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White Makes His Conversion to Green Bay : Football: Hospitality, straight talk brought defensive lineman to the Packers. He wants to take them to a title.

September 02, 1993|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Reggie White sat down at a posh San Francisco restaurant this winter, he couldn't help but notice the centerpiece. Well, center pieces. Four Super Bowl trophies decorated the table.

In Washington, they paraded three Super Bowl trophies. In Cleveland, they showered White and his wife with gifts.

But the wooing of White ended in Green Bay. Seventeen million dollars had a lot to do with it, but so did the work of an impromptu flight attendant, a charter flight in a snowstorm and a message from the heavens on White's answering machine.

White, an ordained Baptist minister, and his wife were flying back from the Pro Bowl on the same plane as Packer receiver Sterling Sharpe. Sharpe made sure the Whites were comfortable and had everything they needed.

"He was serving us," White said, laughing. "Then he said, 'You ought to come to Green Bay,' but I said, 'Sterling, you know my ministry is focused toward the inner city and Green Bay doesn't have an inner city. There ain't no black people up there.'

"Then Sterling says, 'White people need to be saved, too. You got to think about that.' "

Still, White almost didn't make it to Green Bay for his scheduled visit. He was in Detroit, wondering whether inclement weather would close the airport.

"I told my agent, 'If we have to spend the night here, I'm going home tomorrow, not to Green Bay.' But he said the Packers were sending a plane, so I went."

Then came the final touch, when Green Bay Coach Mike Holmgren left a message at White's home: "Reggie, this is God. Go to Green Bay."

"I thought, in my quiet desperation, I'd take one more shot, so I left that message," Holmgren said. "I hope no one gets too upset about it. Reggie has a good sense of humor and his Christianity and my Christianity are very close, so he took it the way I meant it.

"Actually, I stole that idea from Reggie. He told me he had recruited a person for his ministry that way."

In the end, it wasn't glitzy hardware or lavish gifts that impressed White. It was a lot of money, a bit of nostalgia and some straight talk.

"When I visited Green Bay, I was intrigued with their tradition," White said. "When I walked into the Packer Hall of Fame and saw Vince Lombardi and Willie Davis and Bart Starr, I knew I would like to end my career with that tradition.

"But still I was thinking, 'Man, it's cold up here. I don't know if my family wants to come up here.' And I had questions about my ministry in a mostly white community. But I knew the money would give me the opportunity to do some of the things I wanted to do in the inner cities.

"And Mike Holmgren and (defensive coordinator) Ray Rhodes had a lot to do with it. They weren't flamboyant about things, promising this and that. They didn't bad-mouth other teams. They just let me know the way it was going to be.

"I was really impressed when they came to my home (in Knoxville, Tenn.) and we spent some time together. I felt Mike was a good coach and I liked the direction this team is going."

Had it been up to White, he would be in Cleveland right now. Cleveland was the second stop on his whirlwind tour of the NFL and, for White, two was enough.

"To be honest, I had made up my mind to sign with Cleveland, so I didn't want to go on any more trips," he said. "I mean my mind was as far away from Green Bay as is possible. So I know it had to be a godsend for me to be here."

Godsend? Just talk to the folks in Green Bay. Never before have so many kids lined up to buy jerseys with the No. 92 on the back. A lot of people in Wisconsin figure the seven-time Pro Bowl selection, the only player in league history to have more sacks (124) than games played (121), would be able to single-handedly turn a 9-7 team into a championship contender.

"Everyone knows what type of football player Reggie is and the minute we signed him, we became a better football team," Holmgren said. "The problem is that the minute we signed him, the people of Green Bay thought it meant we were automatically in the Super Bowl."

Clearly, White will make a difference. Every offensive line coach on the Packers' schedule will spend the better part of a week working on a plan to slow him down.

"He's a great player because he has size, speed, strength and quickness," Ram Coach Chuck Knox said. "In passing situations, they're going to move him around a lot. They can put him on any one of your five offensive linemen, so certainly, you have to be aware of where he is.

"He can make a lot of things happen."

There is, however, only one savior in White's life. He understands the enthusiasm of Packer fans, but says he won't be burdened by their expectations when the Packers open the season against the Rams Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee.

"My goal is to go out and give everything I have, but I'm not out to please the media or the fans or to win their approval," he said. "The important thing is to get the players' and organization's approval.

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