A new era of Eagles football dawned on September 29, 1985. That was the day Reggie White played his first game in Philadelphia.
"We were all taken aback by just how dominant Reggie was," said John Spagnola, a tight end on that Eagles team. "We had heard his name and read good things about him, but most of us took a wait-and-see attitude. Once he stepped on the field, though, it was clear he was something special."
White joined the Eagles in Week 4 of the regular season after completing a full spring schedule with the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League. He was the top defensive lineman in the USFL, but no one knew if he would be the same destructive force in the NFL. He answered that question almost immediately.
"I had never seen anyone that big and that strong who could move that fast," said Herman Edwards, who was playing cornerback that season. "He was so explosive. He drove (blockers) back like they were on roller skates."
"He came in and pretty much took over," said head coach Marion Campbell.
The Eagles were playing the New York Giants that day at Veterans Stadium. It was a typical Bill Parcells team, tough on defense and stout across the offensive line. The Giants had only a sketchy scouting report on White. They weren't prepared for the 6-5, 295-pounder to take over the game but that's what he did.
White wore jersey number 91 in his debut because another defensive lineman, Smiley Creswell, was wearing 92. He lined up at defensive tackle and the Giants could not handle him. White finished with 10 tackles and two and a half sacks in his first NFL game. He was in the face of Giants quarterback Phil Simms all day.
"I remember thinking, 'Boy, I'm glad this guy is on our side,'" Spagnola said.
The Eagles weren't able to do anything on offense – they managed just 11 first downs and 54 net passing yards – but the defense, led by White, kept them in the game. They sacked Simms four times and forced five fumbles. The defense scored the Eagles' only touchdown: an interception return by Edwards off a pass deflected ... by White. It is the shortest touchdown return in Eagles history: 3 yards.
By the fourth quarter, the Vet Stadium crowd was chanting, "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" Eagles fans have a special affection for defensive players going all the way back to Chuck Bednarik and continuing through Brian Dawkins, but no one had the immediate impact of Reggie White.
The Eagles took the game to overtime but lost 16-10 on an interception return by Elvis Patterson. Still, they knew they had found something in the man they called The Minister of Defense. He was a one-man wrecking crew.
White finished the season with 13 sacks and he was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. It was remarkable when you consider he played an entire 18-game USFL season before he joined the Eagles. He played the equivalent of two seasons back to back and never slowed down.
After the season, owner Norman Braman replaced Campbell with Buddy Ryan, and White's career really took off. He led the league in sacks in consecutive seasons (21 in 1987, 18 in 1988) as the Eagles climbed from the bottom of the NFC East to a division title in 1988. White never had fewer than 11 sacks in any season with the Eagles.
Braman had to be convinced to sign White in 1985. It was the summer and several veterans were holding out for new contracts. Braman was taking a lot of heat from the fans and media. He felt it would be an unpopular move if he spent millions to sign a player from the USFL while he had veterans still on the street. He asked Campbell, "Is this guy that good? It's going to cost me big money."
Campbell said, "As much as I wanted my players in camp, I said, 'Whatever it costs you, Mr. Braman, it'll be worth it. He was the best player coming out of college and he's still the best.'"
"OK, let's do it," Braman said.
The owner bought out White's USFL contract for $1.38 million then signed him to a four-year deal worth another $1.65 million. He was worth every penny. He never missed a game in eight seasons with the Eagles and he earned Pro Bowl honors seven times. When he left the Eagles following the 1992 season, he had more sacks (124) than games played (121). No other defensive player in the league could say that.
White was a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of hisEagles History columns here.He is also the author ofThe Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.