By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
Keeping The Faith: Sara White And Children Cope With Life Without Reggie
Sara White HUNTERSVILLE, N.C.
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C.– Sara White was in a grocery store when her doctor called on her cell phone and told her she had multiple sclerosis. It was not news she had been expecting – not there, of all places – and she remembers now that her heart just dropped. As she stood surrounded by strolling shoppers, she became unsteady with apprehension, not for herself but for her husband. A voice inside her cried: “What am I going to do? How am I going to tell Reggie?” So she told her sister Maria, but not Reggie, who inadvertently found out when Maria called the house the following day to check on her. Reggie later eyed Sara with exasperation and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?” But his irritation then gave way to fear, and very soon the big man was sobbing in contemplation of losing by agonizing degrees the only woman he had ever truly loved.
It was something they used to discuss casually, the way couples do when the future appears long and certain. Cheerfully, Reggie would tease her by saying he had a 350-pound girlfriend stashed away in an apartment. “Good for you,” Sara would shoot back. “When I die, you can marry her.” But then Reggie would always get serious, assure her in that husky voice: “You know, Sara, I could never do that.” Sara would look at him slyly and say, “Oh, you know you would!” And Reggie would say, “No, Sara, you know I would never marry again.” Sara then would say she would never do it again, either, and add with a sigh that would leave them both chuckling: “I cannot train another man. It took me 10 years to train you.”
But hearing that Sara had MS weighed on Reggie. “He acted like I had cancer,” says the ever-optimistic Sara, who remembers that Reggie called around and “asked everyone he trusted to pray for me.” Sara appeared to be doing well enough physically in the days following the diagnosis in March 2003, but the years ahead were now clouded by the inevitability of MS, a disease of the central nervous system characterized by an array of progressively worsening symptoms such as dizziness, trouble walking and so on. Reggie, in apparent superior health himself, became engulfed in an ever-deepening anxiety that Sara would predecease him at some point. And that played upon him continually, revealing itself in small kindnesses he performed for her each day and in the repeated assurances he solicited from her in private moments.
“You know, you and I are going to be in rocking chairs together, just like any other old couple,” Reggie told her one evening. “And when we die, we will go together because we do everything together.”
Sara smiled at him and said, “That would be good.”
“Because, you know we would miss each other too much,” he said, his voice now quavering. “So you better not leave me, Sara. I could never live without you.”
Sara then looked at him closely and said, “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m not going anywhere.”
It was a gorgeous December day 22 months later, unseasonably warm and full of piercing white light, and what Sara White will always remember is how the patrolmen stood along the road, their hands over their hearts as the funeral procession bore her husband to the Glenwood Memorial Gardens in Mooresville, N.C. Four years removed from his 15-year career in the NFL, during which he distinguished himself with the Eagles, Green Bay and Carolina as perhaps the premier defensive end in the annals of the league, Reggie White had died suddenly of a heart attack in the early-morning hours of Dec. 26. He was far too young – just 43 – especially in light of the fact that in a certain way life was just beginning for the legendary “Minister of Defense.”
Close to 6 months have passed since Reggie White died, leaving behind Sara, their two teenage children and an equally stunned array of relatives and friends. Only now are they beginning to come to terms with what happened, yet it somehow still seems so unreal that he has slipped away from them. He just loomed so large, in uniform and out. Few knew that better than the crowds who cheered his exploits on NFL Sundays or were within earshot of one of his booming sermons. Spiritually, he stepped away from the pulpit in his later years to focus his attention on learning Hebrew and disentangling the original Scriptures. What he could not know is that his health was not as sound as it had appeared, that the days he and Sara would have together would be tragically few.
Sara White has not yet allowed herself to grieve. She admits that, saying: “Oh, not really.” It all happened so quickly, so unexpectedly, and there is far too much to do. She and Reggie were involved in a wide range of business enterprises and were planning others that she has since curtailed. Says Sara: “Reggie left a lot of loose ends.” But of immediate and pressing concern to her are their two children: son Jeremy, 19, who just completed his freshman year at Elon College and who seems to be coping well; and daughter Jecolia, 17, who has another year at Hopewell High School here, and who remains so steeped in heartache that Sara says, “I have to be strong.” A petite, uncommonly strong and focused woman, Sara bears her burdens by and large in private, be it the ebb and flow of her illness or the loss of her husband of almost 20 years. And yet the sorrow that wells up in her eyes as she speaks of him betrays the presence of tears yet to come.
