LOS ANGELES - Reggie White, one of the NFL's fiercest players on the field and most devoted humanitarians off it, died yesterday in Cornelius, N.C., at the age of 43, his wife said.
The cause of death was not immediately known, but a family spokesman said White had suffered from a respiratory ailment for several years that affected his sleep. White died at Presbyterian Hospital, where he was taken after his wife called paramedics. An autopsy is planned.
White, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and an ordained Baptist preacher who was known as the "Minister of Defense," played a total of 15 years with the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers. The defensive end retired in 2000 as the league's all-time sack leader with 198, a mark surpassed last season by the Washington Redskins' Bruce Smith.
"We are deeply saddened by the passing of one of the greatest men ever to play the game of football," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement.
The first marquee player of the NFL's free-agent era, White was the focus of an intense recruiting battle in 1993 involving several teams, among them the Redskins, Packers, San Francisco 49ers, and the New York Giants and Jets. That led to a four-year, $17 million contract with the Packers, making him the league's highest-paid defensive player at the time.
White was one of the plaintiffs of a lawsuit that led to the current system of free agency.
"He meant as much to us off the field as on it," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "He had his name on the lawsuit, and he didn't get one penny. That's just the type of guy he was. His character, his integrity was everything any NFL player should aspire to be."
At the time White signed with the Packers, Mike Holmgren, then Green Bay's coach, called him "the one guy other than a quarterback who can come in and change your whole program around."
White helped lead the Packers to consecutive Super Bowl appearances, including a victory over the New England Patriots in 1997, when he recorded three sacks. In his free time, he concentrated on changing the world around him.
"Reggie White was a gentle warrior who will be remembered as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement. "Equally as impressive as his achievements on the field was the positive impact he made off the field and the way he served as a positive influence on so many young people."
Former and current NFL players expressed shock and disbelief that an incredibly strong competitor who apparently walked away from the game with his health intact was gone.
"When I saw it on the TV ticker, I thought it was a mistake," retired NFL tackle Lincoln Kennedy, an NFL Network analyst, said from his San Francisco Bay Area home. "I thought, 'That can't be right.' I thought I'd missed something. ... To the people in pro football, Reggie White was an icon."
White was elected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 consecutive years from 1986 to 1998; won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1987 and 1998; and was named a member of the league's 75th anniversary team.
During his eight seasons with the Eagles, White and his wife, Sara, spent many hours talking to inner-city children in Philadelphia about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and the importance of staying in school.
He began his pro career with the Memphis Showboats of the U.S. Football League in 1984. When that league folded a year later, White joined the Eagles, who held his NFL rights.
White had a team-record 124 sacks with the Eagles from 1985 to 1992. He then went to Green Bay, where he retired after the 1998 season, but returned to the NFL in 2000 for a final year with the Panthers.
Although White had hoped to launch a TV career after retiring from the Packers, his options dwindled after he denounced homosexuality on religious grounds and used ethnic stereotypes in a speech to the Wisconsin Legislature in 1998. He later apologized for the comments.
ESPN said yesterday that White had been studying Judaism and hadn't been to church in four years.
Survivors include White's wife, Sara, and two teenage children, Jeremy and Jecolia. There was no immediate word on funeral services.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.