(Here’s a classic 2006 essay from the CDP vault.)
With the upcoming NFL season on the horizon, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite personal experiences with football royalty. Even if you’re not into sports, I think you’ll still enjoy this.
Is this story better than the time I got Brett Favre’s autograph, only to have my then 6-year-old sister destroy it with a Sharpie? I believe so.
If I may digress for a minute, I don’t hold ill will towards my sister or anything. I’m sure there will come another time when I’ll be able to sit down and talk with the single greatest quarterback ever to play the game; a man that won a Super Bowl, three MVP awards and my unwavering worship for the last 14 years. I mean, I’m certain that you get more than just one chance to meet your idols over the course of a lifetime. I’m not too worried about it; never mind all the crippling nightmares I’ve had about the situation since I was 10.
No, this story is about the greatest defensive player in NFL history, who just so happened to play with the Green Bay Packers for six seasons.
Reggie White. #92. The Minister Of Defense.
For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick history lesson. It’s only a paragraph long, so read it:
(Some quick football terminology for you. When a quarterback is tackled before he can throw a pass, it’s called a ‘sack.’ You’re going to need to know that, otherwise the following paragraph would sound horribly obscene.)
Reggie White averaged 1.75 sacks a game, and has a lifetime total of 198. He has had more sacks than the number of games he has played. This amazing record still stands today, along with his franchise sack records for both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers. He’s been to the Pro Bowl an astounding 13 times, and won 6 different NFL Player Of The Year honors. He won the Super Bowl with Green Bay in 1997, has had his number retired with three different organizations, and was selected for the NFL’s All-Time Team in 1994. Off the field, he was a husband, father, minister and Evangelical Christian that devoted his life to what he believed in.
In short, Reggie was the baddest-ass mo-fo I’ve ever seen on a football field. If you know even the slightest bit about the game, then chances are you share my sentiments. Off the field, he was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken giant. On the field, he was a monster. He could knock 400-pound linemen off of their feet with one arm. Watching him run around with the Lombardi Trophy after Green Bay won the Super Bowl is etched into my memory forever.
Reggie died at the age of 43, on December 26, 2004. He had suffered from sarcoidosis for many years, and it had caused a cardiac arrhythmia that stopped his breathing in his sleep. I remember waking up the day after Christmas, turning to ESPN and watching grown men cry as they related the news to the public. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see someone like him go at such a young age.
Now that you’re all caught up, let’s get to my story.
In 1993, my family went to Green Bay to watch the Packers practice at Training Camp. They have an area set up for the public to watch the team run drills and prepare for the upcoming game. This was a chance for people to see their* team up close and personal, and considering that Packer season tickets are nothing short of impossible to come by, this was the best chance most Wisconsinites got.
(*The Green Bay Packers are the only professional sports franchise in the nation that does not have an owner. They are a community-owned team with 112,000 stockholders in tow. They are owned by the fans; my family being one of them. If I have to explain to you why that rules, we’re no longer friends.)
The big news this season was the acquisition of Reggie White from the Philadelphia Eagles. Already the most prolific lineman in the game, we were all very excited to see what he would do to revolutionize our lacking defensive line. There we stood, faces pressed against the chain-link fence, watching our beloved Packers do wind sprints and pass patterns.
As an 11-year old, this was amazing to me. I had never been to an actual game before, and seeing these people up-close was a dream come true. Everyone was huge; even the Kicker was larger than anyone I had seen in real life. Frankly, they could have all been doing crossword puzzles behind that fence and I still would have cheered them on.
Reggie White was a beast. Despite proving himself every single week, he worked as hard in practice as he did on the field. Every play, he would explode across the line, leaving a scattered pile of rookie linemen in his wake. As far as I was concerned, he should have been wearing a cape. I was in awe.
Now, the Packer practice facility was on the other side of the street from the stadium, where their lockers and showers were. That meant that when practice was over, the entire team would walk across the parking lot together, wade into the crowd and chat with the fans. Some of the kids would often lend their bikes to the athletes, so they could bypass the crowd and get to the stadium quickly. In exchange, the players would give the kids photos and autographs, as well as the dream of riding along with their favorite Packer player.
When practice was over and the team migrated off of the field, they were instantly swarmed by the hundreds of people in attendance. I felt like I was on the steps of a high-profile court case; it was absolute chaos. I was there with my cousin at the time, and we were just looking around for any Packers that were kind enough to sign autographs. Some were more than willing to give you a few seconds of their time; most of them just wanted to take a shower and go home.
Children, adults and giant athletes were everywhere, waving pens, helmets and anything else they could to get one another’s attention. In the midst of the insanity, I lost track of where my cousin was. I became disoriented and started looking everywhere, anywhere for a familiar face. People started pushing and shoving, so I attempted to make a beeline out of the crowd.
As I made my way out of the unruly mob, I made the mistake of taking my eyes off of the oncoming human traffic for a fraction of a second. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a herd of fans, snapping flashbulbs, and what looked like police officers. One of the cops was shouting, “Give him room! Give him room!” Everything started going in slow-motion.
I turned around just in time to see a giant, green mass with the number ’92’ imprinted on it.
I hit the ground and everything went dark.
Seconds later, I looked up to see Reggie White, The Minister of Defense, and about fifty people looking down at me. While every other Packer did what they could to avoid the crowd, Reggie was doing his best to sign every piece of paper that was thrust in his direction.
He also ran right into me in the process, knocking me straight off of my feet. I didn’t have a prayer; I could have used one of his pant legs as a sleeping bag.
“You alright?” Reggie asked me.
I looked up at him, in a balled-up heap on the pavement of the Lambeau Field parking lot. He was already a massive guy; from this view, he was positively God-like.
“Uh…yeah…I think.” I stammered back. I quickly got back to my feet and ran out of the mob.
I met back up with my family, where they griped a bit about not getting any autographs. They asked me if I got anything signed. I told them no, but that it really didn’t matter to me. I didn’t need a piece of paper to remember what happened to me that afternoon.
It was the day I was sacked by the greatest defensive football player of all time.
In August of 2006, Reggie White was officially inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame, which is what reminded me to share this story. The plaque under his name will say that he sacked 198 people, but I’d like to think of myself as #199.
Sound off in the comments section and enjoy your day.