The legacy of Reggie White

The legacy of Reggie White

February 6th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

A little more than six years after his death, Reggie White's phone number still remains in Keith Jackson's cell phone list.

"I just can't erase it," Jackson said. "It's under 'Big Dog.' It just makes me feel good each time I see it."

White and Jackson -- no relation to the iconic college football broadcaster of the same name -- helped make Green Bay Packers fans everywhere feel good on Jan. 26, 1997. They helped deliver the storied franchise its third and final Super Bowl title heading into this evening's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

White made a lot of people feel good during his 43 years and seven days of life that began in Chattanooga. By the time he died of a heart attack on Dec. 26, 2004, he had lifted the spirits and lives of folks from the Scenic City to Knoxville to Memphis to Philadelphia to Green Bay to Charlotte.

But perhaps nowhere did he have a more profound impact both on and off the football field than Green Bay, Wis., a predominantly white community not previously viewed as always a good fit for black athletes before White arrived in 1993.

"It's not that the fans weren't great to you, because they were," Jackson said by phone from his Little Rock, Ark., home last week. "The fans love you. It's all about the Packers there all the time. But there wasn't an African-American culture in Green Bay at that time, and there still isn't."

To illustrate his point, Jackson recalled Deion Sanders telling the Packers not to draft him, saying, "If Green Bay drafts me, they'll have to put me on layaway."

So how did White convince Jackson and others to follow him there?

"First, Reggie and I had become close when we were both playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, so I knew I could trust him," said Jackson, who later left the Eagles for the Miami Dolphins.

"He started calling me every day in 1995, telling me I needed to come to Green Bay. He told me that we'd have an opportunity to be really, really good, that we could win a Super Bowl. As a player, particularly as you get older, winning a championship is what it's all about."

But didn't the lack of a black culture bother White?

"He said it would bring us closer," Jackson said. "And it did. There might not have been a lot for blacks to do there, but because of that we hung out together more, ate dinners at each other's houses, stuff like that. But the big picture in Reggie's mind was that we could win a title, and we did. He presented his case to a lot of us, and he wasn't wrong."

Indeed, the Packers not only defeated the New England Patriots 35-21 that night inside the Superdome in New Orleans, but White set a Super Bowl record with three sacks. And when the Packers' first Super Bowl in 29 years became official, a wide-smiling White grabbed the Lombardi Trophy that bears the name of the late, great Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi, and carried it around the Louisiana Superdome as if it were his personal possession.

"He acted like he didn't want to hand it off to anybody," said Charles Morgan, White's best friend and teammate during the duo's years at Howard High School and their one season together as Tennessee Volunteers.

"Just to see Reggie hoisting that trophy like that -- my best friend who's no longer here -- I'll never forget that night, and I was never more proud of him," Morgan said. "He made up his mind to win a Super Bowl for the city of Green Bay, and he did it. But I think he also did it for the city of Chattanooga, for all the people who meant so much to him back here."

Morgan was clearly one of those people, along with his son, Jonathan Adams, who was White's godson.

"He modeled what he talked," said Adams, now a graduate manager for John Shulman's University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball Mocs after lettering in basketball for four seasons at Old Dominion.

"I'll never forget going to Reggie's house in Charlotte one time, and watching my dad and Reggie and Eugene Robinson playing cards, just chilling. He was always the same guy, a really good person. He would always tell me, 'Just stay strong in your beliefs.'"

Added Morgan: "Like most kids, Jonathan wouldn't always hear you as a parent. But when Reggie would back me up, it really helped me out. Jonathan always listened to Reggie."

People still listen to White through Jackson.

"I probably speak about 60 times a year," said the former Chattanooga Best of Preps banquet speaker. "Reggie's always included in those talks. I love to tell Reggie stories."

A Jackson favorite?

"One day at practice I told him I was going to hurt him, even though Reggie probably weighed at least 65 pounds more than me," the tight end said. "He looked at me with this bemused look and said, 'What are you going to do, tell me that you don't love me anymore?'"

Former Carolina Panthers assistant Richard Williamson loved seeing White wrap up his career with the Panthers in 2000.

"Reggie created a different atmosphere when he was around," said Williamson, who was with the Panthers for their first 15 seasons before retiring last winter. "Everybody knew what he had achieved and how successful he'd been. We were a young team and he made a big impact."

But the impact on Green Bay remains the strongest and most far-reaching, according to Jackson.

"There's a Martin Luther King Elementary School there now," he said. "There's an Urban Hope program, too. That's all because of Reggie. His legacy stretched far beyond the football field. The reason the Green Bay Packers are where they are today, on the verge of another Super Bowl title, is because Reggie turned around the persona of what Green Bay was."