By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
February 3, 2006
White, the greatest pass rusher the NFL has ever known, is almost assured on Saturday to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2006, just over 13 months since dying of arrhythmia at the age of 43.
His expected enshrinement this August is sure to bring White back into the spotlight, flushing the public with memories of his dominating play on the field and his high-profile Christian preaching off of it. But it will also bring to a controversial light the striking conflict between that man and the one who found what he called his greatest victories down in that basement with his nose in an ancient book.
Ordained at 17, White earned the nickname "The Minister of Defense" in college, but he didn't believe in ministers in his final years.
White, who used his considerable fame to preach the Bible, didn't believe in the Bible. White, who had his own church in Tennessee (one that was burned to the ground in a likely hate crime), didn't believe in churches.
But in that basement office in his home in Charlotte, N.C., and in repeated trips to Israel, White found a new version of the truth that seemed to humble him, perhaps frighten him, and make him question everything he once thought and so thoroughly believed.
"Reggie was a person who stood on his beliefs," his widow Sara said. "He was a person that was always solid in what he said, that never backed down. What he believed, he said."
But what Reggie White believed and said began to change after retiring in 2000. Ever an insatiable learner, he began to question what exactly his Bible was teaching him, how it was written and where it came from.
So he poured himself into learning not just Hebrew, but how Hebrew was spoken at the time of Christ. He spent six, seven hours a day studying, and he studied so hard that he could eventually take the original Torah, which is what many believe is the original Word of God, and translate it for himself.
What he found changed everything. What he found, he believed, could change everything.
Sara White marveled at her husband's passion for the truth. She had known Reggie since college and married him when she was just 21, yet he never ceased to amaze her. Here he was each morning, forsaking celebrity golf outings and easy speaking engagements, to spend hours and hours in solitude painstakingly translating Hebrew.
"He would come upstairs and say, 'Did you know, this, this and this?' " said Sara on Thursday, as the faint afternoon light peaked through the stained glass of the old Mariner's Church in downtown Detroit, where she conducted interviews for a forthcoming DVD about Reggie. "He would teach me what he learned. He found, first off, (that the) King James (Bible) was taken out of context, a lot. A lot of words were added. A lot of words were subtracted.
"He found that in the Torah, in Hebrew, things that may have been taken literal shouldn't have been. Some things that were idioms at that time, today people don't understand those idioms because they were their time. Just like in 40 years, people aren't going to understand our idioms.
"(For example) 'I paid an arm and a leg for this shirt.' Guess what, in 40 years they are going to think I paid a literal arm and a literal leg for this shirt. What Reggie understood, and he taught us, is that you have to go back to the way they were living and understand their mindset."
Reggie meticulously translated each word and then put it in context. Sara says he found alarming inaccuracies. Some of it was lost in translations, Hebrew being translated into Greek and then being translated into another language. Some may have been just simple errors, the product of an era before moveable type.
Some were not so honest, Reggie White believed.
"And so, that was what he was getting to – there were so many mistakes in the translations," said Sara while her sister nodded in agreement. "That is why he was so doggone eager to (translate it himself)."
Each day brought new clarity, new opinions and more dismay that so much of what Reggie had once preached he no longer believed. He began to wonder if he had been used and lied to by ministers. He regretted using his fame to raise so much money for various churches he felt weren't true to God.
He felt, he told NFL Films just four days before dying, "prostituted."
"Reggie felt like the churches had become polluted because they were following man's tradition instead of God," Sara said. "We felt like early on, (the) idea (of churches) was right, but then later on it was polluted because now, instead of going with what God was saying, they added to The Word. They added their opinions rather than just reading.
"Now we have preachers preaching their opinion which distorts The Word. It should be (called) opinion churches, or motivational speakers. For our family and for many people who was studying the Torah with us, it created a sense of excitement because now the things we felt uncomfortable (about) in church wasn't our imagination. It was we should have been uncomfortable.
"We should have been uncomfortable with some idols, with some idol worshipping, with people bowing down to the pastor, people putting the pastor on a pedestal."
The change in the White home was dramatic. Reggie discarded all athletic awards that included a statue of a football player, since it was a false idol. His kids' Beanie Babies soon followed. The Whites had never celebrated Easter because it is not in the Bible (they observed Passover), but they have eliminated the celebration of Christmas, too.
"We all knew the Messiah wasn't born on Christmas Day, December 25. We all knew that was just a representation to celebrate his life," Sara said. "But after we started reading how Christmas came about, with the pagan holiday of the sun solstice, then we stopped celebrating Christmas.
