In a fantasy world, the prototype member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame would be a player who was a consensus All-America in college, a first-round draft pick, a perennial all-pro from the moment he began his National Football League career and a choice for the Hall in his first year of eligibility. Of all the pro football players who are now in the Hall, only a dozen or so actually fit that image.
One of them, however, is Randy White , who was a dominant contributor, mostly as a defensive tackle, for 14 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. He was a college All-America at the University of Maryland and he also won the Lombardi Trophy and the Outland Award, the defensive counterpart of the coveted Heisman trophy.
White was the Cowboys’ first-round draft pick and the second player selected overall in the 1975 National Football League Draft and, once he settled into his defensive tackle position in his third season, his selection both on the All-NFL team and the NFC Pro Bowl squad was a virtually automatic thing.
In 1994, in his first year of eligibility following his retirement after the 1988 season, White was elected to the Hall of Fame. On July 30 of that year, he joined five others – Dallas teammate Tony Dorsett, Bud Grant, Leroy Kelly, Jimmy Johnson and Jackie Smith – as the Class of 1994 was formally inducted during rites held on the front steps of the Hall.
The Cowboys of the 1970s and 1980s were well-stocked with outstanding players as their appearance in six NFC championship games and in Super Bowls X, XII and XIII would indicate. Such players as Roger Staubach , Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson, Harvey Martin, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Mel Renfro and Charlie Waters wore the Dallas silver-and-blue.
But even with the Cowboys' highly-publicized aura of invincibility, they managed to keep a secret, more or less, for at least a short time. He was Randy White, their 6-4, 257-pound defensive tackle who quietly went about his job of being possibly the finest defensive lineman in the NFL year after year.
The reason White was a secret. ..sort of. ..can be traced to one of the few talent mistakes the Cowboys under general manager Tex Schramm , head coach Tom Landry and personnel director Gil Brandt ever made. When Brandt watched White play college football on the defensive line at Maryland, he saw a new Dick Butkus , a player who could truly dominate a game.
"Here was this guy who weighed 240 pounds, big and strong, who can run a 4.7 40,"Brandt recalled. "You hear about guys like that. But you just don't see them very often."
Hall of Famer Sam Huff had made a successful change from the defensive line to linebacker with the New York Giants and so Brandt convinced Landry that White could do the same with the Cowboys. They envisioned the Maryland rookie would be a perfect replacement for Lee Roy Jordan, who was nearing the end of his career. White tried the new position for two years, but he never conquered it.
"What we didn't realize," Brandt admitted, "was that when Huff was moved to middle linebacker, the game was so much different. Now, the offenses are much more sophisticated." White's lack of success as a middle linebacker undoubtedly still bothers him even today because never before – and never since – had Randy failed at something on a football field. When the great experiment finally ended before the 1978 season and White was moved to weak-side defensive tackle, Randy celebrated.
"It was just like somebody took the handcuffs off and I could go play," White said. "I just didn't have the natural reactions it takes to play middle linebacker. At first I was confused by the position and then I was embarrassed."
Almost immediately, White blossomed into one of the most effective and complete players in the NFL. He was always a man who would respond enthusiastically to one-on-one challenges but it was not long before he was facing one-on-two confrontations play after play. The films didn't lie – Randy White was just too good to be handled one-on-one.
White quickly learned to play within the Cowboys complicated “Flex Defense” but Randy was so devastating to the opposition that he was the only player that on occasion was allowed to play outside of that system.
"You've got to let a man like that go with his ability," John Dutton, White's companion defensive tackle, agreed. "You can't hold him down with different techniques and stuff. You've got to let him go and let him make the big plays."
What set White apart from the other Cowboys, however, was not his ability to make big plays but his consistency. Blessed with tremendous natural talent, White was also a worker. He was a player without ego, without pretension, without a single team detractor. If he was told to lift weights – he once bench-pressed 450 pounds 10 times in a team contest – it was hard to get him to stop. If he was told to practice, his teammates, would suffer just trying to keep up with him. Number 54, the weak side defensive tackle, caused more problems for the opposition than any other member of the team. The "blue-collar worker" on a "country club" team, White just wanted to play football and drink beer. He didn't care about reading the Wall Street Journal.
The 1977 Cowboys advanced to Super Bowl XII against the Denver Broncos and the White-led defensive line played a big role in the victorious season. White, who contributed six tackles, and his defensive end teammate, Martin, were named co-Most Valuable Players of the game, which was won by the Cowboys 27-10. No other defensive linemen had been similarly recognized in the Super Bowl series.
