Wiedmer: Howard gets to host tribute to NFL great White

Wiedmer: Howard gets to host tribute to NFL great White

May 12th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Reggie White

Eight years, four months and 14 days after she lost her beloved husband Reggie, Sara White calmly discussed the passage of time Friday afternoon.

"It's going on nine years," she said from the family's home just outside Charlotte, N.C. "But it seems like he just passed away. I can still hear him correcting me: 'Quit popping that gum.' When you're with someone for 24 years, there are so many memories."

Come 10 a.m. Monday they may be popping shirt buttons due to chests swelling with pride inside the auditorium at Howard School of Academics and Technology.

That's when the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate Insurance will present a plaque to Sara that she'll then give to the school to honor all her late husband accomplished during his time at Howard and the University of Tennessee and throughout his Hall of Fame professional career with the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers (where he helped win a Super Bowl) and Carolina Panthers.

"I'm supposed to speak for 5 to 10 minutes," Sara said. "I'll try to talk about what Howard and Chattanooga meant to Reggie from his point of view. I'm sure I can't deliver those words as well as him, but I'll try."

The White tribute -- which will begin with Reggie's father, Charles, presenting the plaque to Sara -- is part of a national program "Hometown Hall of Famers," which seeks to honor the roots of the sport's greatest coaches, players and contributors. Monday's ceremony is the 75th conducted by the group.

"To be a part of a program that brings the prestige and tradition of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to communities like Chattanooga is an honor for Allstate, our agents and employees," said Lisa Cochrane, an Allstate senior vice president of marketing.

The Hall of Fame and Allstate first contacted Howard principal Dr. Paul Smith two months ago about hosting the event.

"A no-brainer," he said Saturday. "I told them, 'We're all in.' This guy is a legend not just in Chattanooga, but all over the country. Yet our kids are walking the same halls Reggie did."

Smith also wants to emphasize to his students that White wasn't only an accomplished athlete during his time at Howard.

"Reggie was also the tuba player in the concert band," he said. "He was a solid student. As a kid, Reggie embodied what Howard is all about."

Perhaps because of that, both Sara White and Smith hope that White's lasting legacy in his hometown won't so much focus on his ability to become a professional athlete but on the message that you can accomplish anything in any walk of life if you're willing to work hard and believe in yourself.

"Reggie wasn't normal," Smith said. "Most young people, no matter how hard they work, aren't going to become professional athletes. But that doesn't mean they can't become successful. I hope an event like this encourages our students to work hard at something they can still make a living doing when they're 50 or 60 years old."

Said Sara White of the advice she intends to impart on Monday for those Howard students facing towering obstacles along their rocky path to success:

"Be who you want to be. No matter where you live, no matter your parental circumstances, even if you're homeless, it's still your choice who you become. It may be tougher for you than others, but you can still make it."

In the nearly nine years that have come and gone since White died on Dec. 26, 2004, at the too-young age of 43, Sara and their children have made the best of a terrible loss.

Daughter Jecolia (25) actually worked with three UT football coaches -- Phillip Fulmer, Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley -- while completing a master's degree at the school.

Son Jeremy, who has written a wonderful book "In His Shadow" about his life with his father, emailed his mom the other day to inform her that the street address of a university he was considering attending to earn a master's began with the number "9201." Reggie's jersey number throughout his career was 92.

"Dad's still got a sense of humor," he wrote Sara.

And Sara, despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years before Reggie's death, still treats each day as a blessing, buoyed by her family and her faith.

"It will be really special to speak at Howard," she said. "Reggie was so proud of his high school."

In an interview a few years ago with a national web site, Sara said of her husband's early death, "What matters is not how long we live but what we do while we live."

As No. 92 continues to prove, the best among us keep making a difference long after they're gone.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com