You can’t necessarily feel Reggie White’s presence as you walk through the palatial house the late NFL Hall of Famer built for his family at Lake Norman 17 years ago. But you can certainly imagine it.
In the luxurious home theater: losing (badly) to his teenage son in a “Madden” video game. In his sprawling office: fastidiously studying Hebrew for more than eight hours a day. At the back door: flinging it open to let the family’s Australian shepherd give chase to grazing flocks of Canada geese.
Down a long hallway on the upper floor is the master bedroom, where on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004 – seven days after White’s 43rd birthday – Sara White woke up to find her husband coughing and choking so violently that she called 911.
An hour later, he was dead.
Six months after his passing, Sara and their children Jeremy and Jecolia packed up and left. In the nearly 13 years since, a couple of different families have rented the property from the Whites.
But on a recent Sunday morning – nearly 13 years after they tried to move on by moving out – the hallways of 17235 Connor Quay Court in Cornelius once again fills with his family’s laughter.
The three of them snicker as Jecolia, now a 29-year-old real estate agent, cops to regularly cheating at hide-and-seek by getting on the elevator and stopping it halfway between floors. They roar as Jeremy, now a 31-year-old kindergarten teacher, explains why Reggie and Sara built him a teeny-tiny bathroom (he asked for it, because he’d been so scared by the way his huge bathroom in their old house in Tennessee looked in the dark). Both tease Sara about the decision to put her office underneath a second-floor balcony – from which the two kids could (and did) whine, beg and tattle.
It is just like old times, for one of the last times.
Next month, the Whites plan to sell the house (via an online action hosted by Charlotte-based Interluxe; its estimated value is $4.5 million) and finally say goodbye to a special piece of Reggie – while also continuing a legacy he never planned to leave behind.
Getting settled in Charlotte
Reggie White came out of retirement to play one season for the Carolina Panthers, in 2000, but he and Sara actually had bought the lakefront lot three years earlier, while he was still with the Green Bay Packers.
For years, the family had been bouncing around part-time residences in Green Bay, in New Jersey (across the river from where he used to play with the Philadelphia Eagles), and in Tennessee (where he was an ordained minister and a pastor of a church in Knoxville). But Reggie and Sara had felt called by God to be part of a ministry here, and the fact that they had lots of friends in the Charlotte area – including former Panthers Adrian Murrell and Micheal Barrow – helped convince them it was time to settle into one place.
So, they sold all three places and custom-built a 13,640-square-foot home: five bedrooms, nine baths, three offices, a garage fit for seven cars, a gym with a sauna, connecting bedroom lofts for the kids, an oversized trophy room, a vast library, dog kennels, the home theater, the elevator, the breathtaking lake views.
It should have been a dream come true for Jeremy, then 14, and Jecolia, then 12.
But when they moved in that January of 2001 ...
“I was full of dread, because of all the boxes that needed to be moved,” Jeremy recalls, his voice echoing off sky-high ceilings as he sat on a sofa next to his mother and sister in an otherwise empty family room.
Cue that White laughter.
Sara: “We believe in child labor. We don’t hire people to do things. This is why you have children.”
Jeremy: “Uhhh, rework that.”
Sara: “We believe in our children’s labor.”
Jeremy: “Let’s not let that get on Twitter. ‘Sara White believes in child labor.’ ”
Jecolia shakes her head and gives her mom the side-eye: “You say the most inappropriate things.”
The bottom line, though, was that while the house was terrific, the best part was feeling settled. All of their stuff was in one place instead of three, so no one ever had to remember which house that pair of shoes was at. Jeremy and Jecolia, who both attended Hopewell High School, could make and keep friends, instead of constantly leaving them.
Reggie bought both kids jet-skis, and all four of them eventually got certified to operate a boat. They were lake people, and lake life was good.
The next three years were full of joy. Then came a cruel and unexpected sadness.
Was his death preventable?
As a young man, Reggie White was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease capable of causing mild to serious inflammation in his lungs, but one that could lie dormant for years.
In his mid-20s, while with the Eagles, he and Sara began getting concerned about his trouble sleeping and his snoring. He agreed to a sleep study. The diagnosis was simple: He had obstructive sleep apnea, in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, sometimes hundreds of times an hour.
Doctors prescribed a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, a device that pressurizes room air and pumps it through a hose, into a mask that fits over a patient’s nose; the air is gently blown into the throat, holding the airway open and allowing for more normal breathing during sleep. Without the device, when a sleep apnea sufferer’s breathing stops, the body usually senses the decrease in oxygen, alerts the brain and rouses the person enough to start breathing again. But apnea occurrences also cause blood pressure to spike and increase heart rate; longterm, that can lead to – among other health problems – an irregular heartbeat.
Like lots of people who have CPAP devices, though, Reggie almost never put it on at bedtime at first. “Twice a month,” Sara said. “Maybe.” (According to a 2017 study by National Jewish Health, a respiratory hospital in Denver, Colo., more than half of the 20 million-plus Americans who have been prescribed CPAP masks to treat sleep apnea don’t use them.)
