EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last story in a series counting down the top five players in University of Tennessee football history. The Times Free Press previously published companion series on Alabama (May 4-8) and Georgia (May 11-15).
The 1983 college football season provided its share of history within the Southeastern Conference, as five league members won bowl games for the first time.
Auburn (Sugar), Georgia (Cotton), Tennessee (Citrus), Florida (Gator) and Alabama (Sun) ended their seasons on high notes, with Pat Dye's Tigers finishing atop the league. Sophomore running back Bo Jackson was the star of Auburn's SEC title team, but he wasn't the league MVP that season.
That honor went to Tennessee senior Reggie White, the first defensive lineman ever to perform the feat.
The Chattanooga native racked up a staggering 100 tackles in his final 11-game regular season from the left defensive tackle position, including 15 sacks, which still stands as the single-season program standard. Defensive tackles typically don't register monstrous numbers, but the 6-foot-5, 285-pounder from Howard High School was anything but typical during his time with the Volunteers and professional football after that.
"When I was a child, I was always bigger than the other kids," White once told Sports Illustrated. "Kids used to call me 'Bigfoot' or 'Land of the Giant.' They would tease me and run away. Around seventh grade, I found something I was good at. I could play football, and I could use my size and achieve success by playing within the rules.
"I remember telling my mother that someday I would be a professional football player and that I would take care of her for the rest of her life."
By age 17, White was living the unique existence of tormenting opponents on Friday nights and preaching at church services on Sunday mornings. That dynamic earned him a permanent nickname: "The Minister of Defense."
White collected 140 tackles and 10 sacks as a Howard senior and was the state's top prospect in the 1980 signing class. He was not, however, the first Howard graduate to make an impact for the Vols as a freshman, with Hustlin' Tigers classmate and fellow defensive lineman Charles Morgan earning ABC player of the game honors in that season's showdown against reigning national champion Alabama.
Morgan caused an early Crimson Tide fumble that provided Tennessee possession in Alabama territory, but the Vols couldn't capitalize in what became a 27-0 setback on a dreary afternoon. Morgan would leave the team a few days later, while White developed into a stabilizing force who amassed 51 tackles, two sacks and even blocked a punt against Georgia Tech.
As a sophomore in 1981, White earned All-America recognition after compiling 95 tackles, eight sacks and three blocked extra points. An ankle injury limited his junior season to 47 tackles and seven sacks, which are still impressive totals for a defensive tackle.
White was the starting right defensive tackle each of his first three seasons and wound up playing alongside different starting nose guards — Jimmy Noonan, Leonard Jackson, Steve Kluge and Johnny Williams — each of his four years. His 193 career tackles through three 11-game regular seasons became 293 after four, with his senior season highlighted by a 12-tackle, three-sack performance during a 20-6 humbling of LSU.
A second straight defeat of Alabama was highlighted by White's two sacks of Walter Lewis, and his final performance for Tennessee was a 30-23 triumph over Maryland in the Citrus Bowl that capped a 9-3 season, which represented Tennessee's best record in 11 years. The consensus All-American sacked Terrapins quarterback Boomer Esiason in the second quarter, knocking Esiason out of the game.
White established program records with 51 career tackles for loss and 32 career sacks. Leonard Little (53) and Derek Barnett (52) now rank 1-2 in tackles for loss for the Vols, with Barnett also having set a new sacks standard at 33 before becoming a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017.
Though White's NFL career included 13 consecutive Pro Bowl invitations and 198 sacks, which briefly stood as the league record before it was topped by Bruce Smith in 2003, he was never a stranger to Chattanooga and Knoxville. He often spoke at churches and to schools, with faith-based messages always the common theme.
"We're the most overrated people in America," White once said of NFL players during a 1996 visit to Tyner High. "We're no more special than you are. God is not going to let me in heaven because of who I am. He is going to let me in because of the changes in my heart."
White's death from a heart attack on Dec. 26, 2004, absolutely stunned the sports world, as it occurred one week after his 43rd birthday.
Tennessee's football history contains 77 All-Americans, 53 bowl appearances, 13 SEC championships and two Associated Press national titles. It will also forever include the one and only "Minister of Defense."
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