Pablo Picasso not only created some of the most treasured art of the 20th century, the Spanish painter and sculptor crafted a description of the “artist” that is everlasting. He famously said, “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place; from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”
For Ed White’s sake, the iconic artist should have added “from the tangled bodies on the football field.” The former burly offensive lineman for the Vikings and Chargers is a full-time artist, creating indelible works shaped by his gridiron exploits and assorted life experiences.
It’s been a quarter century since the All-Pro suited up as a member of the two perennial playoff teams. His love for the game and pride in his stellar 17-season career (1969-1985) are still evident. Foremost today, though, is his passion for art. It’s as vibrant as one of his colorful paintings, whether depicting magnificent boats in a harbor or a Green Bay defensive lineman being tossed aside.
“Having played football so long didn’t leave me in great physical condition. Art is something that fills a big void,” White says over the phone from his home in Julian, Calif., a small mountain town about 90 minutes east of San Diego. “It’s a passion and a hobby. I enjoy doing it. I’m good enough to make a little money doing it. I sell a lot of work online (www.edwhiteart.com).”
White’s work is “good enough” to be included in private collections throughout the world. Besides creating with oil, pen, inks and acrylics, White is also a sculptor and has been commissioned to craft bronze pieces for many entities, including the John Madden All-Pro Team and halls of fame belonging to the Chargers, San Diego State and University of San Diego.
“I’m enjoying painting right now. I love the environment, so outdoor landscape has been a favorite,” White says. “Obviously, sports is an inspiration. I like still life and flowers. Right now, I’m painting old trucks in unique settings.”
Yes, this is the same man who protected two Hall of Fame quarterbacks while playing in a controlled rage, won the NFL arm-wrestling competition, and could rip a phone book in half with his bare hands. For the record, White says he can still accomplish that feat. And despite a bum knee that will need to be replaced soon, he surfs, lifts weights and enjoys swimming with his four grandchildren.
“There are lots of artists who are athletes and athletes who are artists,” says the 63-year-old. “There are artists who are probably more emotional and high-strung than football players. You don’t think of football and art coming together, but I’ve been into art since I was a little kid. For me, it’s something I’ve always done.”
As well as play football.
“I played ball in the street with a bunch of kids and no coaches,” says White, who was born in La Mesa, Calif. “We would then play tackle on the lawn in front of the junior high school. Nine of the kids that played with us got major college scholarships.”
White turned out to be one of the nine. His family moved to Indio, Calif., where the future Viking starred on the high school team as a defensive lineman (the school’s football stadium is now named after him) before earning a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley. At Cal, White blossomed into a consensus All-American defensive lineman. He also excelled off the field, taking numerous art classes while earning a degree in landscape architecture.
“If you choose to do something that you have a passion for, you’re going to enjoy the energy, time and commitment that it takes to be good at it,” White says. “I think if you’re half good at something and you spend time doing it, you’re going to become better. I spent hours becoming an athlete since I was a young kid growing up. I couldn’t wait to get out there and do that just like I couldn’t wait to draw and paint. If you’re inspired to do something and you do it, you have a good chance at reaching higher goals.”
Such as playing in the National Football League. The Vikings gave White that opportunity by making him their top pick (second round, 39th overall) in the 1969 draft. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder proved a worthy investment by becoming the only rookie to make the roster. And he did so at a new position, offensive guard.
“Jerry Reichow (the Vikings’ longtime personnel guru) just saw something in me that he thought would translate into a great offensive lineman,” White says. “I enjoyed it. I begged them a bunch of years to also let me play defense.”
Reichow, who still works as a player personnel consultant for the Vikings, believes White could have been a defensive tackle in the NFL, but Minnesota had a more pressing need in 1969, the season in which all four starting defensive linemen—Jim Marshall, Alan Page, Carl Eller and Gary Larsen—went to the Pro Bowl.
“We were looking for a guard,” he says. “I had seen him play for a couple of years and really liked him. Some scouts and I thought he could play guard. He had brutal, unbelievable strength.”
White didn’t mind the switch to the offensive side of the ball, partly because he maintained the mentality of a defensive player.
“That made me a better offensive lineman,” he says. “A lot of times, for offensive linemen, it’s more of a head game. Defensive line is more of a reaction game. As an offensive lineman, I could still go into that reaction mode after I had assimilated the information. That helped me a ton.”
As an artist, White prefers colorful abstract works. As an offensive lineman, his style of play was crystal clear and often left opponents black and blue. White played in what could be described as an animalistic rage from the first time he suited up at guard until he retired prior to the 1986 season after playing in 241 games, an NFL record at the time for his position.
