When former Green Bay Packer Reggie White passed away suddenly in December 2004 at the age of 43, most people saw the event as a tragedy and the loss of a great man. Lambeau Field even went so far as to lower their flags for White after hearing of his death, a move so bold that several area veterans were offended. But while most of us remember Reggie as the one-time record holder in season sacks (before Bruce Smith) and as the religious Minister of Defense who helped troubled youth and prayed the Packers to victory, few of us remember the Reggie White who stood suspiciously close to a major cocaine-smuggling ring and a large embezzlement from his own church.
The problems began when Reggie first met the Reverend Jerry Upton in 1980. White, still an impressionable youth of nineteen, was playing football at the University of Tennessee. Reggie and Jerry quickly became friends, cementing their relationship with the strength of their love for God and the Holy Bible. What Reggie might not have known, though, was that Upton was a convicted felon with various drug charges (selling the hallucinogenic narcotic PCP and heroin, as well as helping run a Florida-to-Tennessee cocaine ring) dating back to 1977. This author finds the prospect unlikely White would be unaware of charges this serious, as they would be bound to come up in conversation eventually.
Reggie’s relationship with Upton grew over the next fifteen years, at White eventually became an assistant pastor at Upton’s congregation, the Inner City Church in Knoxville. He was so impressed with what this organization could do for the community that White donated $1 million in 1995 to the Inner City Community Development Corporation, a financial branch of the Knoxville church. Again, we are asked to believe that Reggie was unaware that this agency was a location for some of Upton’s drug deals, as officials later disclosed in March 2000.
Less than a year after Reggie’s hefty donation, the Inner City Church was damaged by fire in January 1996. Many other so-called “black churches” at this time were being burned by racists, and the Inner City Church appeared to be one of those. Carol Fouke, a spokesperson for the National Council of Churches, told The Presbyterian Layman that the NCC made an on-site visit to the Knoxville church. “Our assessment showed that they (NCC investigators) saw a burned church with obvious signs of racial hatred.” The burning was certainly intended to appear racially motivated. At the time of the fire, investigators in Knoxville reported finding racial slurs on burned walls of the church and Molotov cocktails in the rubble. But was this all a scam by Jerry Upton used to collect on the insurance? One unidentified high-level investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity while the case was ongoing, told The Presbyterian Layman that there was “no way white racists burned that church.”
Over the next several years, money was raised to help rebuild the church. Reggie used his celebrity clout to call for donations, receiving many from devoted Wisconsin citizens. Often, the citizens would send $92 as a symbolic gesture, as this was Reggie’s Green Bay Packers jersey number. The National Council of Churches sent a total of $100,000 to the church; a $50,000 check on August 5, 1996 and a $50,000 wire transfer on July 2, 1997. The NCC, as stated above, was under the impression the church had been destroyed by white racists. They never bothered to question the credibility of the pastor with the criminal history and passion for driving a white Mercedes Benz. Upton would later tell prosecutors he only received half of the stated hundred grand. “We’re just glad that the majority of the money we raised ended up building churches,” Fouke said, referring to the many other churches they had helped rebuild.
Jack Reese, former chancellor at the University of Tennessee, raised money from university employees. After Upton’s sentencing, Reese said he was disappointed that no steps were taken to rebuild the church. “I’m sorry it turned out so terribly,” the chancellor said.
From 1997 to 1998, Upton was involved once again with a drug ring involving cocaine between Florida and Tennessee. He also sold a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol to an operative working for the ATF. As a convicted felon, Upton should not have been in possession of the gun in the first place.
As of at least 2000, the Inner City Church had never been rebuilt.
In an effort to save his friend from prison time, Reggie wrote to Judge James Jarvis of the United States District Court on March 23, 2000. White boldly asked the judge to release Upton into White’s custody. Apparently oblivious to the meaning of the word “criminal,” Reggie said in that letter, “This man is not a criminal, he just cares too much sometimes… He always expressed a very pleasant and loving attitude toward me and many others… This man is like a brother to me and I truly love him.” His request was denied.
