NFL great Reggie White (brown shirt) visited the Bucs during training camp this past summer and made a strong impression on DE Simeon Rice
The surprising and tragic news of Reggie White's death Sunday morning gave Jon Gruden a deep feeling of loss long before his team took the field later that day.
Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost a 37-20 decision to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon, a defeat that will linger with him and his fellow coaches and players. But those feelings don't compare with the experience of losing a good friend.
"You can measure defeat easily," said Gruden. "It is a sick feeling, but death is final and I am not really good at that. I certainly wish [his wife] Sara White and her family the best."
Gruden, whose NFL coaching career has brought him alongside some of the legends of the game, may not have encountered any players greater than White, who racked up 198 sacks during a brilliant 15-year career. Of course, few of White's friends and associates were concerned with his football statistics on Sunday; rather, they mourned the loss of a man who achieved so much more of the field through kindness and generosity.
"Reggie was a very close friend of mine," said Gruden. "It was a tragic loss for mankind and certainly for a lot of us that knew him."
Gruden was a coach on the Green Bay Packers staff during White's first two years in Wisconsin, 1993-94.
White arrived as one of the first big-name free agents under the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement, and he immediately helped revive a team that had been down for many years. Gruden credits White and Brett Favre with turning around a team that had been down for some time. He also said White helped his own career progress.
Gruden, who makes a point of honoring the game's great performers and trying to get his current players to do the same, maintained a relationship with White over the years. It was not surprising, then, that White showed up at an off-season Buccaneer alumni event and, later, a day at the team's training camp at Gruden's request.
White's visit to camp this past summer meant a lot to defensive end Simeon Rice, one of the game's current pass-rushing stars. Rice has aspirations of joining White among the league's all-time sack leaders, and he made certain to seek some one-on-one time with the second-leading sacker in NFL history.
"I had a private conversation with him," said Rice. "Reggie White was exemplary for any man who is going to grow up and raise a family. When a guy like that comes along, he leaves good footsteps to follow."
White set on-field standards that would be difficult for any player to match. A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, he was selected to a league-record 13 consecutive Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team as one of the greatest players in league history. He was astonishingly consistent – only three times during his 15-year career did he fail to record double-digit sack totals, including his 2000 comeback season in Carolina, in which he had a career-low 5.5. In his final season in Green Bay in 1998, his 14th year in the league, White racked up 16 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Of course, White's impact was felt off the field, as well. Called a 'gentle warrior' on Sunday by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, White was an ordained minister who never passed up an opportunity, on or off the field, to change a person's life. Rice appreciates White's legacy on both accounts.
"He was one of the greatest to have ever played," said Rice. "He opened doors for myself and for the younger guys that came after me even as a man, which is greater than anything, the way he lived. He was a great man and hopefully this league finds a way to really pay tribute to him."