McALLEN — Today, Mixed Martial Arts, and its kissing, commercialized cousin Ultimate Fighting Championships, are newly crowned kings of the sports world, forming a dynamic spectacle of sometimes brainy brawling that has gained a huge worldwide following.
But in the 1970s, Randy White remembers it being taboo in his line of work, which was professional football. Before the days of high-profile, cable TV cage matches, karate and its offshoots were seen as quirky, foreign, and definitely off-limits for the NFL mandarins.
“You would have guys working with sticks, plastic knives, and the football guys would shake their heads,” said the Hall of Fame defensive tackle, who became a household name as a star for the Dallas Cowboys after being a two-time All-American and 1974 Outland Trophy winner at the University of Maryland. “People didn’t appreciate what martial arts could do for them.”
He was speaking Friday at a local pancake house in town, having visited the Valley to put on a football camp in Alamo, in tandem with Edinburg promoter Mark Lozano. He told a tale of grudging acceptance that he witnessed firsthand.
Martial Arts was on the periphery, looked at something kooky, or hokey. Then, the Cowboys hired a strength coach named Dr. Bob Ward, who introduced White to the key to what would be a long and storied pro career.
“It was all about using your hands, hand-eye coordination in tandem,” White said. “For me, it was all about using some of those skills to get by my man, the offensive linemen. It took awhile for folks to figure out the practical use of martial arts, but those who got into it found that it helped them in so many ways on the field.”
Part of White’s embrace of the formerly exotic and esoteric world of martial arts had to do with rules changes taking place at the time.
In the mid-1970s the offensive linemen had received a gift from the gods, the ability to use their hands more liberally; the “punchout” had arrived, enabling the hogs to reach their defensive enemy and deliver a blow instead of having to wait for the impact while keeping their mitts tucked to avoid an “illegal use of the hands” penalty. In an effort to make the game more wide open, increase scoring, and put more fans in the seat, the league concurrently instituted tougher standards for defenders, including outlawing the “headslap” that ends like Deacon Jones had used for years to torment tackles.
The balance of power in the trenches had tipped to the offense’s favor.
“It was out of necessity that some of us turned to martial arts,” explained White. “As it developed, we started to draw from all of them, like karate and judo, to increase our quickness and coordination, making it easier for us to get to the quarterback or find the ball-carrier.”
The innovation certainly paid off for White, who began as a backup middle linebacker to veteran Lee Roy Jordan upon joining the team as a first-round draft pick in 1975. He then made a propitious move to the defensive line and by 1978 had started a 9-year reign as a Pro Bowler and All-Pro, picking up a Super Bowl ring in the process. For his career, from 1975 to 1988, White compiled 1,104 tackles and 111 sacks, with his shocking quickness and toughness that earned him the nickname “Manster,” or half man and half animal.
Today, among other ventures, he travels from his home in Prosper, north of Dallas, to give instruction at football camps; the latest journey this summer has taken him from San Angelo to Dallas, to Corpus Christi and the Valley. All along the way, he trumpets the value of martial arts, something he’s imbibed with a true passion since the 1970s.
“It’s not limited to pass rushing either,” he stressed. “The things you learn help in all aspects of the game. For offensive linemen, we use it to teach footwork, I mean, their job is to stop the guy from getting in, so hand-eye coordination, along with footwork, those are the keys.
“It’s not a real complicated equation, really, and the skills learned in martial arts, well, they’re naturally effective on the football field. You use all the things in combination, together, and they teach you to learn the flow out there on the field. Once you get engaged out there in the trenches, what will you do? How will you get your job done? I found that understanding the flow of the game means knowing where you are, what your hands and feet are doing, and martial arts gave me the extra edge I needed to do what I had to do. I could solve the problem based on what I had studied and practiced.”
Still, there was this lingering perception in the ‘70s that martial arts was for someone else, Asians and/or people who weren’t “real athletes.” Despite the meteoric rise to fame of the star-crossed Bruce Lee, martial arts was just not a mainstream activity in the meat-and-potatoes realm of American sports.
And White, born in Pennsylvania and raised in Delaware before matriculating at Maryland and eventually becoming a transplanted Texan for life, is certainly a product of Middle America.
“We had to convince people that the skills were relevant, and after awhile it was kind of easy to do, once they’d just listen,” he said. “OK, you don’t like the sticks and knives we train with? Put them down, and I’ll do it with just my hands. It’s the same thing.”
He became a fanatical proponent of the art, getting into Thai boxing and other derivatives; today, he is a mere 20 pounds over his old playing weight but one cannot tell. He looks like he could still go a round with the Steel Curtain, which he did in a pair of Super Bowls against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I have gotten a little heavier,” he chuckled, though it was difficult to see where. “And there are a lot of aches and pains as I get older. But if I hadn’t kept up the training with martial arts, I might not be able to get out of bed in the morning, it is such a total-body workout.”
WHAT IT MEANS
White is a perfect exemplar for teaching arenas like his Big Man Camp, which made its latest stop Saturday in Alamo. As a guy who was able to leap into an entirely new learning environment of martial arts and apply it to the game of pro football, he can speak of what it takes to be versatile and successful in life.
“I was terrible when I first started out in the ‘70s,” he admitted. “But everyone is, because it involves some totally different things than you’re used to. I used to train in the morning and then go out to practice with the Cowboys, working on the stuff I’d seen. Some of it worked, and I mean immediately! Other things took longer to incorporate.
