PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- The notion has been advanced that Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro defensive end Reggie White might be losing it.
Ron Heller, a tackle who has to block against him in practice, doesn't even try to be polite. He laughs out loud.
"Excuse me," he says, "but that's not even close." And he sneers.
Well, you know, the years accumulate, the body ages, maybe you lose just the teeniest little bit. . . .
David Alexander, the Eagles' center, makes a snorting noise that sounds suspiciously like a horse laugh.
"He's in the best shape I've ever seen him. Just what is it he's supposed to have lost?"
Well, you know, he'll be 31 in December, and isn't it inevitable . ......TC . well, you can't play at such a high level forever . . . isn't it possible he's lost half a step? Quarter of a step?
Mike Golic, who plays alongside White, grins.
"This is a joke, right?"
"No? You're serious? Who's saying that?"
Well, people who probably don't know. . . .
"Damn right they don't know. If they could see the . . . well, I don't want to use the word "rape" -- but if they could see the mugging he takes every game, every play . . . .
"I mean they don't just hold him . . . you'll see them get their hands inside his jersey, hook him way up under the shoulder pads, like this . . . ."
To demonstrate, Golic reaches for your throat, which is a remarkably effective way to close off all further debate.
Still, even though it may be treated as heresy to suggest that there has been the slightest slippage, Reggie White's numbers are down.
The Grand Sack Master of the NFL, the only player who has ever averaged more quarterback pillagings than games played, has four sacks in the first seven games of this season. (His career NFL total is now 114 sacks in 112 games.) That projects to nine for the year, which would be the lowest total in his career.
Maybe that proves something and maybe it doesn't.
As with many statistics, sacks can be misleading. If The Rev played every down just for sacks, blatantly disregarded the run and went for the quarterback each snap, then you suspect that he would obliterate Mark Gastineau's one-season record.
But what about the man himself? Does he feel time nipping like jackals at the wounded lion? You do not ask such a question of a man 6 feet 5 and 305 pounds without some trepidation.
But he smiles pleasantly enough as he wrestles a thick black shirt down over his considerable torso, and responds to one question with one of his own:
"Why don't you ask the guys I play against if I've lost anything?"
Last Sunday, when Reggie White lined up at left end, the Phoenix Cardinals lined up tackle Rick Cunningham and tight end Walter Reeves cheek to jowl across from him. On most passing downs, a running back lingered just behind those two, in case White breached the outer wall. Which he did, frequently.
And that is the most eloquent answer of all. The opposition, every week, still thinks enough of him to double-team him on every play.
And, when they know the quarterback will be in harm's way, to triple him.
"Oh, if they tried to just block him one-on-one," says Alexander, "he'd get -- what, Ron? -- three or four sacks every game?"
"At least," Heller agrees. "At least. And if they didn't hold him every play he might get 20. I think he's playing better now than he ever has."
"The thing is," Alexander says, "you're dealing with not only the strongest guy in the game but also one of the fastest. You know, he put a weight room in his house. This will sound strange, but he looks lighter and yet it seems like there's more of him than there ever was before."
There have been challengers during the years -- most recently the self-trumpeting Bruce Smith of Buffalo -- to White's title of most dominant defensive player in the league. But they all tend to fade away. The two defensive players who seem to be on the rampage this season are Derrick Thomas of Kansas City and Wilber Marshall of Washington. Both are outside linebackers, playing the role invented by Lawrence Taylor.
Lawrence of the Meadowlands may or may not retire after this season, but it is he who also has shown the way for how to play as your skills inexorably give way to age. Taylor learned how to husband his energy, pick his spots. As he aged, he found he could no longer create total chaos on every snap so he saved his passion and energy for when it matters most. Now he may make only half a dozen seismographic plays a game.
"I understand what you're suggesting," White says, "and certainly I know that day will come for me. It comes for every player, sooner or later. But, really, I don't think I've lost anything. I wish I were just a little lighter, but I got back into lifting pretty heavy.
"I feel like I'm a smarter player. Shouldn't I be after all these years? I'm probably not able to get back to the numbers I had earlier because of the holding. Really, I hate to bring this up because it sounds like alibiing. I stopped complaining for a while because it was just getting me into trouble.
"And I won't complain about being held now if they'll just call the game even."
There is reason to suspect that this will be the last season for Reggie White in Philadelphia. His contract expires soon and his past negotiations have been particularly rancorous. He remains bitter, and the Eagles will find it exceedingly difficult to keep him.
So with free agency impending, Reggie White bristles with motivation to write this season in day-glo. Perhaps he even welcomes suggestions that his value will never be greater and that the Eagles would be better served if they traded him for future prospects. The logic is that it is far better to unload a player a year early rather than a year late.
It happens subtlely, gradually, the slow deterioration of a great athlete. There is no flash destruction. One day, one play, you're just a blink late.
And eventually the blinks come faster and last longer.
Pride and ego make denials. When you have been so strong for so long, so swift and overpowering . . . well, how do you bring yourself to admit that the descent has begun?
The answer is, you don't.
Others will tell you.
The ones you play across from will let you know.
At the moment, the ones who play across from Reggie White let him know just this: