Sara, center, and Charles, right, widow and father of NFL star Reggie White, unveil a plaque during a ceremony at Howard School on Monday. Howard Principal Paul Smith is seen at left. White was honored as a "Hometown Hall of Famer" by Allstate Insurance and the plaque will be displayed at his alma mater.
It's a joke that all who knew Reggie White well have heard hundreds of times.
But nearly nine years after his death on Dec. 26, 2004, it still may best describe the Hall of Fame football player's goodness and decency.
"Reggie would say, 'I'm going to tell you a dirty joke,'" recalled his father, Charles, during a tribute to his son at the Howard School on Monday morning.
"Then he'd say, 'The white horse fell into the mud.' I never have figured out the punch line to that one."
Perhaps not, but it brought a hearty laugh from most of the 700 or more people gathered in the school's grand auditorium to see Reggie White honored by Allstate Insurance and the Pro Football Hall of Fame during their "Hometown Hall of Famers" plaque presentation.
"Reggie was the most consistent person I've ever been around," said Lurone Jennings, who coached White at Howard until he graduated in 1980, then later assisted the player in his ministry when his pro football days were over.
"Reggie's value system was phenomenal. He never wavered, and Howard High has benefited greatly from Reggie's values over the years."
White was the 75th Hall of Famer honored in this way, and it's doubtful that any of the 74 before him was feted with more energy and enthusiasm.
It began with the Howard band, cheerleaders and dance girls marching down the auditorium's aisles. Allstate and the Hall of Fame then unveiled a bronze plaque honoring White, who went from Howard in 1980 to the University of Tennessee before becoming the NFL's all-time sacks leader (198) during a career that began in Philadelphia, continued in Green Bay -- where he won a Super Bowl -- and concluded in Charlotte.
After that came a stirring talk by White's widow, Sara, who encouraged the students "not to listen to negative people. Write down your dreams, then make them happen. And remember, you only fail if you don't try."
And when she sensed a few of the students weren't paying attention, she said, "It's not funny when you're 20 years old and you've got three kids to take care of. There's nothing funny about that. So don't allow people to encourage you to do things that you know you're not supposed to."
Larry, left, and Christie Rowe, brother-in-law and sister of NFL star Reggie White sit with Reggie's mother, Thelma Collier, right, as they watch a highlight video of Reggie during his career at a ceremony at Howard School on Monday. White was honored as a "Hometown Hall of Famer" and his family was presented a plaque by Allstate Insurance that will be displayed at his alma mater.
Had the event been held a week earlier, more students would have heard the message. Howard's 179 seniors already have completed their classes. At least a fourth of the junior class also was absent because their good grades allowed them exemption from finals.
"We told the Hall of Fame people a few weeks ago that a lot of the students wouldn't be here on this date," said Howard Principal Paul Smith. "But they said as long as there were enough there to have the presentation, that was OK."
It was all better than OK. Reggie's mother, Thelma, was in the crowd, along with several other family members and classmates, including Charles Morgan, who also signed with Tennessee out of Howard.
"I think about him all the time," Morgan said. "But what these kids really need to hear are about the people who paved the way for us -- the coaches and teachers around here who had such a big impact on our lives."
Perhaps that's why Sara White said of her own words, "You only know how well something like this went when you come back years later and someone tells you, 'Your talk inspired me to do what I always wanted to do.'"
At least one Howard student seemed to get the message immediately.
Asked what Reggie White's story meant to him, Howard freshman football player Isaiah Williams said, "It just shows you can be anything you want to be if you're willing to work for it."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...