HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Reggie White, a fearsome defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers who was one of the great players in NFL history, died Sunday, his wife said. He was 43.
A cause of death was not immediately known.
"Today our beloved husband, father and friend passed away," White's wife, Sara, said in a statement through a family pastor. "His family appreciates your thoughts and prayers as we mourn the loss of Reggie White. We want to thank you in advance for honoring our privacy."
A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and ordained minister who was known as the "Minister of Defense," White played a total of 15 years with Philadelphia, Green Bay and Carolina. He retired in 2000 as the NFL's all-time leader in sacks with 198. The mark has since been passed by Bruce Smith.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie called White "one of the greatest men ever to play the game of football."
"His legacy on and off the football field will never be forgotten," Lurie said in a statement.
A member of the NFL's 75th anniversary team, White was elected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 straight times from 1986-98. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1998.
"As great a player as Reggie was, he was a better person, and it isn't close," Detroit Lions CEO Matt Millen said. "Every life that Reggie touched is better for it. This is a very depressing day."
After an All-American senior season at Tennessee, White began his pro career with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL in 1984, and joined the Philadelphia Eagles, who held his NFL rights, after the USFL folded in 1985.
After eight years as an integral piece in Philadelphia's "Gang Green Defense," White signed as a free agent with Green Bay in 1993 for $17 million over four years, huge for that era. His signing, along with a trade for quarterback Brett Favre, brought a measure of respectability back to the franchise and he was the first major black player to sign with the Packers as a free agent.
His decision to choose the Packers was a surprise. While visiting various teams, he suggested he would prefer a major city, where he could minister to black youth.
"That's what changed the football fortunes of this franchise. It was huge," Packers president Bob Harlan said Sunday. "Everyone thought the last place he would sign was Green Bay and it was monumental because not only did he sign but he recruited for Green Bay and got guys like Sean Jones to come here. He sent a message to the rest of the NFL that Green Bay was a great place to play and before that this was a place people didn't want to come."
He helped lead the Packers to consecutive Super Bowl appearances, including a win over New England in 1997, when he set a Super Bowl record with three sacks.
White worked tirelessly in the offseason with inner-city kids and to bridge the racial and economic divide. But his image was tarnished when he gave a speech in which he denounced homosexuality and used ethnic stereotypes. White later apologized for any harm his comments may have caused.
White was 39 when he finished his NFL career with Carolina. That was actually White's third retirement. He retired for one day before the 1998 season, but then said God had told him he needed to play again, and he returned to the Packers.
White retired again after the 1998 season and took a year off from football. After the Packers allowed him out of his contract, White returned to the Panthers last season and played for $1 million.
"I will always miss the locker room and the guys, but I know God's will for me to move on to other challenges because it's not in me like it used to be," White said at the time.
White's last season was disappointing in many respects. He recorded a career-low 5.5 sacks with only 27 tackles. He didn't show the same pass-rushing skills that made him a dominating force for much of the past two seasons.
White spent eight years with the Eagles and six with the Packers before a final one with the Panthers.
Remarkably durable, White missed only one game in his last 12 seasons and started all but three games during that span.
"Reggie's records and accomplishments say it all," said George Seifert, who coached him on the Panthers. "He is a Hall of Fame player and possibly the best defensive lineman ever to play the game."