Column: The former NFL star expresses his love of nature through his works of art

Ed White was a towering figure in professional football, thriving in a chaotic world of brute force and instant reactions.

Today, he finds order in the solitude of nature and shares his experiences through a wide range of artwork.

While the grill was his dream domain during a 17-year professional football career, White now considers his happy place to be a studio overflowing with art supplies in his Valley Center home, where he creates his work. self-proclaimed “Environmental Abstract Contemporary”.

A painting of the Cuyamaca prairies by Ed White.

(Ernie Cowan / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

I contacted White recently after he sent a brief note of appreciation on one of my nature columns.

During lunch at the rustic Wohlford Lake cafe, I was mesmerized by this gentle giant, best known for his football days, but who is so much more than that.

It was an uplifting encounter with a spiritual nature travel companion who has heard the secrets and has a wonderful ability to share them through his art.

At nearly 300 pounds, Big Ed White was powerful and intense, but also lightning fast and smart, the worst combination for his football opponents.

Raised in Lemon Grove, White moved with his family to Indio in high school where he graduated as a standout football player. His athletic skills earned him a scholarship to UC Berkeley where his love of nature led him to study environmental design and earn a degree in landscape architecture. In 1969 he was a first-round pick for the Minnesota Vikings.

He spent nine seasons at Minnesota as an All-Pro offensive guard, then was traded to San Diego in 1978 where he played eight more seasons and became a fan favorite.

White came from a working-class background and enjoyed an idyllic rural upbringing that allowed him to spend time outdoors. Family time was often shared at the beach, camping in Baja or the Eastern Sierra.

“We didn’t have much, but I didn’t know that,” White recalled of his happy childhood.

His refuge during the mentally and physically demanding years of professional football was his 5-acre ranch south of Julian which he shared for 35 years with his wife, Joan, a high school friend.

Unfortunately, Los Blancos lost everything when the Cedar fire swept through the area in 2007.

White often hiked and connected with nature while at Julian.

“I realized that there is spirituality in nature, and it represents the blood of all living beings,” he said.

He often sat in a wild place and let nature forget he was there, which gave him a better understanding of this special area. It taught him to focus on the what of things, rather than the how much.

Friendships with Native Americans led to an invitation to travel to South Dakota to participate in the sacred Lakota Sun Dance as a keeper of the fire.

This annual religious revival ritual focuses on Lakota beliefs about heaven and earth and the supernatural. White found it deeply moving.

“It gave me a better understanding of what the Lakota represent and who they are. Their balance with nature intrigued me,” White said.

The event also transformed him.

“The Sun Dance was really connected to nature and when I came back I had changed,” he said.

During his hikes in Julian, he often spoke with birds and animals. Sometimes they answered and approached.

White’s art began to reflect his life’s experiences, including his love of the environment as well as his travels and life on the grill.

A painting by Ed White.

A painting by Ed White.

(Ernie Cowan / For San Diego Union-Tribune)

Art was not new to Big Ed White.

At age 6, he entered an art scholarship competition that required him to submit a design of a horse pictured in the magazine’s advertisement.

“I got a note saying my application was rejected because I had plotted it,” White recalled. He hadn’t found it and was furious.

Now long retired, he has more time to devote to creating his art (, which includes poetry, bronze, stone, glass and metal sculpture in addition to his paintings. .

“I try to capture the beauty, joy and pain of the world around us and filter it through my soul for the world to enjoy,” White wrote in her biography.

Although White sells his art, that is not his primary focus. I asked him why some of his pieces are marked as “not for sale”.

“I don’t paint to sell. There are maybe a thousand there. I just paint because I was lucky enough to have a gift,” White said.

But her art helps support her other passion.

Along with his wife, White has a long history of helping minority youth from Alaska to Julian and as far away as New Zealand discover the world of the outdoors through art.

He was active with Westward Ho, a foundation set up to teach children about the pioneer experience.

White took over as general manager and changed the name to Oak Lake Art Center after the death of founder, elementary school teacher Julian David Stone.

The third graders were taken on an outdoor camping adventure in wagons, but these were destroyed when his house burned down, so the activities were moved to a desert cabin owned by White, the Julian Wolf Preserve and the Borrego Art Institute.

White also emphasized art and the natural environment and added the foundation’s mantra, “Art is medicine.”

“After one of the sessions, a kid told me he never knew there were birds,” White said.

A portion of White’s art sales go to support the nonprofit OLAC Foundation.

Additionally, White assists the Kind Warriors Project, a nonprofit organization created to help military veterans and retired football players who suffer from traumatic brain injuries.

Big Ed White was a force on the football field, but is an even greater force for good thanks to his connection to nature and his gift for art.

Cowan is a freelance columnist. Email or visit