I've always looked askance at people who show conspicuous emotion at the deaths of strangers. The international outpouring of ostentacious grief at the passing of Princess Diana in 1997 disgusted me, and the to-do over those who become famous as a result of gruesome death--Laci Peterson, JonBenet Ramsey types--is even more repulsive, as there's no question but that nobody outside their circle of acquaintance had strong feelings about those people either way before they left this world.
That said, two unexpected deaths of famous individuals are on my mind tonight. The journalist and activist Jack Newfield passed away last Monday night of cancer at age 66, and former NFL great Reggie White died early this morning. He was just 43.
I met Newfield once, when he did one of the first online chats in NBC's history in 1995 to promote his book about Don King. He had been a hero of mine for years already from his writings about Robert F. Kennedy, and much later I read his classic City for Sale, a devastating expose of corruption in New York during the mayoralty of Ed Koch, with Koch's tacit tolerance if not approval, which Newfield co-wrote with Wayne Barrett. He continued to write riveting articles on poverty, politics and New York City through this year, and his passions for Gotham, reform, and pro sports are all traits that make me feel I knew the man far better than one professional encounter could encompass. While we mourn his loss, we also celebrate his life.
Reggie White isn't quite so clear-cut or easy to talk about. Like most Philadelphia Eagles fans who followed the team in the late 1980s and early '90s, I just flat-out loved watching the man play. His ferocity, courage and leadership were utterly compelling, and he seemed like a great guy off the field--funny, community-minded, generous. On the other hand, White left the Eagles when the NFL players won free agency in 1993--a move I blame less on White than the shabby treatment he received from then-owner Norman Braman, a real prick who was as widely despised in Philadelphia as White was beloved. At least he went to the Packers, an easy team to root for, and led them to a Super Bowl championship in January 1997. And he made his peace with the Eagles organization after Jeff Lurie bought the team from Braman, indicating that if Lurie had been in charge at the time he left, he probably wouldn't have done so.
Of course, White later dimmed his own star with widely reported homophobic remarks to the Wisconsin state legislature, which didn't sit well with me--though considering the widely reported distaste for homosexuality within the evangelical African-American community (a factor some credit for George W. Bush doing much better among African-American voters in Ohio and elsewhere than had been expected), it probably shouldn't have come as a surprise. But the ugly comments somewhat obscured his superb play between the lines.
Newfield died of cancer, which has been all too present in the lives of my family and friends this year. White had a heart condition, possibly related to sleep apnea, which I was diagnosed with a few months ago. I don't think one needs to be of overtly religious bent to note that no day should be taken for granted. Sleep in peace, gentlemen, and thanks for all the good memories.