“But I worked at it, hard, and I was always looking for the practical applications. It was like, ‘Hey, this works, gimme some more of that!’ But it all came together when I realized the idea of the flow. How to flow with the play, with your man, and how to break through at the right time.”
An easy-going cat from way back, White nonetheless becomes exercised when propounding the virtues of martial arts. One can tell he takes it seriously.
“People say I had great quickness for a defensive tackle, and I owe much of that to the work I did in martial arts,” he claimed. “That’s why I go around teaching it today, to share what I learned. I have taken it through the years to a different level than most people, but anyone can get into it and take something away that will aid them in their sport. That’s what it’s all about, because if it doesn’t contribute…well, I have always been a pretty practical guy.”
White noted that he’s been to the Valley many times. Lozano and long-time sportsman Arturo Mata had him in tow over the weekend as they prepared for the Alamo camp.
“I don’t have to do this, I don’t need the money, which is good, because I ain’t makin’ any,” quipped White, who hasn’t lost any of the folksy, Bad Boy charm that made him both a fan favorite and the scourge of NFL offensive linemen. He owns a restaurant in Frisco, near Dallas, and for years has been a pitchman for Smokey Mountain Chew, a nicotine-free alternative. Lately, he’s also been doing TV commentary on the Cowboys for a local station, but stressed that were it not for the camp, he wouldn’t be sitting around talking about football.
And that’s the refreshing aspect to the man. While many ex-NFL stars trade off their careers for endorsements, and others keep getting into the negative headlines after their playing days are over, the Manster is a different breed of cat, altogether.
“I appreciate all the fans who still remember me with the Cowboys, and I guess it’s given me some added credibility, which comes in handy for doing camps like this one,” he commented. “But really, I’m on to other things now, and I don’t really give those days much thought. Me, I’m just Randy, that’s it. Pretty simple. I am still welcomed everywhere I go, but I’m not the type to bask in the glory days. I want to go on to what’s next.”
That means teaching, and White is quick to reiterate that his version of the summer staple of football camps is a bit unique.
“We don’t teach you how to get in a stance or how to take a handoff, none of that crap,” he growled. “We teach movement, coordination, hands and feet, all the things I’ve been talking about that came from training in martial arts. You know what, look at a baby in a crib some time, he’s moving around and learning what his body can do, naturally, and that is the essence of any martial art. So at our camps, we go over the basics on movement, flow, and fold them into football.”
He says that though kids might not realize the inner workings of the drill when they go through the camp, later, some will come to understand the value of what they saw, heard, and did.
“It’s like a little piece of gold we’re trying to give the kids, and if they take it and work with it, they can be successful down the line,” he promised. “Through the years I have come to appreciate all the little things that help you win. It takes a certain level of ability, of course, but after that, it boils down to how hard you work and what resources you can bring to bear on your game.”
He told a story about legendary Dallas coach Tom Landry, and in passing, note than White retired the same year (1988) as the Hall of Fame leader, a Mission native.
“He never let us get too comfortable with things,” White recalled. “We’d be watching films and Coach would be talking about the defensive line. He’d say, ‘Now, the man in this position needs to do this,” and I’d be like, ‘That’s me! I been here for 10 years, what’s he saying that for? Hey coach, it’s me, Randy!’”
Gradually, White figured out the psychology behind Landry’s supposedly cold exterior.
“He just wanted us to be wound tight, not to take for granted what we had and who we were,” he explained. “And that makes a lot of sense. Because nobody is going to give you anything in this life, you have to fight for what you get. I would sit there and listen to Coach Landry and I’d be pissed…’Man, is he going to replace me? I’d better get after it!’ So motivation plays a part.”
The NFL Hall of Famer, also a member of the College Football Hall, knows that making it is a lifetime proposition that never ends. Maybe that’s the reason he has embraced martial arts, a mystical world heavy on psychology and even metaphysics at times. He’s no New Age kook, Randy White. But long ago he was open to something decidedly outside the box, and it paid off in spades.
“You have to be open-minded to stuff,” he smiled. “Heck, I learn something from everyone I meet, and I look forward to checking out something, someone new, all the time. We are all a work in progress, man. You come into contact with folks every day who can show you something you didn’t know, something you can enjoy and use in your life, whether it be in sports or otherwise.
“Just tell yourself, it’s gonna be me, I am going to be successful and there’s nothing left to worry about except working hard and getting a kick out of life.”
With that, the Manster pushed away from the breakfast table, tossed in a wad of Rocky Mountain Chew, and headed for the next good thing. Before taking off on a promotional tour that will see him at a local chamber of commerce, a few more restaurants, and a hotel or two, the NFL legend stood for a photograph with a couple of waitresses from the pancake house, smiling and goofing around with them.
It’s all about agility for the Great American Good Ol’ Boy. On the football field he took his natural gifts and enhanced them with secrets from the Orient, becoming one of the quickest, smoothest linemen to ever play the game. And his agile mind continues to assimilate data by the minute.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just another dumb jock. He can take or leave the career and fame he had, though he’s grateful for it. But he also looks forward to the next tomorrow, because if martial arts has taught him anything — and the lessons keep on coming, he will assert — it’s to not only go with the flow, but to become a living, breathing, thinking part of it.