Reggie White, one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, died today at the age of 43, his wife said.

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CORNELIUS, N.C. – Reggie White, one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, died today at the age of 43, his wife said.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but White had suffered from a respiratory ailment for several years, according to Keith Johnson, a pastor serving as family spokesman. An autopsy was planned.

“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, White played a total of 15 years with Philadelphia, Green Bay and Carolina. He retired after the 2000 season as the NFL’s all-time leader in sacks with 198. That mark has since been passed by Bruce Smith.

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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, and was also an ordained minister.

“As great a player as Reggie was, he was a better person, and it isn’t close,” said Detroit Lions CEO Matt Millen. “Every life that Reggie touched is better for it.”

He began his 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.

“That’s what changed the football fortunes of this franchise,” 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.

He was 39 when he finished his NFL career with Carolina, leaving the game with 198 sacks. 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, but he returned to the Panthers in 2000 and played for $1 million. He lived in Cornelius, about 25 miles north of Charlotte.

“Reggie White was a gentle warrior who will be remembered as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history,” NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.

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.”