The “Manster” Randy White, Part II
The Emergence of the Great Defensive Linemen
In the 1950s as offenses became more wide open, the standard five- and six-man defensive lines proved to lack the mobility and athleticism to contain the spread attacks being used by offenses.Â Head Coach Steve Owen of the New York Giants and his then defensive back, Tom Landry, devised a four-man defensive front that was based on the two ends (outside linebackers) flaring to the outside in order to funnel plays to the linebackers in the middle of the field.
NFL football underwent a serious transformation in the 1950s: stars at linebacker like Sam Huff of the Giants, Joe Schmidt of the Detroit Lions and Bill George of the Chicago Bears paved the way for the “golden age” of the middle linebacker. In the 1960s and 1970s, with the emergence of legendary players such as Dick Butkus of the Bears, Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers, Willie Lanier of the Kansas City Chiefs, Tommy Nobis of the Falcons, Jack Lambert of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lee Roy Jordan of the Cowboys, the role of the middle linebacker began to have unprecedented importance in defensive schemes.
And as great as those players were, the shift to the 4-3 defense produced even greater stars along the defensive line. The big men in the trenches began their road to NFL stardom with players like Leo Nomellini of the San Francisco 49ers, tackle Ernie Stautner of the Steelers and defensive end Gino Marchetti of the Baltimore Colts in the 1950s. The following two decades would see the emergence of more great defensive linemen and some of the greatest front fours in NFL history: Dallas’s Doomsday Defense featuring Lilly, Jethro Pugh and George Andrie; the Minnesota Vikings Purple People Eaters featuring Page, Carl Eller and Jim Larson; the Steelers vaunted Steel Curtain featuring Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes; and perhaps the greatest of them all, the Fearsome Foursome of the Los Angeles Rams featuring Olsen, Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Roosevelt Grier.
When the Dallas Cowboys drafted White, Gil Brandt saw a 6-4 257 pound lineman who could run a 4.6 40;Â faster than many wide receivers and running backs and virtually every tight end and linebacker in the game and he saw the heir apparent to Jordan, who was an outstanding player who played in the enormous shadow cast by Butkus, Lanier and Lambert.
I have to wonder, however, if the Dallas Cowboys brain trust did not see more than another Jordan in their future. In Randy White, there was someone who was bigger, stronger and faster than Butkus and who could match Butkus in intensity and ferocity. Could the Dallas Cowboys have wondered if they found the next Butkus, a middle linebacker who would terrorize the league for the next 12 to 15 years?
During his first two seasons, White was a back-up linebacker behind Jordan on the depth chart. After Jordan retired following the 1976 season, Coach Landry realized his experiment at middle linebacker was not going to pan out. White, though fleet of foot, could only move forward or laterally; he simply could not drop into pass coverage. Butkus, for as ferocious and incredible he was against the run, was also outstanding in pass coverage. White would never become another Butkus, and he could not play the position given his limitations.
After it was clear that White would not be the next middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, Landry moved him to right defensive tackle the position held by Lilly for 14 spectacular seasons. Once he was moved to the line, White exploded onto the scene: he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and won first-team All Pro honors in 1977 (his first season as a starter and his first season at tackle). Landry did not find the next Jordan or the next Butkus; instead, he found the next Lilly.
Unparalleled Work Ethic:
Randy White worked hard while at Maryland to become an All American and first round draft choice. He worked even harder when he reached the pros. In 1975, his rookie season, the Dallas Cowboys’ strength and conditioning coach was weight-lifting guru Alvin Roy. Roy had served as the strength coach for the San Diego Chargers when they won the AFL Championship in 1963, and he held a similar position with the Kansas City Chiefs when they won Super Bowl IV. As at Maryland, Randy spent many hours in the weight room under Roy’s tutelage. The strength, conditioning, and endurance that White achieved from hard work in the weight room was one of the main reasons he was so dominant on the football field.
Later, Dallas Cowboys Coach Landry would bring in Dr. Bob Ward, a pioneering strength and conditioning coach who earned his doctorate at Indiana University. Dr. Ward incorporated aerobic conditioning and nutrition into the overall strength program in Dallas.
Dr. Ward also saw value in the martial arts and he introduced the Cowboys players to Dan Inosanto, a world renowned martial artist and a master of the Filipino Martial Arts who was also a direct student of the late Bruce Lee in the art of Jeet Kune Do. Inosanto, in turn, introduced the Cowboys to Chai Sirisute, the godfather of Muay Thai kickboxing in the United States. Later, White would meet the late Larry Hartsell, who held black belts in judo and karate, and who also was a student of Lee.
