Three years ago, Reggie White was trying to decide what to do with the rest of his NFL life.
The Hall of Fame-bound defensive end was the crown jewel of the league's first true free-agency class and was being courted by nearly a dozen teams.
Owners wined and dined him. They flew him around on their private planes. One gave his wife a leather coat. They promised to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams.
But White insisted his decision wouldn't just be about money. The ordained Baptist minister, then 31, said he wanted to go someplace where he could win a Super Bowl. And he said he wanted to go someplace where he could serve the inner city.
He told us God ultimately would tell him where he was supposed to go. But when it turned out to be nearly all-white Green Bay, more than 90 miles from the nearest inner city, and a football team that had made just one playoff appearance in the last 25 years, well, it seemed as if White's wallet had spoken to him a lot louder than God.
The four-year, $17 million marriage with the Packers was greeted with heaping amounts of skepticism. But three years later, we are finding out that God works in very mysterious ways.
Since White's arrival, the Packers have earned three straight playoff invitations and are being picked by many preseason publications to make it to the Super Bowl this year.
Maybe even more remarkable than the Packers' turnaround has been the unique relationship that has developed between White and the people of Green Bay.
This predominantly white community has opened up its heart to this black man of God. When he speaks, they listen. And the subject seldom is football. He gets daily requests to preach. Not just in Green Bay's churches. But in its schools and in front of its civic organizations.
They have opened their wallet to him, too. When White's Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tenn., burned down earlier this year, Green Bay residents contributed more than $150,000 to help with the rebuilding.
``I've never been affected by a whole city and a whole state of people like I've been affected by the people of Green Bay and Wisconsin,'' said White, who broke down and wept at the news conference to announce the contributions.
``When I signed with the Packers, I didn't know what it was going to be like here. I didn't know exactly why I was here or what was going to happen here. Preaching up here . . . sometimes people don't want you preaching in schools. Organizations don't invite you because they know you're going to preach.
``Yet up here, non-Christian organizations have invited me to preach. They've invited me to go into schools and share my heart. And they're not offended by it.
``To me, it's like God said, `OK, Reggie. I'm going to send you to Green Bay. The reason I'm going to send you to Green Bay is because the people there are going to respond to you unlike anybody else ever will. They're going to respond to your vision. They're going to respond to the things that you say. They're not going to be sarcastic about it. They're going to believe what you say.' These people have touched me and (his wife) Sara. We feel like this is our home. We feel like this is our state. I feel like I've been treated better here than anywhere I've ever been.
``That's not meant to disparage the people of Philadelphia. When I got ready to leave there, thousands of people stood out in JFK Plaza and asked me to stay. But I've never felt that a whole state of people care about me like they do here.
``We love these people. And we're going to do things soon to show them how much we appreciate what they've done and the love they've shown.''
One thing White would like to do for them soon is win a Super Bowl. The Packers came close a year ago, winning the NFC Central Division title and making it to the NFC Championship Game before they were derailed by the Dallas Cowboys.
``This is the best chance we've had since I've been here,'' White said. ``Maybe it'll be the best chance we'll have for a while, I don't know.
``We did some things to help ourselves during the off-season. Now, it's just a matter of us just going and doing what we need to do. If (quarterback) Brett (Favre) plays the way he played last year (league most valuable player) and our defense is more consistent than it was last year, I think we'll win it all.''
White spent much of the off-season flying around the country trying to raise money to help rebuild the Inner City Church and the more than 50 other predominantly black churches in the South that have been destroyed by arson fires in the last two years.
Before the ICC fire, little national attention was paid to the church burnings. But White has changed that. He got the National Council of Churches involved. He accompanied national black leaders to Washington when they met with Attorney General Janet Reno about the fires.
He has appeared on talk shows to discuss the church fires and make appeals for contributions. He has tapped the NFL and its players. Through the NFL Players Association, he has asked his fellow players to contribute their dues rebate checks, which are about $5,000, to a fund to help rebuild the churches.
``Through NFL charities, the league gave $25,000,'' he said. ``I'm going to write the commissioner a letter soon about donating some more for some other churches. We probably won't start getting the money from most of the players until we start the season. But a lot of them are already coming to the plate. Brett already has given his $5,000. (White's friend and former Eagles teammate) Eric Allen gave his $5,000.''
Before the Olympics started, all of the members of the Dream Team agreed to donate the $15,000 they each would receive for winning the gold medal.
White wishes more prominent athletes and entertainers would help him raise money.
``I wish more would stand up and help,'' he said. ``The Dream Team has made a step toward that. But I wish more guys would be a voice, more people in leadership, both black and white, would be a voice for this cause.
``I need them to help come to the rescue now. I'm not going to be able to be as much of a voice now as I was during the off-season. I'm afraid that with me backing out because of the season, that things are going to slow down and it'll be another situation where America forgets. That's why I'm hoping that somebody can come and carry it on for me.''
Does he have anybody specific in mind?
``Somebody asked me if there was anybody I could think of in any profession that could be a voice, who would that be,'' White said. ``My first reaction was Charles Barkley. Charles will say what's on his mind. I talked to Charles before he left for the Olympics and was sharing a little bit of what was going on. I hope to talk with him about it more in the next few weeks.''
White's ability to galvanize support for rebuilding the churches has made it more apparent than ever that God's post-football plans for him likely will go beyond a local ministry.
There has been a void in black leadership since the death of Martin Luther King and many think White will be the man to eventually fill it.
Evangelist R.V. Brown has predicted White will become ``the black Billy Graham.''
``He is emerging as a national (black) voice,'' the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, of the National Council of Churches, recently told The Sporting News. ``He has the opportunity in the days to come to offer some bold leadership.''
Said White: ``To make a difference, you've got to be out in the forefront. I think God has thrust me in the forefront. He's spoken to me about what he wants me to do.
``I'm not interested in being a prominent figure for the purpose of being well-known. I'm more interested in seeing what I can do to help people, both black and white.
``My heart and my concerns are for people. I'm not interested in fighting other people's agendas. In some ways, I'm getting caught up in other people's loops, other people's mistakes. Because other people think I'm coming and trying to take something away from them.
``The only agenda I have is winning people to the kingdom and seeing people's lives change for Jesus.''
At 34, White isn't quite ready to put football in his rear-view mirror yet. He is entering the final year of his four-year contract, but hopes to sign a three-year extension sometime this month.
Despite his advancing age, he sees no reason that he shouldn't be able to match or surpass his 12 1/2 -sack total of last season.
``I think I'm a much smarter player now,'' he said. ``I hear people say, `Well, he's slowing down. He doesn't do the things he used to do.' If you concentrate on being a great player, you shouldn't do the things you used to do. You should get smarter. I believe that, as you get older, you get smarter. And I'm a smarter player today than I was five, six years ago.''