"What (they) were trying to do as a traditional church was satisfy the Christians and give them Christmas. When really, in fact, we are worshipping the solstice, the winter solstice; The Word says, 'Don't do it.' "
Perhaps no professional athlete had evangelized more often or more publicly than Reggie White. During his playing days, he preached at every opportunity. He mentored young players. He spoke out against sin. He even had a habit, after mowing over some opposing offensive lineman, to go back, help him up and say, "Jesus loves you."
When he left the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent in 1993, he said God influenced his decision to sign with the Green Bay Packers, with whom he won a second Defensive Player of the Year award and a Super Bowl.
It is at least some of White's trailblazing that allowed so many Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks to feel comfortable speaking about their faith in the run-up to Sunday's Super Bowl XL. For his entire career, White was the ultimate example of a Christian athlete. He was officially non-denominational, but to Evangelical Christians, he was one of them.
"Reggie gave (people) permission to stand on their faith, whatever faith that was," Sara White said. "It's OK for a man to cry. It's OK for a man to pray. It's OK for a man to love his wife. It's OK for a man to say they are not going out on their wife – that it was OK to be moral and not be crazy.
"He had changed the perspective of people of what a real man is."
Now, in death, Reggie stands at odds with many Christians. Sara says he even stopped calling himself Christian and preferred to be known as "Believer" after studying the Torah. He eschewed any organized religion, but he held on to most of his same convictions.
Reggie's most controversial statement came in 1998 while addressing the Wisconsin Legislature. He declared, "Homosexuality is a decision, it's not a race. People from all different ethnic backgrounds live in this lifestyle. But people from all different ethnic backgrounds also are liars and cheaters and malicious and backstabbing."
There was a major furor. Sara says he never backed down from that stance.
"Oh, no, no, no. That didn't change," she said. "Homosexuality wasn't changed. And let me just tell you about our Wisconsin legislators. They were not as bad as people reported them to be. The media tore that up.
"I believe God allowed that to happen to put some thick skin on Reggie because Reggie was hurt by it. Because he was there, he knew what he said, he knew how it was reported and he is very sensitive. But I think God allowed that to give him thicker skin for where he was going to go. Because where he was going to go was much deeper than that."
The thing that makes religion the ultimate hot-button issue is that almost no one wants to admit what they believe and what they've taught and been taught, or how they've taught or been taught, may be wrong. Throughout history, wars have routinely been fought over this.
And that is what makes Reggie White's journey fascinating to some and frightening to others. Here he was, once the most vocal of his kind, now saying he had been duped. The Bible thumper said the Bible was bunk.
"Reggie was before his time," Sara said. "People were not ready for Reggie. Pastors were not ready for Reggie.
"Pastors were intimidated by Reggie because Reggie knew the truth, and they knew that he knew the truth and they knew a little bit of the truth. But they said their congregation wasn't ready for the truth and they'd lose their congregation.
"So what would that lead to? No money in the church."
James Brown, the Fox Sports broadcaster and a close friend of Reggie White, says the player had plans to build a movie studio to make wholesome, family-based shows. Brown said White dreamed of theme parks. Some of White's other friends claim he was planning to take his message big, that he was just getting started.
It isn't difficult to imagine White's Hall of Fame induction being the start of him proselytizing about a new belief, about all those hours in the basement office.
Sara White isn't so sure. Being wrong had scared Reggie like nothing else.
"He was so fearful because he had taught at a mass scale for so much of his life and he felt he wasn't preaching exactly what The Word said because it was polluted," she said. "But Reggie didn't know it was polluted. (I said) 'You were preaching from your heart, from God. This is what you knew.'
"He said he didn't want to take the chance. He wanted to study until he knew everything. I said, 'Reggie, you'll never know everything. But you know everything on this subject, you have been studying this. Just teach this. Teach one thing at a time.' "
But White wasn't ready. And his time ended before he ever was prepared.
Sara White understands some of these beliefs won't be popular. But she also says she and Reggie and so many others are correct. She trusts her late husband's translations. She trusts his faith.
And her life is not wrapped up in it. She has children to raise and a career to run.
Sara has started a company called "Power of 92" and is selling hats and other items on the website Reggie92.com, with proceeds to help former NFL players who don't receive much from the league pension. There is the work-in-progress DVD. Her son is also writing a book about his father.
She is busy. And now, after 13 tough months, Saturday should bring word that her husband is headed to Canton and a day for a long-awaited celebration. But she knows the spotlight is coming with it.
Sara White is not sure what Reggie's old fans will think of what he came to believe before his death. But she isn't hiding it. She is excited that maybe some will question what they have been taught, question their religious institutions and perhaps dedicate themselves to learning Hebrew, the culture of the time and translating The Word themselves.
It is, she believes, one of the good things that can come out of the death of Reggie White.
"God," she said with a slight, knowing nod, "had a plan."
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Saturday, Feb 4, 2006 6:05 pm, EST