Thursday, December 30, 2004

Reggie White, R.I.P.

Going into the Friday game, we had the Packers' pathetic historical record in the dome, pointing in one direction, and the Vikings' traditional late-season collapse, pointing in the other. Most Packer fans, including me, were probably pretty pessimistic about the chances for the Packers.

Lots of bad things happened during the game. The Packers' defense could not stop the Vikings all day long. Favre threw his traditional interception as a Christmas gift to the Vikings, although this one was caused more by a tremendous leaping grab by Claiborne than by an error by Favre. But, to make matters worse, this interception took place in the fourth quarter, with the score tied. To make matters worse still, this interception was returned for the go-ahead touchdown.

Not content to let this one slip away, Favre guided the Packers on a 5 minute, 13-play drive, which ended when Favre threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Driver on 4th down. The score was tied, with over 3 minutes left to play. Still, the way the defense had been playing all season, it would have been no shock for the defense to let the Vikings drive downfield for the winning score. But for once, the defense rose to the occasion, with the help of a couple of penalties on the Vikings, and forced a punt.

The Packers had the ball, at their own 13 yard line, with 1:35 to go and 2 timeouts. That deep in their own territory, on the road, would they play for the tie and take the game into overtime? Not without taking some carefully controlled shots at some yardage first. The Packers proceeded to mount another long drive, with 12 plays, leading to the game-winning field goal as time expired.

Ryan Longwell deserves a lot of credit. This is the fourth time in the last seven weeks he has kicked game-winning field goals in the final seconds of a game. He is certainly not perfect (longer kickoffs would be nice), but he is as dependable as any kicker in the league in this kind of situation. And Mike Sherman deserves a lot of credit, too. Quietly, almost without anyone noticing, he has built a 7-3 record against the Vikings, including a 3-2 record at the dome. When you consider that Mike Holmgren's record against the Vikings was 5-9, and 1-6 in the dome, Sherman's accomplishment in turning around that futility is significant and welcome. As a result, the Packers won the division for the third year in a row, and will have their home game in the first round of the playoffs. All was well in the world of the Green and Gold.

Until Sunday morning. That is when the shocking news came of Reggie White's death, at the age of 43. The day Reggie White signed with the Packers is probably etched in the minds of many of us. Living in the San Francisco area, I can remember very well the smug assumption in these parts that Reggie would sign with the 49ers. After all, they were the "classiest organization in all of sports" (as 49er fans and media types were fond of telling us) and they had been at or near the top since 1981. Why wouldn't someone like Reggie want to jump on board? I remember being asked by a 49er fan that day, "Did we get Reggie White?" Which allowed me to use the punch line of the old joke, "What you mean WE, kemosabe?"

None of us will soon forget the sight of Reggie White taking a victory lap around the Super Dome after Super Bowl XXXI, with the Lombardi trophy held high for all to see. My family will never forget his graciousness in posing for a picture with us, at the San Francisco hotel restaurant, the night before the NFC Championship game the following year, or the fact that he signed and send back the picture to us after it was developed.

Reggie White was on the receiving end of criticism for some of his politically incorrect remarks off the football field, to some extent deservedly so. Let us not dwell on that now. Nobody who is honest about it will dispute that this was a good man, a proud man of faith, and one who tried to do the right thing in his personal and professional life. He was also a phenomenal football player. The two games that stand out most in my mind were the game against Denver, in 1993 (Reggie's first year with the Packers) when he single-handedly preserved the victory by sacking Elway several times on the pivotal, 4th quarter drive, and of course Super Bowl XXXI, when he did the same thing to Drew Bledsoe late in the game. He left us far too soon, and there is no more fitting tribute to him than the New Testament epigraph that appears at the beginning of the book Reggie wrote with Andrew Thomas:

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

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