The hardest thing in Canton: Sara White's speech

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Sara White has done all she can to honor her husband's memory. For 19 months, she listened to speeches, made a few of her own, smiled when his numbers were retired around the country, cried when she thought how much he'd have loved every moment.

But this, her final public gift… this is the hardest.

So Sara sits outside at a Jack in the Box on a Friday night, the clock inching toward midnight. She's always had reams of words, fast, furious combinations of words, like a linguistic prizefighter. Only now the words won't come, and she has one more speech to write, for his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction on Saturday.

This wasn't what they planned.

She was supposed to introduce him, that's all. Then he, of the loud voice and louder smile, who'd preached since he was 17, would stand up and knock 'em dead. Now it's just her, and how can she laugh for the happiest man in the room? How can she talk for someone who always got the last word?

"I have to think about what he would say," she explains. "This is not about me. It's so hard. I don't know what to do. I'm serious. What do I do? Tell me, what do I do?"

Tiny flowers blow off the nearby trees. A few blossoms land in her hair. Lightning flashes in the distance, briefly turning night to day. A smile crosses her face.

"That was Reggie," she says.

She met Reggie White when she was a senior in high school. He was all potential then, sure to be undone by his inability to stay organized. She'd fix that. They'd be a team.

"I was his backbone," she says. "I did everything to make him look good. Seriously. To make him look like he was the most patient person, to make him look like he sent out the fan mail. I did all of that because I loved my husband. And because I knew where his heart was. I was his helpmate."

Together, she and Reggie would form the powerful and public persona known as Reggie White. Even now, though she fiercely guards her independence, things have this way of circling back to him. She's sitting at the fast-food restaurant, joking about her age. Tell 'em I'm 29, she cracks. Then, a pause. She contemplates 29. It's 92 backwards, you know.

Things like that happen a lot; she and Reggie were intertwined. When he was threatened with fines for his postgame prayer with the Eagles, she told him not to be scared of his beliefs. She empowered him. When he preached, she listened. When he succeeded, she cheered. When he failed, she comforted. When he made those ignorant comments about homosexuals, she made the rounds of the talk shows.

Near the end of his career and after, she wanted him to preach about the things he'd been studying, about the Torah, and Hebrew, and what the words in the Bible really mean. Reggie was scared -- "I'm not ready," he'd say -- but that didn't mean Sara had to quit asking.

They raised their two kids. They brought Jeremy and Jecolia into the world and, together, in the fall of 2004, they took their son to college. Big Reggie White carried the gigantic television from the car.

On the way home, Sara turned to see her husband sobbing.

"I see those tears," she said.

"I'm gonna miss him," Reggie said.

About four months later, the day after Christmas, at 7 a.m., she woke to hear Reggie coughing. They'd been to the movies the night before. "Fat Albert."

"Quit playing," she said.

She turned on the light. He wasn't playing. He was choking. He looked into her eyes, seeming to ask for help. She called 911. She gave him mouth-to-mouth. She gave him CPR. Then the paramedics roared in, moving the 325-pound mountain of a man to the floor. She got out of their way, and she prayed.

"Lord, just help him," she begged. "Father, let your will be done."

That day, Reggie White died, from a cardiac arrhythmia brought on by a long-standing condition, sarcoidosis, a disease in which nodules form in the lungs, liver, lymph glands and salivary glands. He was 43.

"The earth shook when he died," says Bill Horn, a family friend and Reggie's marketing agent for years. "That's when the tsunami hit. When Reggie passed away, the tsunami hit. And the earth shook."

Everyone flocked to the house, the dream home they'd just finished. Horn broke down when he walked in. But Sara stayed strong. She'd be the rock. She'd help people grieve, and then she'd help people remember. That could be her purpose.

She lost herself in the details. The winter was long. It was cold and empty. As fall broke through, football season, she made changes. They moved out of the dream house. Just too many memories.

"Every room was Reggie White," she says. "Which wasn't bad, but it was hard."

The honors kept her busy, kept her focused. She treated them like mitzvahs.

"I don't want to stop remembering Reggie," she says. "I never will stop."

She traveled to Green Bay, and the kids wore their No. 92 jerseys. Jecolia sang the national anthem. Reggie always had been after her to sing, but she never would. After he died, she sang every chance she got. Still does. It was the gift she never got to give. They went to Philly, and to old Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, where 100,000 strong rose to their feet in appreciation.

Each time, the end of all this public celebration grew closer. Former teammate and good friend Keith Jackson, who gave a speech at Lambeau, felt it. He knew Sara was feeling it, too, and is feeling it now even more.