“Me and Reggie, we had been friends for 23 years, and every year it got better and better and better and better and better,” says Sara, seated on a sofa in the living room of the three-bedroom house she and Jecolia now share. “We got close to God and to each other. I just feel so blessed that I knew him. We knew each other so well that if he started a sentence I could finish it.”
She smiles and then adds, “Forty-three years old, but Reggie lived the years that were allotted to him to the fullest. And that is exactly what we have to do, Jeremy, Jecolia and I. Because, you see, what matters is not how long we live but what we do while we live.”
No American athlete of such immense ability so assiduously used that talent to draw attention to his evangelical calling, which White pursued as tenaciously off the field as he chased down fleeing quarterbacks on it. In an era when athletes increasingly embraced Christianity in a very public way, no one stood as resolutely in the vanguard of that movement as White, who had been an ordained minister since the age of 17. With sweat dripping off his face in TV interviews, you always knew what was coming: “God allowed me to use this game as a platform to proclaim the name of Jesus.” When former Eagles owner Norman Braman unceremoniously allowed him to leave the team in 1993, White came under some skepticism when he said that God had told him to sign with Green Bay (where he got a far better contract and won a Super Bowl in January 1997). Critics hammered him even harder more than a year later when he spoke before the Wisconsin Legislature and condemned homosexuality.
But White underwent a sea change in the ensuing years, discarding the accepted dogmas that had governed him during his playing career. In a revealing interview with NFL Films for a piece called “Football and Religion” that aired on the NFL Network just 4 days before he died, White said in part: “I used to have people tell me… God has given you the ability to play football so you can tell the world about him. Well, he doesn’t need football to let the world know about him.” Of his choice to sign with the Packers, he conceded that God had not spoken to him but “it was what Reggie wanted to do.” He added that he had become an “entertainer,” that he had allowed himself to become “prostituted” by clergymen who invited him to speak at their churches “because I played football.” White conceded, “I got caught up in some of that, until I got older and got sick of it. And then I just sat there and said, ‘Well, what should I do?’ “
Rumors swirled that Reggie had strayed from Christianity; one circulated that he had even become a Muslim. But the truth was far from that. In the years that followed his football career, he found himself with more time to reflect and study. Says NFL Films producer Ray Didinger, who conducted the interview with White: “What happened is he just said to himself, ‘I should know more than I do,’ and he got into it deeper than he ever had before.” White stopped preaching in order to do just that. He tackled Hebrew and began delving into the Torah. He and Sara twice toured the Holy Land with groups, but White went again without her in October 2003, when he became acquainted with Hebrew scholar Nehemia Gordon. When Gordon arranged for him to visit the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum to view the original Hebrew texts, he says in an e-mail that White choked up with emotion.
“This is the best day of my life,” White said.
“Reggie, you won a Super Bowl,” Gordon said. “Do you really mean that?”
White looked at him with a tear in his eye and said, “It was an answer to a prayer.”
Working with Gordon via the telephone or during his visits from Jerusalem, White pored over the Hebrew texts from 8 to 10 hours a day back in North Carolina, not an especially easy task for someone who admitted he had always struggled with reading. According to Gordon, “Learning Hebrew enabled him to get the original word of the creator in its original language.” White became increasingly disturbed by what he found, that there was scant commonality between the original word and what he had always been told. Sara says, “Reggie concluded that he had been lied to for so long by preachers and mentors,” and that realization only heightened his urgency to get at the truth. The Whites stopped celebrating Christmas and Easter because they were “in the tradition of man.” Quarrels erupted when Jecolia and Jeremy were ordered to throw out their Beanie Babies because White looked upon them as “graven images,” but Reggie himself threw away any football trophy he had won that included a statue of a player. He told NFL Films some ministers with whom he had been acquainted began viewing him as a heretic.
“He did not want any form of sin in his house,” Sara says. “He wanted to correct every wrong in his life and he wanted to do it today. Now! He was in such a hurry.”
‘LIKE A DREAM’
Sara has an African Grey parrot who talks like her, barks like a dog and says “mom” like Jeremy. On this day in early May, Lexi has hopped down from a portable perch and is crawling amid the clutter of the coffee table, bobbing and pecking at the edges of odds and ends. Sara laughs and says, “Did you know she coughs just like Reggie?” For weeks on end, Reggie used to have periodic coughing spells, sudden spasms that welled up deep within his chest and always announced his presence somewhere in the house. Lexi picked it up with such precision that even today Sara has to catch herself whenever she enters the door and happens to hear him cough.
“Hey, boo,” Sara says soothingly. She places Lexi back on his perch and says, “Now be a good bird and stay there.”
