is this man?

He has a goofy, splay-footed walk that children made fun of as he was growing up in Chattanooga. His father was an itinerant semi-pro baseball player who never married White's mother and rarely saw his son. White was considered an oversized, decidedly average, clumsy child. By some of his cousins and school friends, he was regarded as a bully.

Then his mother and stepfather moved away for a year when he was 9, leaving him and his older brother to live with his maternal grandmother. She was a devout Christian, and introduced her grandson to a white preacher at her church in Chattanooga. Together, in that one year, the grandmother and the preacher changed White's life.

"There was no dramatic conversion," he says. "But I was fortunate to be introduced then to the godly way of life, and it just took root."

So as his body just kept growing up and out, but as he won more and more recognition as a remarkable athlete in high school, White still didn't exactly fit in. His fervent fundamentalism kept him from becoming the social center of his teen-age circle.

"I was considered a square," he says, and no wonder, toting his Bible with him everywhere he went, refusing to participate in the rebellious rituals of adolescence. Well, trying to refuse. Because even Reggie White was tempted. He fell in with a group experimenting with marijuana. Teen-age dopers would joke about getting high and "seeing God," but with White, it was no joke.

"I smoked marijuana at age 14," he says. "And I profoundly felt in my spirit at that time that God spoke to me. He told me, 'If you don't stop doing this, you're gonna die.' "

He dropped marijuana fast, along with alcohol and, as his football prowess made him a big star at the University of Tennessee, struggled to avoid the third great despoiler . . . women. He calls this "the hard time."

"One of man's biggest problems is women," he says. "And I knew if I wasn't careful, there was a situation that could kill me. People didn't know about AIDS then, so I have always regarded it as a blessing from God, that from an early age I knew the things that could destroy me."

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