Best SEC defensive line alum in NFL history: Reggie White
The SEC lays claim to a number of prolific NFL defensive linemen, but none of those touted SEC alums hold a candle to the Minister of Defense, Reggie White.
White starred at Tennessee from 1980-83, earning a starting job before the end of his freshman season before leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss for three straight years to close his college career. He was a consensus All-American in 1983, posting a school-record 15 sacks on the season, and his 32 career sacks remain a school record more than 30 years later.
White dabbled in the upstart USFL for two seasons, terrorizing the league to the tune of 23.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles in that two-year span. When the league folded in 1985, he was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL, and the rest is history.
He debuted for the Eagles in ’85 and logged 100 tackles and 13 sacks as a rookie, putting the rest of the league on notice. It was the first of 12 double-digit sack seasons during White’s 15-year career, and the first of 10 straight double-digit sack seasons to begin his career. He failed to force a fumble as a rookie, but forced at least one in each of his next 11 seasons in the pros. He forced four fumbles in a season three times, and had another three seasons with three forced fumbles.
In addition to serving as the nastiest pass rusher the league had seen to that point in its history, White also tracked down ball-carriers like a linebacker, making him an even more unstoppable force at the NFL level. He had four seasons with at least 100 tackles, including his rookie year, and recorded at least 76 tackles for nine straight seasons to begin his career.
He retired after the 2000 season with 1,048 career tackles, 198 sacks and 33 forced fumbles, resulting in an average of 69.9 tackles, 13.2 sacks and 2.2 forced fumbles per season in each of his 15 seasons in the league. Those numbers certainly speak for themselves.
White left the game as the NFL’s all-time leader in career sacks, but that record has since been broken by longtime Buffalo Bill Bruce Smith, who retired with 200 sacks to his name.
Nevertheless, there wasn’t another defender during the late-1980s and 1990s as menacing or impactful as the Minister of Defense, which is seen through his 10 first-team All-Pro bids, his 13 Pro Bowl appearances and his spot on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team as well as its 1980s and 1990s All-Decade teams. His number 92 is retired at Tennessee, in Philadelphia and in Green Bay, where White finished his career from 1993-2000. He’s an inductee in the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, and is undoubtedly the best NFL defensive lineman in SEC history.
And in a day and age when the NFL’s reputation is less than stellar amidst domestic violence and sexual assault scandals, White was the ultimate representative of the NFL shield away from the field. He was deeply religious and became an ordained Baptist minister before the end of his Tennessee career thanks to his affiliation with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was vocal in the public eye on issues like racial equality, and this helped shape his image as much as his play on the field.
White suffered a cardiac arrhythmia on Dec. 26, 2004, and although he was rushed to the hospital he was pronounced dead later that same day at the age of 43. He leaves behind his legacy as a monstrous football talent on the field and a kind man off it, and he remains, without question, the best former SEC defensive linemen to ever strap on pads in the NFL.