By Tom Mattingly
The solitude of the Sunday after Christmas in 2004 was shattered by the midday phone call from colleague John Painter in Dallas, as the Vols were preparing for the Cotton Bowl game against Texas A&M
The message was this: Former Vol defensive tackle Reggie ‘White had died, suddenly, in his hometown of Cornelius, N. C., exactly one week past his 43rd birthday.
The challenge was to assemble and send out a release, telling Reggie’s “Tennessee story.” John had e-mailed a comment from Phillip Fulmer about Reggie, and I was left to find John Majors, get his thoughts, and put it all in a coherent whole within the next two or three hours.
“Reggie was one of those guys who represented all that was good about football and athletics,” Fulmer said. “He was a man of great principle who obviously carried his faith out front. I don’t know if there’s any one person, in my time as a football coach, for whom I’ve had more admiration and respect. Even though he was sometimes outspoken, even to the point of being controversial, he always said and did what he believed was the right thing.”
It took a while to locate Majors. He was hunting near Petersburg (Lincoln and Marshall Counties) and the news was obviously shocking. He needed a few moments to gather his thoughts.
Once he did, he shared fond memories of his time with the young man from Howard High School in Chattanooga. Majors phrased the comments exactly the way he wanted them. The whole process took about an hour.
“Reggie White could turn a football game around like no one else. He could dominate not only the man in front of him, but also the side of the line of scrimmage he was on,” Majors said. “He was a lovable and likable guy with a great sense of humor, who was also serious about football and serious about his religious beliefs.”
In their assessments of his life, the national media types paid much more attention to White’s performance in the pro ranks, but Tennessee fans fondly remembered his impact on Tennessee’s orange and white.
His collegiate career was something special. The stats were significant: 32 career sacks, with 15 sacks in 1983 and four against The Citadel that season.
Known as the “Minister of Defense,” a tribute paid to his dual role as an ordained minister and as a virtually unstoppable defensive tackle, White earned All-SEC and consensus All America honors his senior season. He was captain of the 9-3 1983 team, ranked No. 17 in the final CNN-USA Today poll.
The SEC named him Player of the Year; the first Vol so honored since Majors earned the award in 1956. He was also named to the decade of the 1980s All-SEC Team.
White was also named the Atlanta Touchdown Club’s Player of the Year, the Birmingham Touchdown Club’s Most Outstanding Lineman, and the Birmingham Monday Morning Quarterback Club’s Most Outstanding Senior.
When Reggie was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December 2002 and later enshrined in August 2003, he was obviously moved by his selection and praised those who had paved the way for him.
“I pay tribute to Marion Motley, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Curt Flood, Bill Russell, John Mackey, and Reggie McKenzie,” White said, “who sacrificed themselves, who went through the things I couldn’t. They helped give men like me a chance.”
He, Doug Atkins, and Peyton Manning are University of Tennessee inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 2004, he and Lady Vol Holly Warlick were named to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
Reggie’s Tennessee jersey No. 92 was retired in a pre-game ceremony at the 2005 Mississippi game.
Sports Illustrated named him to its 75-year All-SEC team.
Then there were those who played against him.
“l hit him once and he didn’t move,” remembered fellow honoree Kellen Winslow, Sr., thinking about trying to block Reggie in a long-ago Pro Bowl. “I don’t think he knew I was there. Anthony Munoz and I were trying to double-team him, and after Anthony made his block and went after the linebacker, Reggie waited on the ball carrier, threw me down, and made the tackle. If you want to be kind about it, he was a load.’’
Majors paid Reggie the ultimate compliment.
“I once referred to him as the Tony Dorsett of defensive linemen,” he said. “There’s never been a better one.”