“I tried to play every play 1,000 miles an hour,” he says. “Then I would bring myself down and concentrate on the next play. I would let the guy across from me know that it was going to be that way every play. A lot of times, guys would quit on me. Once they got in the game, it confirmed what they had seen on film and it made life easier for me.”
White saw some spot duty as a rookie in 1969, a magical season until the Kansas City Chiefs cast a spell on the Vikings in Super Bowl IV by defeating the heavily favored Purple People Eaters 23-7.
“It was kind of shocking that it unfolded like it did. We had been so dominant,” White says. “I think everybody in our division played a straight 4-3 defense, a really basic defense. Then in the Super Bowl, we go against an AFL team that played a nose guard over our center. All season, our center had been blocking middle linebackers and our guards had been blocking big tackles. All of a sudden, our guards are on linebackers and our center is on the nose guard and it’s a totally different world. I think we got caught with our pants down a little bit.”
By the middle of the following season, White was the starter at left guard for the Vikings, a position he maintained for the team until he switched to right guard in 1974. He eventually evolved into one of the best offensive linemen in the game, earning four Pro Bowl trips and four All-Pro honors.
“He was certainly the best second-round pick we ever had and one of our best draft picks ever,” says Reichow, who has been affiliated with the Vikings as a player, scout, executive and consultant since the team’s inception in 1961. “Ed helped solidify our offensive line for years.”
In addition to his intensity and strength, White credits quick feet and studious preparation for his high level of play.
“Quick feet are key for an offensive lineman. It’s also the reason why I think I stayed healthy for so long,” he says. “When I got hurt my last year (1985), it was because after a play a defensive lineman shoved me backwards and my foot was caught under a guy lying beneath me. I went over backwards and popped my tendon off my bone. That’s the reason I had to stop playing. I believe because of quickness, your feet are not attached to the ground as much and the chance of getting seriously hurt is lessened.”
Old No. 62 also did his homework.
“I had a very detailed system of not only studying my opponent but studying myself,” White says. “I would be very diligent about studying all the things that I did and where I had trouble and always concentrated on fixing things. It’s a constantly evolving thing based on what your talent and skills are at that moment.”
The future member of the College Football and University of California halls of fame didn’t have to evaluate his muscles. He was always strong. In fact, White earned the title as the strongest man in the NFL by winning an arm-wrestling contest featuring pro players. He routinely bested fellow teammates, including some who used two arms to his one. (In order to protect their manhood, the names of those “weak” players will not be revealed.)
“Arm wrestling is something that I always did,” he says. “I would arm wrestle for hamburgers in high school. In college, we would arm wrestle for beer on Friday nights, so I took it pretty serious. It requires quickness and initial strength more than anything.”
White credits construction work with his father during his high school and college years for building his core strength. Weightlifting wasn’t even a consideration until the second half of his career while with the Chargers.
“When I was with the Vikings, I played racquetball to get into shape,” says White, who was known as a voracious eater and serial practical joker. “Coach (Bud) Grant did not believe in weightlifting. He didn’t see the carryover from the weight room to the field. All he saw were stiff bodies. I think his philosophy was accurate at the time. Lifting has become scientific. Back then it wasn’t. We were a more athletic and physically conditioned team.”
While weights were out of the question, White did find time to lift a paint brush or two during his time as a Viking.
“In the offseason, I’d paint, draw and sculpt,” he says. “I would paint during training camp. One year, I did a wildlife painting for Dave Osborn. It still hangs in Ozzie’s house.”
If White painted a picture to represent his Vikings years (1969-77), the work would project a positive vibe.
“I think about how fortunate I was to play with those guys,” he says. “We always went to training camp thinking we were going to go to the Super Bowl. It was just an attitude we had. I don’t think we were cocky. We had good teams. We respected each other and everybody played hard.”
In addition to the Super Bowl IV loss to the Chiefs, Minnesota fell short on three other Super Sundays during White’s nine-season stint in purple. The losses stung at the time, but White didn’t allow four Super Bowl defeats to define him.
“Those losses don’t hurt one bit to me,” he says. “I felt very fortunate to play on a team that was as great as those Vikings teams were. It was a phenomenal run. I look at it as a positive. One game does not a lifetime make.”