“He was a little claustrophobic, but back then, the machines were a bit different, and they were more time-consuming – to put it together, to set it, to clean it every day,” she said. “It was just a nuisance to him.
“I don’t think he saw the value in it until he retired. Because then he wasn’t juggling ministry and football and kids and speaking and autographs. His life slowed down. He had more time to think about what he needed to do for himself. He was wearing it pretty much five times a week, and he started feeling better.”
But when he climbed into bed on Dec. 25, 2004, after watching the “Fat Albert” movie at Birkdale Village and part of a “Law & Order” episode with Sara and Jeremy at home, he didn’t put the CPAP mask on.
At around 6:30 the next morning, the coughing and choking began.
Sara started CPR. The 911 dispatcher coached her to hold down his tongue with a pencil, to try to keep his airway clear. The situation was scary – enough so that Sara knelt in prayer and asked the kids to do the same. But, she said, as the EMTs took him out of the big house on Connor Quay and raced off to Presbyterian Huntersville Hospital, her level of concern was maybe a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.
Jeremy felt so sure his dad would be fine, he said, that after he prayed, he rolled over and went back to sleep.
To his family, he was invincible. One of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. A guy who swatted away aches and pains like mosquitoes.
But suddenly, Reggie White was gone.
Inside his body that morning, a devastating perfect storm had struck – he’d experienced serious lung inflammation due to the sarcoidosis on a night he had chosen to sleep without his CPAP mask. According to an autopsy, he died of cardiac arrhythmia, with sarcoidosis and sleep apnea as contributing factors.
They moved out of the house in the spring.
In time, Sara became convinced of three things. One: Yes, the CPAP machine might have saved him that morning. Two: Still, he probably lived longer than he should have because of the nights he did wear it.
Three: Definitely, she needed to promote awareness of sleep apnea and the importance of treating it properly, to prevent others from suffering the same fate.
‘It’s time – for all of us’
Over the past 10 years, Sara has poured herself into the cause.
She founded the Reggie White Sleep Disorders Research and Education Foundation, which provides CPAP machines and other positive airway pressure equipment to sleep apnea sufferers who can’t afford them. The nonprofit hopes to soon do the same with newer-tech dental appliances, which can be a more comfortable and less cumbersome way to keep a person’s airway clear.
As a national spokesperson for DreamSleep, a network of physicians and dentists focused on treating sleep disorders and related medical conditions, Sara regularly talks to engages companies and medical symposia about the importance of sleep studies.
Reggie White will be remembered for legendary accomplishments in the NFL: selected to a record 13 consecutive Pro Bowls with Philadelphia and Green Bay, named defensive player of the year in 1986 and 1998, posthumously elected to the Professional Football Hall of Fame on his first ballot.
Off the field, he was a legend, too – widely known as a devout Christian involved in numerous ministries, both in Charlotte and around the country.
He was proud of how those parts of his life inspired others.
His family thinks he would be equally proud of the impact his death has had.
Asked about his legacy, daughter Jecolia smiles, and mentions the 2016 Will Smith movie “Collateral Beauty,” about a man who finds meaning and beauty amid loss and grief.
“Sure, deaths are hard, and losing a parent is hard. But it’s not collateral damage; it’s collateral beauty. So cliché, but still ... He died, and the ripple effect is really quite beautiful, that it’s helping people to be more aware and giving people those light-bulb moments.”
“If his death can be that something serious for other people, then we’re grateful for that.”
Jeremy smiles. He remembers a book signing in Milwaukee, for a memoir he’d written about growing up with his dad, and the man who approached him there.
“He comes up to me and he goes, ‘I just want you to know, your dad saved my life. My wife convinced me to go get tested for sleep apnea, and if I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t be here.’ ”
The family intends for the ripple effects to continue: After the house in Cornelius is auctioned off, they plan to donate $50,000 to Reggie White Foundation programs that provide dental appliances and help educate people about treatment options for sleep apnea.
Will there be sadness to finally, officially, part with it? Some. But it’s necessary, they say.
“You can’t hold onto everything. You know, you can hold on to your memories, and you can hold on to pictures, but this house is a little too big to hold on to,” Jecolia said.
“So I think it’s time – for all of us.”
Jeremy nods. He leans forward and rubs his hands together.
After his dad died, he starts to explain, they each got one of his cars. Jeremy got a teal 1951 Mercury that Reggie had fixed up. He was thrilled to have this piece of his father, but over time, “I realized it was just sitting there. As much as I wanted to keep it and keep it in the family, I was like, ‘But if I sell this to somebody that I know is going to take care of it, then whoever can get it now can appreciate it, and give it the love that my dad would have given it, too.’
“That’s how I feel about this house.”
Property: 17235 Connor Quay Court.
Starting bid: $1.5 million.
When: Auction begins at 9 a.m. Monday, March 12.