The year is 1993. For the first time in NFL history, players are truly emboldened to make decisions about their own careers, thanks in part to a legal ruling against the NFL several months earlier. True free agency has finally arrived in football, and teams are lining up to throw money at a crop of players who are hitting the open market, a group that includes numerous Pro Bowlers.
Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers have been a laughingstock for over two decades, making the NFL playoffs just twice since Vince Lombardi’s teams won three straight titles from 1965 to 1967. Lambeau Field, while still a historic venue, is aging. And Green Bay itself, a tiny Midwestern town with a population that’s about 86 percent white, is the last place that most NFL players — especially Black ones — want to end up.
One man changed all that in the blink of an eye.
That man was Reggie White. The All-Pro defensive end was at the forefront of the free agency movement, as one of the key members of a class-action lawsuit that led to the advent of free agency in the NFL. But as impactful as that participation as the suit was, his signing with the Packers signaled a shift in how players would make their decisions as free agents — and it also made Green Bay a place where, suddenly, players wanted to be.
In the spring of 1993, White was riding a string of success that few NFL players could even hope for. In his eight years with the Philadelphia Eagles since being drafted fourth overall in 1985, White made seven Pro Bowls and was named a first-team All-Pro six times. He had recorded 124 sacks and 18 forced fumbles in 121 games as an Eagle. White was also the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 — when he recorded 21 sacks in just 12 games — and finished in the top four of the voting three other times.
If a player with that resume, in the prime of his career, actually hit free agency in this day and age, the amount of money and attention he would draw is nearly unfathomable. Players of White’s caliber almost always get franchise-tagged and eventually sign new, bank-breaking deals with their teams. But not in 1993.
White was committed to leaving Philadelphia to sign with a team committed to winning and in a location where he could practice his ministry and devote spare time to helping the inner city neighborhoods. But in an article by Peter King in Sports Illustrated from March of that year, the Packers were a mere afterthought, lumped in with Detroit, Atlanta, the New York Jets, and Washington as the “other visits” portion. No, it appears that the likes of the Cleveland Browns, prior to owner Art Modell moving them to Baltimore in 1995, were the front-runners for White’s services.
To be sure, the Packers had some appeal. They had turned around starkly the previous season, going 9-7 in 1992 after a 4-12 campaign the year before. That turnaround came about because of new faces all across the organization: a new front office led by GM Ron Wolf, a new coaching staff under Mike Holmgren, and a new and exciting quarterback in Brett Favre. It appeared that the Packers were on track to turn the franchise’s fates around, but they needed a push to get them there.
But this was still a franchise with a poor reputation, and it’s impressive that the Packers were even in the conversation from the beginning. According to then-beat writer Bob McGinn, one thing the Packers could offer — besides being a team that appeared headed towards being competitive again — was cash.
White eventually picked the Packers after about a month of enjoying the courting process, and the contract was a big reason why. McGinn notes that the way the Packers structured the deal was as big a deciding factor as the total compensation, a number that ended up at $17 million over four years. That was still the third-largest contract in NFL history at the time, but the Packers’ ability to front-load it, with a $4.5 million signing bonus and a total of $9 million paid out in the first year, was something no other team could match.
In that way, the Packers helped define a new way of writing contracts for players: paying out large signing bonuses up front and spreading out the rest of the money in base salaries. It’s a tactic that is still used religiously by NFL teams to this day, at least to some extent.
White’s courtship from various teams also set the standard for the modern-day free agent visits. He flew to numerous team facilities, meeting with front offices and coaching staffs, then welcomed many of them into his home in Tennessee later on before making a decision. He was able to assert his desires both on and off the field, making his decision as much based on environment and relationships as on money and a team’s likelihood of being competitive.
And ultimately, the Packers’ big splash signing redefined the franchise’s image, and that of the city of Green Bay itself, as a place where players might actually desire to play, rather than some small town in the snow. Four years later, White and the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI, returning to the NFL’s summit after nearly 30 years of disappointment.
For White, there’s no question that his decision paid off. He made two more All-Pro teams in six years with the Packers and picked up another Defensive Player of the Year award in 1998. He became a beloved figure in Wisconsin, and his presence helped the Packers bring in other free agents to play alongside him, with the likes of Santana Dotson, Sean Jones, and Keith Jackson all playing key roles in the years to come. Most importantly, he earned a championship ring after recording three sacks in Super Bowl XXXI.
White’s decision to sign with the Packers was a momentous shift in the fortunes of the team he chose. But his entire journey leading up to decision time marked a turning point for the NFL as well, setting the tone and the expectation for how teams would woo free agents for decades to come.
No other free agent signing in NFL history was as impactful as White, in part due to his stature, but also because he was the league’s first superstar free agent. It’s difficult to imagine another player ever having as wide-reaching an impact with his decision as the Minister of Defense had when he chose to become a Green Bay Packer.