Jerry Upton was declared a “dangerous, devious manipulator” who hid behind religion, by a federal prosecutor during Upton’s sentencing hearing on March 27, 2000. White, in his letter to Judge Jarvis, stated, “Sir, some think that I was a victim that fell in Jerry’s trap of deception. I would say that perception is an insult to my character and intelligence.” While that interpretation might be an insult to Reggie’s intelligence, the fact remains that Reggie’s intelligence has never been considered anything worth mentioning in a positive manner . Upton was sentenced March 28 to ten years in prison for cocaine trafficking and illegal gun ownership.
The relationship between Upton and White over the next four years is unknown, but these last four years is all the longer it would last.
Reggie White died suddenly in December 2004 from heart failure. Initially there was speculation on how a healthy 43-year old man could simply keel over. Cocaine even seemed a possible contributing factor. As of this writing, however, the contributing causes have been officially listed as sleep apnea and sarcoidosis . Toxicology tests are pending.
 Reggie White thought in very simple and black/white distinctions that, among other things, defied all common sense. He somehow concluded that the nation’s problems could be attributed to homosexuality. “We’ve allowed this sin [homosexuality] to run rampant in our nation, and because it has run rampant in our nation, our nation is in the condition it’s in today.” His views on race were equally foolish and had they been repeated by a white man, might have resulted in outrage. “Why did God create us differently? Why did God make me black and you white? Why did God make the next guy Korean and the next guy Asian and the other guy Hispanic? Why did God create the Indians? Well, it’s interesting to me to know why now. When you look at the black race, black people are very gifted in what we call worship and celebration. A lot of us like to dance, and if you go to black churches, you see people jumping up and down, because they really get into it. White people were blessed with the gift of structure and organization. You guys do a good job of building businesses and things of that nature and you know how to tap into money pretty much better than a lot of people do around the world. Hispanics are gifted in family structure. You can see a Hispanic person and they can put 20 or 30 people in one home. They were gifted in the family structure. When you look at the Asians, the Asian is very gifted in creation, creativity and inventions. If you go to Japan or any Asian country, they can turn a television into a watch. They’re very creative. And you look at the Indians, they have been very gifted in the spirituality.” He somehow even combined these two issues to make the following unusual observation. “Homosexuality is a decision, it’s not a race. People from all different ethnic backgrounds live in this lifestyle. But people from all different ethnic backgrounds also are liars and cheaters and malicious back-stabbing.(sic)”
 According to Wikipedia, “Sarcoidosis is an uncommon autoimmune disorder of unknown cause. The disease is characterised by the presence of non-caseating granulomas which can appear almost anywhere in the body but usually appear in either the lungs or the lymph nodes. It can occasionally appear suddenly but more often than not appears gradually. Sarcoidosis can sometimes have the appearance of tuberculosis.”
[Note from the Editor – 2005.06.20: Gavin has been mentioned in Alan Ross’ book I Remember Reggie White: Friends, Teammates, and Coaches Talk About the NFL’s “Minister of Defense” (ISBN: 1581824645, published Sept. 2005). Be sure to take a look, if you’re interested in Reggie White (and I’m sure Gavin will comment when he himself gets a copy).]
Epilogue: December 11, 2005
Two developments have happened since this article was first written.
First, Alan Ross published his book I Remember Reggie White in September and this book is available from various online booksellers. You might also find it locally if you live in the Green Bay area. Alan was kind enough to include parts of this article in his book, and you can find them in the chapter on the church. If you are interested in more about the church, the scandal or the life of Reggie White I do recommend this book. I am not getting paid for my contribution, so this endorsement is in no way a biased opinion. The book is truly a good review of Reggie’s life.
Second, on December 10, 2005, I had the good fortune to meet Reggie’s wife Sara and his old team mate Gilbert Brown. As it turns out, Sara is a truly caring and down-to-earth woman and Reggie is very lucky to have her in his life. In fairness, I must say I now have my doubts that Reggie was involved in the scandal of the church in any way. Was he ignorant? Probably. But I am no longer sure he was capable of any criminal intent. Rest in peace, Reggie, wherever you are.