There was no warning, no lingering illness, just the shocking news yesterday that Reggie White was dead.

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There was no warning, no lingering illness, just the shocking news yesterday that Reggie White was dead.

On the day after Christmas, one week after his 43rd birthday, the rock of a man known as “The Minister of Defense” during his NFL playing career was gone.

“I still don’t believe it,” said Eugene Robinson, a longtime Seahawk who was White’s teammate with the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers. “When I saw it flash on television … I said, ‘I’m not even going to fight my tears. I’m just going to cry.’ “

Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who coached White with the Philadelphia Eagles, said he had to close his door when he heard the news.

“I was overwhelmed,” Fisher said. “Reggie was larger than life, one of those guys you thought would live forever.”

The cause of death was uncertain, but Sara White said through a family pastor that she believed her husband died of respiratory failure related to sleep apnea, which he has had for a number of years. An autopsy was planned for this week.

“Today our beloved husband, father and friend passed away,” Sara White said in a statement. “His family appreciates your thoughts and prayers.”

White is survived by his wife; son Jeremy, a freshman at Elon University; and daughter Jecolia, a high-school junior.

White is considered one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, an almost certain first-ballot inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2006.

He left the game as the league’s all-time sacks leader (198). (Bruce Smith broke his record last season.)

White was drafted out of Tennessee by the United States Football League’s Memphis Showboats in 1984. And when that league folded after two seasons, he joined the NFL’s Eagles.

White was selected to a record 13 consecutive Pro Bowls (1986-98) with the Eagles and Packers, and he was named defensive player of the year in 1986 and ’98. He was chosen to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.

In 1993, he was a plaintiff in a suit against the NFL that set up the league’s current form of free agency.

His decision to sign with the Packers was hailed as a turning point in that franchise’s history.

“That’s what changed the football fortunes of this franchise. It was huge,” Packers president Bob Harlan said. “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.”

White retired after the 1998 season. He had 5.5 sacks in a comeback with the Carolina Panthers in 2000.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called White a gentle warrior.

“Equally as impressive as his achievements on the field was the positive impact he made off the field and the way he served as a positive influence on so many young people,” Tagliabue said.

White was an imposing figure at 6 feet 5, 300-plus pounds, with a gravelly baritone voice. He was widely known as a devout Christian involved in numerous ministries around the country.

White had some detractors, too, especially after making controversial remarks to the Wisconsin state assembly in 1998. White called homosexuality a sin according to the Bible, and said anyone who practiced it made a conscious decision to do so. He also pointed out differences in ethnic groups that some considered stereotypical.

“Reggie never, ever meant to make any kind of disparaging remark about anybody,” said Rick Joyner, a close friend and fellow pastor. It’s just a tragedy for him to leave like this. … He probably lived more in 43 years than most people live in a lifetime.”