"It's a great privilege and honor to be able to do this, but you realize there's some finality to it," Jackson, the tight end, says. "It's the last time you'll give this kind of speech about a guy you care about. I imagine she's going through some of the same things. This is the last national event for Reggie's legacy."

Sara busied herself making a DVD about Reggie's life, which will be released this weekend and be available at www.reggie92.com. She actually learned things about the man she knew so well. Jeremy wrote a book about growing up with Reggie -- he was working on it when his dad died, as a surprise for him -- and that's also coming out this weekend. These things helped them remember, helped them grieve.

In February, she went to Detroit. Reggie's Hall of Fame selection was being announced. The final honor. She made it through her short remarks fine, though her sister was bawling in the crowd. Then she sat down, listening to an old veteran talk. That's when she lost it.

She cried, not for herself, but for Reggie, who would have loved everything about that day. She cried for all the things he'd missed. Jeremy's first girlfriend. Jecolia's high school graduation. Jecolia's prom. When that boy knocked on the door, sharp in his tux, brother, that was tough.

Not long ago, she curled up to watch a movie. She chose "Stepmom," a film about a dying woman worrying that her children's new mother will get all the memories. Sara wept.

"I am watching that movie, and I am crying my heart out," she says, "because Reggie is not getting the future of the kids' memories. I'm crying, I'm crying, I'm crying."

So, yes, she cries sometimes. Mostly in her closet, she says, where she doesn't have to be strong. She writes in a journal, talks to Reggie. She tells him about her life, now that he's gone. Two things stand out as the hardest. Raising teenagers as a single parent is the first. And the other? Having to stand up in front of the world and give the Hall of Fame speech he so wanted to give himself.

It all hit home just a few weeks ago. Sara was talking with Vai Sikahema, a former teammate turned television reporter. Sikahema wanted to tape part of her speech.

"I haven't written my speech," Sara said.

"You haven't written your speech?" Vai asked, stunned.

There must have been a hint of panic or something in his voice, because it all became real at that moment. She's been thinking ever since. Trying to imagine what Reggie would say. Who he'd thank.

"I've been to every speaking engagement he's ever been to," she says. "It's all running through my mind."

She knows she needs to start with Ma. That's Mildred Dodds, Reggie's grandmother. Ma raised him; and though she didn't want him to play football, she did want him to go to church. She introduced him to the Word, and all the parts of Reggie that weren't due to Sara were due to her. She died, broken-hearted, about a year after Reggie did.

"I wanted to dedicate the award to Ma," Sara says.

She has a list going, dividing his life into parts so she won't forget people. She's got high school and Tennessee and Memphis and on and on.

"I have to go back through his childhood," she says. "Coach [Robert] Pulliam. One of the most impressionable coaches he had that made him know he was tough, know he could do it. Then you've got his best friend, Herman Prater, who he grew up alongside. Herman was a little older, but Herman had always been there for him. He took our wedding pictures."

She flirted with going first-person from his point of view, literally channeling Reggie White. And of course, that leads to some classic Sara humor. Speaking as if she were Reggie on the dais, she begins to riff.

"Then, of course, you know, talk about my wonderful wife of 23 years," she says. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my wonderful, supporting, beautiful wife of 23 years. I would be remiss not to say this. I have to say that. It's all because of her, who I am today. It has nothing to do with my talents."

She laughs, her voice echoing around the empty Jack in the Box parking lot.

Her little stand-up routine done, Sara still doesn't have a speech. So she'll depend on him. She'll take her bullet points up to the mike, and then she'll just have faith. That's what she will do. If she can get the list of the people right, it will come to her. She knew this man, better than anyone, and they loved each other. She'll just speak and let the man she knew live in her words.

"I really believe his presence is with me," she says. "That's what I'm counting on, for him to talk through me. You know how we ask God to let me be a vessel? I'm praying that whatever comes out is what Reggie would say."

She has the theme, at least. At a recent Torah study class, she noticed the subheads on a handout: Celebrate, Remember and New Beginnings. She took it as a sign. It's the motif of the party they're throwing in Canton.

"He wants us to celebrate his life," she says. "He wants us to remember his life. And then he wants us to have new beginnings."

Even though Reggie's been gone for the past 19 months, he's been an everyday presence, too. When the applause finishes, though, Sara will be faced with an indescribable void. All her plans to continue their work, to sell real estate or be a travel agent … they won't fill it.

After she sits down, the world will start to forget Reggie White, just a little more every day. Even Sara must begin to move on. Her old life will end when Saturday's speech does. She will start a new journey, a lonelier, quieter journey, one without Reggie in it.

But not before this final public gift, the hardest gift. She hopes he will be looking down, putting the right words into her heart. She always was there for Reggie. Maybe, on this most difficult of days, Reggie will be there for her.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.