Up and running since 6 a.m., Sara would get Jecolia off to school, attend to a variety of chores during the day, and later that evening go to a play, “Oklahoma!”, in which her daughter had a small part. Of the undertakings that occupied the couple, she is still involved with Urban Hope – a community development project she and Reggie founded in 1997 that has since helped start 500 small businesses – and she assumed his place on the board of a directors at a Charlotte area bank. Part of her day also includes bringing boxes over from the Lake Norman property, a 13,000-square-foot house with five bedrooms and seven bathrooms and a garage that houses a 1951 Mercury that Reggie had fixed up. Sara has no idea what to do with it. “The Lake Norman house is just too big,” says Sara, who adds that it has been upsetting to Jecolia to be in the old house knowing her dad is gone. Sara sighs, “Jeremy has come to grips with it, but Jecolia is angry, confused. She writes letters to him now, which I think is a good thing.”
A wedding photograph of Reggie and Sara sits atop the mantle in the living room. In it they are still so very young: Reggie in his tuxedo, then a star player with the USFL Memphis Showboats; Sara, in her gown, then a senior at Memphis State in the ROTC program. Sara had moved to Knoxville, Tenn., as a high school junior when her family relocated there from Cleveland, and became acquainted with him at the First Apostolic Church during her senior year; Reggie was then a freshman at the University of Tennessee. Very soon they became friends. Sara remembers Reggie used to “tell me all about the girlfriends he had,” a ploy he later explained by saying: “I was just trying to get you jealous so you would say ‘yes’ and marry me.” Vows were exchanged on a snowy day in January 1985. Says Sara, “All I can remember is his ear-to-ear grin. We sang to each other and he looked at me. Like a dream.”
A smile then steals across her face. “Oh, yeah,” she adds. “We danced – or tried to. The poor man simply could not dance.”
But could he ever play. Philadelphia discovered that when the Eagles selected him in a 1984 supplemental draft of USFL players, and White joined them for the fourth game of the 1985 season against the Giants. Seldom has a debut been as eye-popping. Wearing No. 91 instead of the legendary No. 92 he later wore, White recorded 2 ½ sacks and 10 tackles and tipped a pass that teammate Herman Edwards returned for a touchdown. Under coach Buddy Ryan from 1986 to ’90, he anchored a hallowed defense on a contending team and wreaked havoc with his signature “hump move,” whereby he jammed his arm up under the armpit of the offensive lineman and elevated him like a forklift. Says former NFL All-Pro defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry, who later became a close friend: “You had to bring your ‘A’ game when you played against Reggie, and even then you needed help.” In the community, White became a voice of fellowship, each Friday setting up with Sara and their children a street-corner ministry in decaying areas of North Philadelphia and later Camden. Says Sara, who largely remembers their 8 years in Philadelphia for that and as a period of raising babies: “Reggie just loved Philadelphia. And he loved Buddy. Loved Buddy.”
And Norman Braman?
Sara cocks her head and replies: “Norman Braman who?”
She shakes her head and adds, “Never even offered Reggie a contract [in 1993], which to me was a slap in the face. Would not even talk to our agent. And you know Reggie is so loyal. All he kept saying was, ‘I cannot believe he is acting this way.’ He could not believe Braman let him go.”
Health problems began to emerge when White moved on to Green Bay for a 4-year, $6.1 million contract. A physical examination there in 1994 revealed that he had a low white-blood-cell count, which doctors initially feared was cancer. Says Sara: “He had developed that cough and had flulike symptoms.” Additional tests revealed that he did not have cancer but sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can strike any organ in the body. White had it in his lungs, which leads Sara to wonder if that was why his voice became progressively raspier. While Sara says that neither Reggie nor she was alarmed by this diagnosis – in that sarcoidosis is rarely fatal – she concedes that Reggie “took it lightly” and was not always obliging when it came to taking medicine. “He just did not like taking pills,” says Sara, who adds that whenever she prodded him to do so, Reggie would snap: “Quit treating me like a baby!” Says Sara: “Cough. Cough. Cough. He got used to it, but it drove everyone around him crazy.”
What astonishes Sara is how well Reggie played given his physical condition, complicated by the fact that he had a textbook case of sleep apnea. For as long as she knew him, Sara says Reggie shook the house with his snoring, and that he used to stop and start breathing again in his sleep. “His snoring used to keep me up,” says Sara, who eventually told Reggie: “You know what? I’m going to sleep first.” But Reggie could sleep for 10 hours and wake up too fatigued to even play with the children. A visit to a Knoxville sleep clinic in 1990 led to a diagnosis of sleep apnea. Sara says Reggie was supposed to wear a nasal mask to help his breathing, but says: “He was not very good at wearing it because he was claustrophobic.” Says Sara, “Think of how good of a player he would have been if he had been getting the proper oxygen to his body.”