While a member of the Dallas Cowboys, Randy White fell in love with the martial arts. He would kick the Thai pads five days per week. Working with Sirisute, he went 15 three-minute rounds kicking Thai pads, which is an incredible feat for a professional mixed martial artist, let alone a football lineman. White would also sparÂ and spar hardÂ in the art of Muay Thai. The sparring conditioned his body for the abuse it took on the football field.
In addition to the Thai boxing, White worked at length with Hartsell on hand drills called hubud, which is a flow and sensitivity drill that can be done empty-handed or with weapons, and is a key component of Wing Chun, Jeet Kune Do and the Filipino arts. These drills quickly build up hand speed and sense of chi, or energy, flow in one’s opponent. Dr. Ward also incorporated distance running, sprints and even juggling to improve overall conditioning and hand-eye coordination. Under Dr. Ward’s training regimen, the Dallas Cowboys were one of the best-conditioned teams in football.
In the off season, White would return to his sprawling farm in Landenberg, Pennsylvania. There, in his garage, he set up his weights. The sound of clanking metal would fill his garage on hot summer days. White would run sprints along a nearby country road, running the distance between telephone poles at full speed, and he would run with his brother in the baking summer heat through plowed corn fields.
“Somebody’s not going to outwork me. I wanted to be in better shape than the guy I was playing against. I never wanted to get tired. Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
White was a prodigious weight lifter. With the Dallas Cowboys, he set the then team record bench press of 500 pounds. His power clean of 400 pounds attests to his explosiveness. And while he never sought to max out while doing squats (so as to preserve his knees), he placed 500 pounds on the barbell when he did reps in the squat lift. In a team competition with the Cowboys, White once benched 450 pounds ten times. White said he could have lifted more, but for him it was never about lifting the most weight. If he felt lifting heavier weights would’ve made him a better football player he would have benched, power cleaned and dead lifted more. But White was interested in only one thing: becoming a better football player for the Dallas Cowboys. To that end, he used sprints, distance running and martial arts to improve his overall game.
White approached the white lines of the Dallas Cowboys practice field in the same manner that he approached games with all-out intensity. White said he practiced hard every day because he didn’t know any other way. His father’s influence inspired him on game days, but it carried over to each and every practice, whether in shorts or in full contact drills with pads. White said:
“I didn’t want to miss a day of practice. I didn’t want the guy behind me to ever show what he could do. I hated to lose. In practice I didn’t want the offensive guy to beat me. I might let the running back go through but I wasn’t going to let my guy beat me.”
Along with his rigorous physical training, White also spent hours mentally preparing for his opponent. When the Dallas Cowboys had to face the great John Hannah of the New England Patriots or the Steelers massive linemen, he would begin to mentally prepare on the Tuesday before the game: he would envision how he was to execute plays over and over in his mind while memorizing his opponent’s strengths and tendencies.
The work ethic which was instilled in him from a young age is what drove him to be the Hall of Fame player and member of the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor that he would become.
In 1974 future Hall of Famer Bob Lilly retired, leaving a gaping hole in the Dallas Cowboys defensive line. With Lilly at right tackle, the Cowboys were consistently one of the league’s top defensive teams from the mid- 1960s to the early 1970s. Lilly was the anchor of Coach Landry’s 4-3 Flex Defense: the Flex was a formation which saw two linemen one tackle and one end lined up a yard off the line of scrimmage in a staggered front. Landry designed the Flex to stop the Run to DaylightÂ running game of the Green Bay Packers. It took a special player to anchor this defense; in Bob Lilly, the Dallas Cowboys had a phenomenal player.
With Bob Lily gone and Randy White inserted at defensive tackle, White became the centerpiece of the Dallas Cowboys defense. White became a force to be reckoned with in his first season as a lineman; he drew constant double teams and yet still wreaked havoc in opposing offenses’ backfields. With White to his left, defensive end Harvey Martin registered 23 sacks during the 14-game 1977 season. The Cowboys went 12-2 in White’s first year at defensive tackle and entered the playoffs as favorites to win the Super Bowl.
