The Offensive Rookie of the Year award included a gray Ford Granada that remained in the family into the early 1990s.
“It hung in this family a long time,” White laughed. “It was pushed down from one brother to another and down to my baby sister.”
White did, too, with the Vikings, but only after an initial hiccup. The receiver was so focused on trying to defeat NFL defensive backs that he experienced lapses when it came time to secure catches.
He might be more thankful for the NFL formerly having six preseason games than anyone else. The exhibition schedule — and Head Coach Bud Grant — gave him numerous opportunities. Grant started White in the sixth preseason game. The receiver suffered a couple of more drops, but Grant put the rookie back in late, and White scored the game-winner.
“I was having great practices back then, but we’d get in the game and I’d set my mind somewhere else, ‘These are professional defensive backs. How am I going to get open?” I would concentrate on getting open so much that I lost my other focus, which was the big one, to catch the ball,” White said. “Once I caught that winning touchdown, I felt good and that was all she wrote.”
Bess, Young and Vikings Ring of Honor safety Joey Browner all mentioned how great White was at running routes.
“I’m talking about, man, somebody who will turn you around in circles if you’re not careful,” Bess said. “A very astute guy, very knowledgeable of the game.
“If he beat you on a route, he would kind of tell you what you didn’t do as a defensive back,” Bess added. “If he tells you how to cover him, he’s still going to beat you because that’s how he was. ‘OK, Sammy, you gave me all that, and you’re still going to beat me on the route? Dang it! I thought I could cover that to the T, and you do something different in the route.”
White chalked up his success to “a lot of practice and a lot of imagination.”
“Growing up, I watched people like Paul Warfield. I’d sit down and watch and just start daydreaming and wishing I could do something like that,” White said. “Lo and behold, I was able to do that and push it all the way to the next level.”
White quickly connected with QB Fran Tarkenton, who had just won the NFL MVP in 1975.
“You’ve always got to be on the same page with the quarterback. In my first year up there, Fran and I would stay after practice sometimes, just getting to know each other and learning how I ran the routes,” White said. “Sometimes Fran would diagram something for me to run, and he’d just take all of that in, put it all together and good things happened.
“John Gilliam (who was with Minnesota from 1972-75 and made the Pro Bowl in each of those seasons before signing with Atlanta as a free agent) was one of my favorite receivers, too,” White said. “I watched him a whole lot, especially when I was in college. When I got drafted by the Vikings, I was hoping to play with him. I’ve met John a few times, and he said, ‘If I knew you were coming, I probably would have stayed.’ That was a helluva compliment.”
Young described White as a “great family man” and a “technician at running pass patterns.”
“Nobody was better at running pass patterns than Sammy White — him and Charlie Joiner,” Young said. “Both of them were from Grambling.”
Browner was a first-round selection in 1983 out of Southern Cal in 1983. He said covering White in practice was a tough assignment that ultimately made the six-time Pro Bowler a better player.
“Sammy White was a precision runner,” Browner said. “The patterns that he ran back then, the kids are emulating now. When I came here, I had to guard him. For me to guard someone like him in practice, it was a privilege. It made me much better when I lined up against other players.
Browner pointed out that “DBs were able to beat up [White] up and down the field, and it wasn’t pass interference.”
Perhaps the most infamous hit White endured occurred during Super Bowl XI.
On third-and-11 early in the fourth quarter, Tarkenton threw a pass down the middle of the field. White caught the ball and was immediately walloped by Raiders safety Jack Tatum.
It’s one of the most-shown plays — practically obligatory for any tribute to that squad or era of the NFL. Many talk about the hit, but few point out that White held onto the football, despite his helmet flying several yards through the air.
Bess teamed with Tatum in 1979 and said his understanding of the safety’s propensity for hard hits made White’s catch even more incredible.
“I always give Sammy kudos for the fact he held onto that ball,” Bess said. “I just know how hard Tatum hit. I watched him hit Earl Campbell and different players. Jack was rough and a vicious hitter. For Sammy to be able to hold onto that ball in that moment was impressive for me.”
White said seeing the replays of that catch and hit “doesn’t really bother me.”
“The only part that bothers me, they show it so much that I should have gotten some royalties,” White said. “As much as they show it, I’d probably be a rich man. … [Seeing the replay] probably bothers my wife more than anybody.
“I did lay there a minute just thinking about it,” White said. “I wasn’t hurt. I was just thinking about it.”
White bounced back within the game. He led Minnesota with 77 yards and a touchdown on five catches, but it wasn’t enough for the Vikings to erase a 16-0 halftime deficit.
The following season, however, he polished off one of the greatest comebacks in team history, by reeling in a 69-yard pass from rookie Tommy Kramer in a 28-27 victory after Minnesota had trailed 24-7 entering the fourth quarter.