Letting go of football was not easy for Reggie. He announced his retirement from the Packers at the end of the 1998 season, only to come back in 2000 with Carolina because, as Sara says: “He missed being around the guys.” Reggie had come down to play in a golf tournament in Charlotte, loved the area, and had been in the process of building there when he got the itch to play again. Given the way the year unfolded, he would have been better off not scratching it: The sarcoidosis flared up, his play fell off, and Sara says he did not enjoy the same camaraderie with the Panthers that he had had with the Eagles and Packers. So he retired again at the end of that one season, became rejuvenated by his study of the Scriptures and began assembling his family nearby, including his in-laws and half-sister Christie Collier. “That was how Reggie was,” says Marie, his sister-in-law. “If you were a relative or even a friend, it was, ‘Come on down. Come down to Charlotte.’ “
Christie moved there from Chattanooga, Tenn., where she and Reggie had grown up. Ten years younger, she remembers how at age 14 Reggie once zipped her up in a suitcase as a joke and began carrying her around the house. “Oh, he was always just a big kid,” says Christie. But Reggie always had a deep brotherly concern for her, especially when she too was diagnosed with sarcoidosis in 2000. She had been continually fatigued, could not eat certain foods without becoming ill, and suffered a swollen optic nerve in her right eye. She and Reggie were the only members of their extended family who had been diagnosed with sarcoidosis, but Christie remembers an occasion when she and Reggie had a conversation on the subject.
Says Christie: “We just went down the list of everyone in our family who had passed away over the years, and wondered if any of them had died of it.”
On the Thursday before he died, Reggie White had a dream, one so vivid and moving that he simply had to share it with everyone with whom he had become close. Reggie was always like that: If he came across a passage in the Scriptures he found illuminating, he would call you up and share it. “You would always hear from him, even when he was on the road,” says financial consultant Roderick Barnes. That Saturday he had been told of the dream by White, who reported gleefully, “I have found my treasure.”
Jeremy remembers his dad told him the same evening: “In the dream he was in the Middle East. And he comes upon this treasure sitting on a glass case with some ancient Hebrew lettering under it and the words, ‘In the Name of Jehovah.’ When he woke up, he looked up the letters in the Hebrew and found they were synonymous with the word redeemed. So when you piece it together, he dreamed that he was redeemed by the Lord.”
Jeremy pauses and says, “I just kind of blew it off when he told me, but then I remembered it the next day at the hospital, and I thought: ‘Oh, wow. Was he getting a message?’ “
No one could have foreseen what would happen that Sunday morning. Those who saw him in the final days of his life remember him as appearing in excellent health, perhaps 25 pounds lighter than his playing weight of 325. He still had that cough, and sister-in-law Marie says that her husband Wayne had told her warily, “That cough concerns me.” But NFL Films’ Didinger found him to be in superb condition and remembers that he even told White upon seeing him: “Jesus, Reggie, you look like you could play again.” A 15-year NFL veteran always has lingering ailments, but White was less concerned with himself than with Sara, who during the summer of 2002 began to experience the symptoms of MS: a burning sensation and heaviness in her legs and problems directing her gait. Says Sara: “I had to think about walking.” In the wake of her diagnosis, Reggie would not let a day pass without somehow letting Sara know of his devotion. On a calendar they had on the wall downstairs, Reggie one day wrote over and over: I love Sara. I love Sara. I love Sara…
Reggie and his family went to a movie on Christmas; they always did that. Reggie loved Bill Cosby, so they saw “Fat Albert” at the cinema where Jecolia worked. Reggie sat on the aisle in the front row, and, as Sara remembers: “He laughed and coughed, laughed and coughed.” His big voice boomed through the theater. When the film ended, Jecolia was delayed by a work obligation, so Sara waited for her while Reggie and Jeremy drove home together. Jeremy remembers when they got back to the house they stood in the back yard looking up at the moon, eerily encircled by rings that evening. Jeremy exclaimed, “Look at that moon! Something is going to happen.” Sara arrived home, chatted aimlessly with Reggie, and then went to bed.
