As prearranged during the dog days of preseason football practice, Reggie White accepted this reporter's phone call to his Wisconsin home. The inspirational leader of the Green Bay Packers acknowledged being tired after a long day of practice, but he was cordial and aware of the need to publicize his new autobiography, "In the Trenches."
That conversation came to mind Sunday as White's team defeated the Carolina Cougars, 30-13, to advance to the Jan. 26 Super Bowl in New Orleans. Although White, a perennial all-pro defensive lineman, played a relatively quiet game along the line of scrimmage by his standards, his teammates readily gravitated to him in the game's final moments. They clearly wanted to congratulate the veteran who's needed the patience of Job to reach this point.
In White's book, he explains that in all his years playing football - in high school, college, and professionally with the Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, and the old Memphis Showboats of the defunct United States Football League - he never had a single championship season. Despite logging more quarterback sacks than any player in history, making the Pro Bowl 10 straight years, and being virtually assured of a place in the Hall of Fame, White said he would have traded all those Pro Bowls "for just one Super Bowl - in a heartbeat."
White is a deeply religious man, an ordained minister whose Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tenn., was firebombed last January during a period of destructive acts against black churches. During his conversation with the Monitor, he talked about efforts to rebuild his church and to create a togetherness among the Packer players. His most startling answer, however, came in crediting his success as a pass rusher to "playing with meekness."
As illogical as that may sound coming from someone who plays a sometimes violent game, White said the personal key for him was learning to play with "controlled aggression." In the world of pro football, this might suffice for meekness. Certainly, the two teams that have made it to the NFL's championship game excel in controlling the decisive moments that ultimately sort the winners from the losers in today's competitively balanced National Football League.
The New England Patriots, the American Football Conference counterparts to the NFC champion Packers, are steeped in the Bill Parcells school of minimizing mistakes. Mental errors of any kind can cause the volcanic New England coach to erupt, since he views blown assignments as the surest way to defeat.
In some ways, his tough but fair treatment of his players makes him about as close a descendant of Vince Lombardi as exists today. To date, his results in the Super Bowl have been on par with those of Green Bay's famed coach of the 1960s, who guided the Packers to victories in Super Bowls I and II.
Parcells, as coach of the New York Giants in the 1980s, earned championship rings in Super Bowls XXI and XXV, the latter with the narrowest victory (20-19 over Buffalo) in the game's history.
Gatorade dousings of Parcells by the Giants started the trend that has bucket baths common celebratory practice around the league. Both he and Green Bay Mike Holmgren, the ever-composed Green Bay coach, got them on Sunday despite frigid temperatures, especially in Wisconsin, where the wind-chill factor was minus 17 F.
Parcells masterminded New England's 20-6 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars and now could become the first coach to lead two different teams to Super Bowl triumphs. Holmgren, doesn't have Parcells's head coaching credentials, but he comes thoroughly versed in the thinking-man's approach to winning Super Bowls, learned as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers. Some observers don't consider either Green Bay or New England as superior teams. The league's best team, at least "on any given Sunday," may still be Dallas, which won three of the last four Super Bowls but imploded partly from the weight of its own image, it seems, this year, losing to Carolina two weeks ago.
The league probably should feel indebted to the Packers and Patriots, though, for preventing a pair of second-year expansion teams - Carolina and Jacksonville - from advancing to the NFL championship game.
That would have been a case of NFL-style parity making a mockery of traditional team-building. Franchises with such brief histories simply shouldn't reach Super Sunday, yet free agency and changes in the way expansion rosters are stocked have contributed to making Carolina and Jacksonville better than most teams. Upsets "on any given Sunday" occur "on every given Sunday" these days, a situation that makes coaches ever more important. Nobody wins, though, without solid-state quarterbacking, and in Brett Favre and Drew Bledsoe, Green Bay and New England have two of the best.
Favre, this season's National Football League Player of the Year, has withstood a series of off-field personal challenges, which began shortly after last season when he admitted he was addicted to a painkiller. Bledsoe does not have Favre's consistency, nor his artful dodger moves, yet he is one of the game's best pure throwers when on. Nevertheless, Parcells has worked diligently to create a healthy balance on his team, and few would argue that the defense won Sunday's game, which is the way the coach nicknamed the Big Tuna likes it.
That Green Bay and New England should meet in the Super Bowl is both poetic and ironic; poetic because both teams have deep roots - Green Bay as a pioneering NFL member and New England as a charter American Football League team - and ironic because the Packers practically define Green Bay while the Patriots reside in sort of geographic limbo between Boston and Providence, R.I. When the team has done poorly, which has often been the case, it has played fourth fiddle in Boston behind the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins.
Now the Patriots are the toast of Boston, yet the city is not exactly riding to the rescue of local owner Bob Kraft with a desirable new stadium site. Kraft conceivably could move elsewhere if he gets a good offer. Then, too, Parcells might be gone since everything's on a year-to-year basis and he might want more control over all aspects of team operations, including player acquisitions, than he currently exercises.
With the Patriots, life has often been depressing but never dull. Now opportunities for Parcells to make history, for Kraft to woo more political favor, and for the Patriots to erase the memories of 1986's 46-10 Super Bowl defeat to Chicago have coalesced in one game.
The Packers, meanwhile, seek to keep the NFC's 12-game Super Bowl winning streak alive and serve notice that the smallest major-league city in America can still produce a big winner.