White’s life as a Viking came to an end after the 1977 season when he was traded to the Chargers for running back Rickey Young. A lingering contract dispute with management precipitated the trade. White, a member of the Vikings’ 25th and 40th anniversary teams, was sad to leave Minnesota, but in hindsight, he believes the move extended his career.
“I got into warmer weather and I got off the Viking ship just in time because the team got old all at once,” he says. “I got on another ship where I was the old guy. I was 30 and I was the Jim Marshall of the crew. That was a neat thing for me. I got to play on teams that were as equally talented as the Vikings were. We could never get over the hump and get into the Super Bowl, but we had excellent teams. It was a great situation that made the second half of my career as enjoyable as the first.”
San Diego made four playoff appearances and twice advanced to the AFC Championship Game during White’s eight years with the club. The Chargers of that era reflected the lightning bolts on their helmets with the league’s top-ranked offense, dubbed “Air Coryell” after their head coach, the innovative Don Coryell.
“Don rewrote the book on passing the football,” White says. “He was a phenomenal offensive coach. Don deserves to be in the Hall of Fame every bit as much as Bud (Grant).
“Their personalities were totally opposite. With Don, you laughed with him and laughed at him. He loved that. There was a vulnerability there. Bud was a general. There was a mystique about him. There was no vulnerability with Bud. You just wanted to play your heart out for the guy because you loved him. They were both fabulous and I was fortunate to play for both.”
And protect two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, his good friend Dan Fouts in San Diego and Fran Tarkenton in Minnesota. White refers to both as “competitive, athletic geniuses” on the field. Off the field, the two were different.
“Dan was more of a teammate’s player. Francis was more businesslike,” White says. “He had his circle of things going on. There wasn’t a lot of socialization there. Dan was more social. His life and his teammates’ lives were one. We all hung out, did things together and cared for one another on a different level. Fran was a great guy, but it was just around football. That was fine. It takes all types.”
When reflecting on his career, White is very grateful for four players in particular: centers Mick Tingelhoff (Minnesota) and Don Macek (San Diego), and tackles Ron Yary (Minnesota) and Russ Washington (San Diego).
“Why was my career so long and so good? I played 90 percent of the time between four guys,” he says. “In 17 years, that’s pretty amazing and they were legitimately high-quality, Hall of Fame people. Mick certainly ought to be in the Hall of Fame and Don was as good as Mick. Russ was a great tackle, as obviously Ron was (Yary entered the Hall of Fame in 2001). A little of that rubs off. You combine that with the head coaches who made good decisions for my two teams, and I was very fortunate.”
After retiring in 1986, White coached for several years, both in the NFL (Chargers and Rams) and in college (California State and San Diego State) but left the rigors of that profession in 2004 to devote himself full-time to his art and family. White and his wife of 42 years, Joan (pronounced Joanne), have two sons: Randall, a chef, and Mike, the football coach, athletic director and math teacher at nearby Julian High School. His daughter, Amy, passed away in 1997, three and a half years after suffering a head injury.
Whether discussing his wife’s recent recovery from breast cancer, the cherished memories of his daughter or fun activities with his four grandkids, White paints a picture of a devoted family man. In a small way, he hopes to be a patriarch for future generations through his passion for art.
White is executive director of the Oak Lake Art Center, a small non-profit foundation in Julian.
“I go into schools and bring art to kids who are having trouble finding something they enjoy,” he says. “I bring all the materials that will be needed for them to go home after an hour and a half with a couple of paintings that they’ve created. It’s my own little way of changing the world around us in a positive way.”
Somewhere, Picasso is smiling.
EXTRA POINTS WITH ED WHITE
On his favorite stadium …
“Really enjoyed playing in the old Yankee Stadium and Tiger Stadium. The Astrodome was cool. I loved the Met. Hopefully, the Vikings will be outside again. It was such an advantage to take advantage of the weather.”
On playing in the 1981 AFC Championship with the Chargers at Cincinnati (the coldest game in terms of wind chill, -59°F, in NFL history) …
“It was dangerously cold. It wasn’t football. That’s the sad thing. It wasn’t one of those games where you could stand by the heater and warm up. It was so much colder than anything I played in in Minnesota. I had so much stuff on, I couldn’t move.”
On the best player he went up against …
“Alan Page, and that was on a daily basis in practice. He had a work ethic like I did. We went at it hard in practice.”
On his favorite joke pulled on (offensive coordinator) Jerry Burns …
“He was deathly afraid of insects, spiders and snakes. I would get rubber snakes and roll them up in film cans. When he would open them, he would get so scared that he would kick the projector over. Bud would howl.”