Sara emerged from the drowsiness of sleep at 7:02 a.m. to find Reggie in bed with her, snoring. “I pushed him over like I always did to get him to stop,” says Sara, who adds that a few minutes later Reggie began coughing. “I thought he was getting up, and then I realized he was coughing and choking.” Immediately, Sara sprang to her feet and called 911. Sara administered CPR on her then-unconscious husband until the ambulance crew showed up, at which point she herded her children into a guest room and began praying. “I prayed. I prayed. I prayed,” says Sara. “All I could think of was: ‘How long has he been without oxygen?’ I could not imagine him – the strong man I know physically and spiritually – going through life less than he is.” Concerned neighbors had come over by then, including former NFL players Michael Dean Perry and Anthony Pleasant. The two helped the paramedics load Reggie into the ambulance. Says Perry: “I can still see Sara standing in the doorway.”
Perry asked her, “What happened?”
Sara looked at him blankly and replied, “He just started coughing. He just stopped breathing.”
Word quickly spread among family and close friends, and a vigil commenced in a secluded waiting room at Presbyterian Hospital. One by one they showed up, concerned but hopeful: Sara and Jecolia; her sister Maria; her parents Charles and Maria Copeland; Barnes; Perry and so on; Jeremy showed up later. A doctor eventually came out, and by the way he was speaking to her – saying, “Reggie came in and we did… ” – she immediately thought they had saved him, that the doctor was going to say: “And he is on oxygen now.” But the doctor finally looked at her gravely and told her he was gone. Jecolia screamed. Christie later showed up and remembers that she sat down in a chair and asked over and over, “What happened?” It then occurred to her that she had to call their mother, who sobbed over the line from Tennessee: “Not my baby! Not my baby!”
Shockwaves registered throughout the NFL that Sunday. An autopsy later revealed the presence of sarcoidosis in the lungs and heart, and that it led to what Mecklenburg County, N.C., medical examiner Dr. Michael Sullivan called a fatal arrhythmia; Sullivan added that “sleep apnea may have been a contributing factor”; Sara is certain it was. Friends flew and drove in from across the country for the funeral 4 days later at the University Park Baptist Church in Charlotte. Among them were John Caras and his family from Philadelphia. Says Caras, who changed the direction of his life with the help of Reggie: “There was not a better man.” Sara remembers that people she had not seen in years came up to her and said, “Oh, I had just spoken to Reggie.” Or, “Reggie called me just last week.” Reggie shared his dream with some of them, but others he just called up to say hello. Sara imagined they were exaggerating until she looked at the telephone bill.
“And sure enough, they were telling the truth,” says Sara. “He had called them all. Some people he had not spoken with in 5 years or more.”
She pauses and says, “Something in him knew, but not when or how. He knew it was coming. He knew.”
LIFE GOES ON
Lexi the parrot coughs less than he used to. But occasionally he still does and whenever Sara hears it, something inside of her expects to see Reggie walk into the room. Slowly, she is vacating the Lake Norman house, where in the living room overlooking the still water there is a piano and harp; Reggie had learned to play both. Friends have cautioned her that it is too soon to move, that she should hold off until a year has passed, but this is what she and Reggie had planned to do and so Sara is just going ahead with it. Casual observers would undoubtedly conclude that she is bearing up well, but her father Charles is not always so sure, saying: “If something is bothering her, she would never tell you.” Charles adds that he did not even know she had MS until 6 months ago.
“What good would it have been?” says Sara, who concedes that sometimes the stress gets the better of her and her symptoms become aggravated. “My father is 76 years old. All I would have accomplished is to worry him.”
But she worries about her children, how the years ahead will unfold for them. Jeremy has a summer internship with EA SPORTS in Florida, with the hope of one day creating video games. Jecolia is a fine singer who performed the national anthem at Citizens Bank Park in April, but she appears less inclined toward a show-business career than working in education. Sara says that she and Reggie planned to spend part of the year visiting their two children in an RV with a banner announcing: “WE ARE THE PARENTS OF JEREMY AND JECOLIA WHITE.” Says Sara: “I just have to finish the work that Reggie and I started.”
Sara herself is uncertain what lies ahead, except to say that it is not what she had planned a year ago. “Grandchildren, I hope,” she says. She does know she will follow through with plans to work in real estate, and that it is highly unlikely that she will marry again. She smiles sadly, and says, “Like I said, I cannot train another man.” She explains that it would be unfair to him, that she could never love someone even close to the way she loved Reggie, who remains near to her in every way except physically. Because of that she seldom visits his grave, saying: “He now is with the father.”
She taps her heart and adds, “And he is here.”