In that same season, Randy White earned a trip to his first of nine Pro Bowls and earned his first of nine All Pro nominations. The season culminated for White and the Dallas Cowboys on January 15 (White’s 25th birthday), when White led a brutal assault against Denver Broncos quarterbacks Craig Morton and Norris Reese in Super Bowl XII. The Cowboys defense outshone the highly touted Orange Crush defense that carried Denver all the way to the title game. The Broncos could manage only 35 net passing yards that day. White and Martin shared co-MVP honors. From a back-up middle linebacker the season before, White was thrust into the national spotlight.
The following year, White had perhaps his greatest statistical year; he registered 16 sacks and amassed 123 tackles. The Dallas Cowboys traveled to Los Angeles for the NFC Championship game where they throttled the Rams 28-0. White spearheaded a defensive effort that shut down the Rams powerful running game despite LA’s big and talented offensive line.
In that game, White broke his left thumb on the helmet of Rams quarterback Pat Haden. Playing with a cast on his left hand, White was hampered in Super Bowl XIII against a great Steelers team. Dallas lost its biggest heartbreaker since the Ice Bowl of 1967 in an epic game that ultimately decided which team was the team of the decade.
White remained brilliant through the 1986 season before injuries, specifically two displaced cervical discs, began to take their toll on him during the 1987 and 1988 seasons.
White was recognized by his peers as a relentless player who demanded double team blocks; he was routinely the focus of opposing offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches who based their game plans around trying to neutralize the Dallas Cowboys right tackle.
John Hannah once said the two toughest players he ever lined up against were Joe Klecko of the New York Jets and Randy White of the Dallas Cowboys. He also said that the butterflies he would get before every game turned into eagles when he had to face White. Coming from the one who many historians regard as the greatest offensive lineman of all time, that is a high compliment indeed. White was one of the strongest down linemen in the league. Dave Butz of the Washington Redskins, Steve McMichael of the Bears and Klecko were widely recognized for their brute strength, especially Klecko, who may have been the one defensive player in the NFL that was stronger than White.
Randy White combined great speed to go with his great strength. In one of the Dallas Cowboys games against the Philadelphia Eagles, White rushed upfield toward quarterback Ron Jaworski who hit wide receiver Scott Fitzkee on a quick slant route. White was stonewalled at the line, peeled back and raced downfield to catch Fitzkee from behind 49 yards downfield. No down lineman in the NFL at that time could have made that play.
His quickness and repertoire of swim moves and escapes aided by his martial arts training earned the respect of offensive line coaches like Bob McKittrick of the 49ers, Joe Bugel of the Redskins and of the men they coached who were assigned to block White.
White was a physically intimidating player who hit with explosive power. The Dallas Cowboys hosted the Bears in a divisional playoff game in 1977. In that game, which the Cowboys won 37-7, White hit Payton so hard he sent him to the sidelines. Payton, an extremely physical player in his own right, said it was the single hardest hit of his career.
During his career with the Dallas Cowboys, they made the playoffs every year except for 1984. White played in six NFC Championship games and three Super Bowls. He was named the 1978 Defensive Player of the Year and the 1982 Defensive Lineman of the Year. He ended his career with 1104 tackles (including 701 solo tackles) and 111 sacks. And he did it essentially in 10 healthy seasons as he was severely hampered his final two years with a neck injury.
Throughout his 14 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, White only missed one game. He was so tough that he broke his foot the Sunday night before the Cowboys Thanksgiving game in the 1979 season, but he still played four days later shot up with pain killers in his foot. He finished the season and playoffs wearing a steel plate in his shoe. The pain was so severe that coaches kept him out of practices because he could barely walk, but he still suited up on Sundays.
Few defensive linemen ever produced more impressive stats, won more post-season awards or had a bigger impact on the game than Randy White did during his 14 years in Dallas.
When asked to compare the two legendary linemen he coached, Stautner, who was the Cowboys defensive line coach and defensive coordinator, would not choose whether Lilly and White was a better player. Stautner, aÂ block of granite, did say that Lilly was more up and downÂ as a player. When asked why that was, Stautner cleverly replied, Because Lilly was human. Randy, after all, as Waters observed, was only half human.
[The author wishes to acknowledge two source materials, without which this story could not be told to the extent it is here. The first is an October 22, 1994 article by John Underwood that appeared in Sports Illustrated. The second is a March 4, 2013 interview of Randy White by Jim Steel, Strength Coach for the University of Pennsylvania, found at startingstrength.com.]
Part III of this tribute to Dallas Cowboys Randy White will be published tomorrow.