Athletes in general, and football players in particular, often seem two-dimensional creatures. With the exception of the biggest stars, few know their faces, and few know much about their off-field lives either.
Reggie White proved the exception to that rule. A new ESPN documentary explores how White not only became one of football’s greatest defenders ever, but became known as much for his faith as his football.
“The Minister of Defense” also gives a new dimension to White’s journey of faith, one that defies potential stereotypes from the right or the left. By airing footage from a long-lost interview just before his tragic death in 2004, the film reveals a devout man searching for answers, walking humbly toward Truth in a way that should inspire us all.
The first hour-plus of the documentary profiles White’s stellar football career. Beginning with his college career at the University of Tennessee and continuing in the short-lived USFL, followed by the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, and Carolina Panthers of the National Football League, White proved a dominant force, perhaps the preeminent pass rusher of his generation.
White had an immense effect off the field too, in multiple ways. Fans today may not remember it, but three decades ago, White became a leader in the movement to give football players access to free agency. Along with several other players, he filed a lawsuit against the NFL demanding the right to sign with the team of his choice. And in 1993, he did just that, leaving Philadelphia to join Green Bay following a high-profile courtship from several teams that set the stage for the bidding wars for top talent now seen in today’s NFL.
White also became recognized for his faith in a way that few players then or now are associated with. Ordained a preacher while in college, his feats on the field and his charismatic preaching from the pulpit — and his interviews in which he infused the Gospel message into his football discussions — earned him the moniker “Minister of Defense.”
The documentary of the same name explores how White’s faith influenced his football relationships. While in Philadelphia, he tried to serve as a mentor to Jerome Brown, White’s hard-charging young teammate on the Eagles’ defensive line. Brown’s death in a car accident at age 27 hit White hard, given their close relationship.
Shortly thereafter, upon moving to Green Bay, White developed another unique friendship with Brett Favre and arguably helped save the latter’s life. Having lost his friend Brown tragically, White helped encourage Favre to seek treatment for his addiction to Vicodin and other pain medications. (Ironically, Favre said in the documentary that a hit from White that damaged his shoulder, given while White was still playing for Philadelphia, helped spark his painkiller addiction.)
Journey of Faith
The last third of the documentary is a pivot point to White’s 1998 address to the Wisconsin Legislature, given shortly after White and the Packers finally won a Super Bowl title. In his remarks to the lawmakers, and in subsequent interviews, White made references to homosexuality that attracted headlines and controversy.
At this point, one could easily attempt to pigeonhole White and his comments along traditional political lines. Leftists could denounce White as a homophobe and a bigot, while conservatives could attack “cancel culture” after sponsors nixed endorsement deals following his speech. The film explores some of these themes and interviews individuals offended by White’s comments.
But other excerpts of White’s address reveal a broader dynamic at play. In trying to echo Saint Paul’s analogy from the Corinthians about “different gifts but the same Spirit,” White incorporated a number of descriptors that can only be characterized as stereotypical. White Americans have skills in organizing, African Americans have skills in worship, celebrating, and “jumping up and down. … Hispanics were gifted in family structure … and they can put 20, 30 people in one home.”
At best, the speech might charitably be called a naïve person’s attempt to sound intellectual. It almost sounded like a parody, a real-life Michael Scott of “The Office” engaging in “Diversity Day.” Whatever one’s views on homosexuality, the speech revealed that White still had much to learn about life and his faith. He would spend what would be the final years of his life doing just that.
Search for Truth
Around the time of the Wisconsin speech, White began that search for a deeper meaning, as his football career drew to a close. He traveled to Israel and took up Hebrew — not an easy language to learn at any age.
He wanted to learn the Gospel in its original language, to understand it more fully. Having become a preacher in his youth without going to seminary, White wanted to take a Baptist faith heritage that he had effectively inherited and make it truly his. And in so doing, he came to a more nuanced and complex view of life and his faith than the religion of his youth.
The 2004 interview conducted just before his death put that nuance in stark relief. He said that earlier instances where he had claimed God had spoken to him about life choices like signing with Green Bay had not occurred. White went so far as to use the term “prostitute” to describe those who manipulate faith for selfish purposes.
His interviewer, longtime Philadelphia sportswriter Ray Didinger, asked White if he realized he had done good things earlier in his life. Didinger had accompanied White to numerous trips into deprived areas of Philadelphia when the Eagles star had engaged in countless community service projects — while flatly refusing any publicity for his efforts.
Upon Didinger’s prompting — “You know you did good things, right?” — White seemed less certain. He searched for the right words and expressed no small amount of discomfort at the notion that, altruistic intentions notwithstanding, he may have misled others.
That interview seems most powerful for echoing the words of Lincoln a century and a half ago: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
As White’s son Jeremy put it, Reggie in his final years approached his faith from a “growth mindset,” and that mentality meant that he had to be comfortable in a “gray area” — that faith can provide guidance, but it may not always provide the clear answers we seek.
That story, of a man on his faith journey, gives “The Minister of Defense” an importance and an example that goes far beyond the gridiron. Perhaps most appropriately, the film closes with its title subject using his distinctive, gravelly baritone to sing the old words of John Newton:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, But now am found
Was blind, but now I see!
“The Minister of Defense” will re-air on the ESPN family of networks, or is available via ESPN Plus.