He will not be able to bury the man who took him to the top. And this seemed to bother Mike Holmgren yesterday. Football always gets in the way.

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KIRKLAND — He will not be able to bury the man who took him to the top. And this seemed to bother Mike Holmgren yesterday.

Football always gets in the way. At 1 p.m. today in downtown Charlotte, N.C., they will roll a coffin filled with the giant body of Reggie White into the University Baptist Church. There in the pew, along with all the players, should be the coach who went with White to two Super Bowls.

But the Seahawks are playing for a division title Sunday, practice starts in the afternoon here and the last thing this team can do right now is take a day away from its coach.

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Maybe it wouldn’t matter if this was just another player, someone who slipped unnoticed through the Green Bay Packers’ locker room in the late 1990s. Reggie White was different, though. He never went anywhere unnoticed.

In the days after his death at age 43 Sunday morning, people have debated his life and his words. They have called him the most dominant defensive football player of his era, then juxtaposed a desire to find religious meaning against his rambling speech to the Wisconsin legislature in 1998 that was loaded with racial stereotypes and anti-homosexual remarks.

Those who were there still say that day was the most uncomfortable they had been in that room.

Yet White also did something very few have ever done in the NFL. He made his coach his friend.

Perhaps it was White who helped make Holmgren when he defied all sane thinking and signed with the Packers as a free agent in 1993. But it was Holmgren who made his enormous defensive end better, alternately pushing and leaning on White as Green Bay ran to the Super Bowl in 1997.

“With Mike, Reggie was not only a player, he was a player who earned the ear of the coach,” said Eugene Robinson, former Seahawks and Packers safety. “They were friends. When you have a coach like Mike and a player like Reggie with big personalities, they usually clash. But Reggie never tried to upstage Mike Holmgren. He never thought to do that at all.

“He respects Mike’s authority. And when you see someone like Reggie subject to Mike’s authority, you do it, too.”

There were moments when Holmgren needed White, too. He asked his best defensive player about decisions he had made, decisions that involved the team, and he wanted White to tell him what the other players thought. He trusted White as he trusted few other players, and White was always honest with his replies.

“Reggie has an open-door policy,” Robinson said, his references to White bouncing between the present and past tense. “I really believe Reggie was more like a confidant to Mike. It was just a special relationship they had there.”

Yesterday, Holmgren stood in the hallway leading to his office and thought for a moment about White, about the two Super Bowls they went to together, about the way White decimated entire offensive lines and changed the way teams played the Packers.

“He was larger than life,” Holmgren said quietly.

He has had to endure too many of these deaths lately. Already in the six years Holmgren has been in Seattle he has buried his mother, his defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur and Wayne Simmons, a linebacker from Green Bay who was killed in a car accident three years ago.

Reggie White


Now Reggie White, dead, apparently of complications from a respiratory disease.

The coach found out on Sunday, just a few hours before the Seahawks played the Arizona Cardinals. He sat at a table during the team’s pregame meal and looked at offensive coordinator Gil Haskell, who also knew White from Green Bay. He thought of White’s widow, Sara, a woman he and his own wife Kathy came to befriend.

“Do you think I should call Sara?” Holmgren asked.

“I think you should do it right now,” Haskell replied.

Yes, the coach would have liked to have been there today. He looked into flights, he tried to see if Kathy could go in his place, but the airline schedules didn’t work out. It was too far on too-short notice.

So yesterday the coach made a call into his past. He reached Robinson not long before the player left to drive over to White’s house in suburban Charlotte. The players had become close, White and Robinson. Close enough that Robinson will be one of the pallbearers at White’s funeral.

“I want you to represent me there,” Holmgren said.

Robinson paused. It has been almost eight years since they all danced together that night in New Orleans, holding the Super Bowl trophy high above their heads. Yesterday, on a day when he smiled, laughed and cried all at once, Robinson nodded as he held the phone.

“It would be an honor,” he said.

In this way they will all be together again: the coach and the man who took him to the top.

Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or lcarpenter@seattletimes.com.