That season, White became All-Pro for the first of nine straight seasons up through the 1985 campaign. He also was selected to play in nine straight Pro Bowls in a string that began after the 1977 campaign. In 1978 when the Cowboys went all the way to Super Bowl XIII, Randy recorded 16 quarterback sacks, his single-season high-water mark. In his career, he was credited with 1,104 tackles, including 701 solo tackles, and 111 sacks, the highest total ever at the time of his retirement. White's Cowboy teammates and coaches were equally laudatory as the opposition players and the press that accorded him All-NFL and Pro Bowl recognition.
"Randy's performances range anywhere from spectacular to spectacular," Landry said. This was from a coach, who rarely used the word "spectacular" once, let alone twice, in the same sentence.
Charlie Waters, the Dallas strong safety, dubbed White with the nickname "Manster," because Waters reasoned "the way Randy plays he has to be part-man and part-monster."
In 1980, a national magazine polled NFL personnel people as to what player they would select first if they were starting to build a new team. Randy was the top vote-getter over any other player by a 2-1 margin. To this, Waters added simply: "Randy White is the greatest football player in America today."
This accolade would have made Randy's father, Guy, proud. Guy encouraged his son's athletic progress through high school and college and delighted in the fact Randy made the grade with the Cowboys. Guy, who died in 1980, was a butcher who had served as a sergeant with the paratroopers in World War II. Later, he played some football at West Chester State.
He and his wife LaVerne, who had gone to grade school together, had three children. Randy, who was born January 15, 1953, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the oldest. Randy, whom his parents called "Hunk" from the time he was a baby, was an outstanding baseball player at Thomas McKean High School in Wilmington, Delaware but his father insisted that he concentrate on football in college.
"Only two or three schools recruited me," Randy revealed, "and it was my dad who decided I should go to Maryland. There was never even any discussion. I had my doubts because Maryland at the time was in the bottom ten in the country."
But Maryland did improve as did White, then a 215-pound halfback-linebacker. Randy's high school coach, Earl Batton, was among the first to notice his improvement. "I could see a tremendous difference between Randy's senior year in high school and his freshman year in college," Batton said. "He was one of those who simply progressed with the caliber of the opposition."
By the time White was ready to leave college, he was highly-regarded by many pro teams. Atlanta had the first pick in the draft and chose quarterback Steve Bartkowski. White went next to Dallas.
From the very start of his pro career, even though he wasn't responding well to the challenge of being a linebacker, White possessed a burning desire to succeed, not so much for himself as for his team. He measured his personal performance on what the scoreboard said at the end of the game. Once in a while after a Cowboy loss, his temper would become evident and he would take his frustrations home with him.
While his wife Vicci, a fashion model, might understand that her husband had a bad day at work, his daughter, Jordan Leigh, was too young to know why her daddy wouldn't hold, cuddle and kiss her.
"You come home in a bad mood," White said, "and you want to grunt and groan. Hell, you can't do that to your little girl. She doesn't know about that stuff. She just wants you to be with her. It changes your thinking, I guarantee. It changed mine a bunch." Randy can be very soft and very warm and very humble," Waters said. "He has a dog and he talks baby-talk to the dog. And he just pampers his little girl."
Always in condition and determined to contribute, White ignored the injuries and the pain he endured and played in a club-record 208 regular-season and post-season games in his 14-season career. He missed just one game in 1979.
But in his final two seasons in 1987 and 1988, White's playing time was steadily being reduced. He played under constant pain from a pinched nerve in his neck which prevented him from lifting weights or lifting his head when he took his stance on the line of scrimmage. Earlier, without a complaint of any kind, Randy played despite a pulled hamstring and a banged-up shoulder. But Randy was a "one-day-at-a-time" type of planner and he avoided thinking ahead to the day when he wouldn't be playing football.
Defensive Line Coach Ernie Stautner understood White's burning desire to help the Cowboys win and his reluctance to admit the end was coming. So, Stautner took advantage of the situation by assigning White to help coach Danny Noonan, who was scheduled to replace Randy on the Dallas line.
White wasn't happy about what he perceived as the "passing of the torch" but he took personal pride in helping Noonan develop. The fact that White could spend the waning months of his exceptional career doing something useful for his team rather than stewing on the bench prevented him from leaving pro football on a bitter note.
Randy announced his retirement at the end of the 1988 season. "Physically, I played at a certain level and I just don't think I can perform at that level anymore," he said sadly. Randy thanked all of his coaches and his teammates but it was they who did most of the talking.
"He is the most intense football player I have ever seen," an appreciative Stautner commented. "You very seldom have the opportunity to coach a player with the intensity he had. I'II never forget how many times he played with injuries that would keep most players out of the game."
Landry spoke of the thrills that No.54 provided everyone for so many years. "We hate to see Randy White step down because it was an era that was a great era for all of us. He contributed so much to it."