White's signing changed Packers' fortunes

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A year before Reggie White arrived in Green Bay, the city's storied National Football League franchise had already begun its resurgence.

Team president Bob Harlan had set it in motion by hiring Ron Wolf as general manager. Wolf had brought a blueprint and a well-respected reputation from his days as Al Davis' top personnel aide with the Raiders.

Mike Holmgren had raised eyebrows by spurning several other offers to accept the head coaching position and had installed both a structure and a system that was patterned after the San Francisco 49ers, where he had served as offensive coordinator during the Bill Walsh dynasty. Brett Favre, an unbridled but immensely talented quarterback, had created hope by leading the Packers to a 9-7 record in his first season as a starter.

But it was White, more than anyone else, who restored the franchise's credibility, and he did so with nothing more than a stroke of a pen. The day he signed as a free agent -- April 6, 1993 -- the Packers earned back their good name.

That will be White's lasting legacy as a Green Bay Packer.

How did White's signing change the franchise? The Packers have compiled the best record in football since 1993. They have qualified for the playoffs for the 10th time in the last 12 years. They have won a Super Bowl and came close to winning another.

They have nurtured and sustained a worldwide fan base, and some in their organization would say, a more rightful claim than the Dallas Cowboys to the sobriquet, "America's Team."

What many have forgotten, perhaps, is how low the Packers had stooped before White arrived on the scene.

Over 25 seasons after Vince Lombardi had resigned as coach following Super Bowl II, the Packers had enjoyed only six winning seasons. They had reached the playoffs only twice and had won only one playoff game.

While Lambeau Field was sold out on a season-ticket basis for every game, no-show counts in excess of 10,000 were not uncommon.

Over that same period, as a series of lawsuits and bitter negotiations with the Players Association raised the likelihood of true free agency coming to the NFL, club officials lived in constant fear that the franchise would no longer be able to compete for upper echelon players or even survive.

The word also was spreading throughout the league that Green Bay, with its miniscule minority population, had nothing to offer African-American players. Indeed, many of the Packers' black players had started to openly complain about the social drawbacks to living in Green Bay and the lack of endorsement opportunities to be found there.

The complaints were magnified in May, 1987, when Packers James Lofton and Mossy Cade, two black players, were simultaneously tried on sexual assault charges. Cade was convicted; Lofton was acquitted.

Regardless of the verdicts, the Packers' franchise appeared to have hit rock bottom.

White was "The Knight in Shining Armor" who rescued it.

Three months after a collective bargaining agreement was reached that brought free agency to the NFL, White, the most coveted player available, stunned the football world and signed with the Packers for four years and $17 million.

On the field, White's contributions over the next six seasons far exceeded the investment.

He became the anchor of a defense that ranked No. 1 in the league when the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. With his signature pass-rush techniques, he registered 76½ sacks and retired -- after a final season in Carolina in 2000 -- as the game's all-time sack leader.

He cemented his place in history as one of the greatest defensive ends, if not one of the greatest defensive players, in the history of the league. He was the emotional and spiritual leader of a football team that, after his signing, attracted free agents such as Sean Jones, Keith Jackson, Andre Rison and Desmond Howard, each of whom would be instrumental to the Packers' 12th NFL championship.

He energized a small community and became -- along with Favre -- one of the most recognizable faces in the state of Wisconsin. He is all but a cinch to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in February, 2006, if not before, if the selection committee considers waiving its five-year waiting period, as some have already suggested, following his death Sunday at age 43.

And once White joins the Hall, his name will adorn the inner walls of Lambeau alongside the franchise's other legends: Lambeau, Lombardi, Hutson, Starr, Nitschke and some 15 others. Willie Davis, one of 12 defensive ends in the Hall of Fame and one of the Packers legends of the Vince Lombardi era, said he would probably rank White as the most complete defensive end of them all.

But for the Packers, it was the symbolism of Reggie White's signing that proved priceless.

It erased the stigma that Green Bay was "The Siberia of the NFL," just as Lombardi's success in the 1960s had after the Packers' last famine.

It echoed a message across the league that if one of the game's best players and one of its most visible black players found Green Bay appealing why wouldn't any other prospective free agent.

In a sense, it was a fashion statement like no other in the franchise's 86-year history.

Cliff Christl is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Packer Insider