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Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers
Granite City South grad Kevin Greene chases down quarterback Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers during his 1999 season with the Carolina Panthers. Favre and Greene are both among the 2016 class to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August in Canton, Ohio.
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Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers
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Granite City native Kevin Greene puts a hit on Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Joe Montana during his playing days with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Greene will join Montana in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in August.
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Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Steelers
Kevin Greene lines up to rush the quarterback during his playing days with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Kevin Greene has a life moniker that has worked pretty well for him — be crazy and enjoy life.
Whether it was during his 15-year NFL career, his military service, his short stint as a pro wrestler, or hanging with his best bud Bob Firtos of Granite City, Greene is always loving life.
The outlook has bred success, leading him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Greene, a rushing outside linebacker and defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers, was inducted into the 2016 HOF class, which will go in this summer.
Greene, a 1980 Granite City South grad, sits third all-time in sacks in the NFL with 160. It’s the most by a linebacker in league history.
Still, Greene had to wait 13 years on the HOF ballot, including the last five as a finalist before he was elected. The wait is an anomaly to many, but maybe fitting for a guy who has always flown under the radar.
“It really is everything in God’s timing and my wife and I have discussed this about the right time for this happening,” Greene said. “I wanted it before now, but when we look back we can see that it wasn’t really a good time in my life. My son is now halfway through his senior year of high school, my daughter is halfway through her junior year and now they can be a part of it and understand it.”
The early years
Greene was born into a military family on July 31, 1962, in Schenectady, N.Y. The family bounced around to different military bases and it was on those Army bases where Greene learned about football.
Then in 1976, as his family rotated back into the states, Greene landed in a place that had a profound effect on his life and his football career.
“As a military family we moved every two or three years and we had just rotated back from Germany,” Greene said. “I’d spent the previous three years living in Germany, playing for military base teams and we had on-base teams we competed against. We rotated back in the summer of 1976 and we lived there at the depot in west Granite, the Melvin Price Support Center, and we went to Granite City South High School. It was a continuation of what I’d been doing, playing ball for quite some time.”
But Greene didn’t realize some of the relationships he would form in Granite City, including Firtos, who is still his best friend.
“Our freshman year of basketball we sat the bench,” Firtos said. “I played like 30 seconds and I think he played a minute. Both of our parents worked, so after school I’d take him home and my mom would leave a big pot of mostaccioli on the stove, so we’d eat and go back to the gym and play basketball. That’s how we became best friends.”
Greene played football, basketball and was a high jumper in track and field while at South.
His defensive coordinator on the Warrior football team, Jerry McKechan, had a hand in molding Greene and has remained a part of his life over the years.
McKechan looks back on him fondly, too.
“I compare him to ‘Rudy,’ the movie — perfect example,” McKechan said. “It’s an analogy for the hard work and the determination.”
Greene added, “I had some impactful coaches there and the one that comes to mind is coach Jerry McKechan. He was the defensive coordinator my junior and senior year, as well as the linebacker coach, and he really impacted my life encouragement-wise.”
He had skills, but only weighed about 180 pounds in high school, undersized for the next level. He only garnered honorable mention all-conference with the Warriors. But it was his determination and his flair that stood out.
“He made a lot of key plays for us and he worked his butt off, there’s no doubt about that,” Stan Wojcik said. Wojcik was the head coach during Greene’s time with the Warriors.
Wojcik, now 78 and still helping out with the Edwardsville High football program, reminisced of one story about Greene during a game with rival Granite City North.
Greene went in for a play at wide receiver and it worked flawlessly. He caught a 35-yard touchdown pass, but what stands out to Wojcik was what happened next. Chalk it up to Greene’s lovin’ life mantra.
“We ran it again because they didn’t even cover it,” Wojcik said. “It was a slant pass to Kevin; he caught it and went about 35 yards for a touchdown. Right away I turned my back to get special teams in there and I heard the crowd go, ‘Ooh.’ Then I saw a yellow flag on the field and I thought, ‘Oh my Lord, what happened.’ We got a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. He went in and scored and dunked the ball over the goal post. When I figured out what happened I was mad, but fortunately he never came off the field because he was on special teams, but I’ll never forget that.”
Greene remembers the play like it was yesterday. He had watched film and drawn the play up himself and Wojcik loved it. They called it the “Steeler Special,” the nickname for North’s team.
When it worked Greene just decided to put his exclamation point on it.
“I caught the ball, split the safeties going down the field into the end zone and spiked it over the goal post before I knew it, just being crazy — Bob and I’s mantra,” Greene said chuckling.
“Next thing I know I’m about getting hit in the head with about five flags and I’m like, ‘Why can’t a man show a little love and passion for the game? Come on, it’s high school.’
“Thank the good Lord that I was also on the kickoff coverage team because after we kicked the extra point it started to settle in to coach Wojcik what had happened. I could see his big freaking red noggin, his face was 10 shades of red on the sidelines and steam was coming out of his ears and I could hear him yell, ‘Greene!’ I was totally glad I was in the huddle on the kickoff team. I went down, made the tackle and ran over to the sideline, and he didn’t say anything to me. He looked the other way and I was grateful when he let me draw that play up on the board for him. It worked and I guess it’s all legend now.”
College and military
Greene didn’t stick around Granite City long after graduation. It was on to the next stage of his life as he entered basic training for the National Guard.
“Two days after I graduated high school I went to Fort McClellan in Alabama. I was in the National Guard and went through basic training and advanced individual training,” Greene said.
When that finished he worked on his goal to play college football at the only place on his radar — Auburn University. Being an Auburn Tiger was in his blood.
“Mom and dad were from Choccolocco, Ala., and they were born into the Auburn family,” Greene said. “You’re either born Auburn, or you’re born Alabama. My older brother Keith and I and my two younger sisters became Auburn fans out of the gate, so when it came down to go to college there was no question.”
So he tried to walk on out of basic training, but he wasn’t ready.
“I could run five miles before breakfast and could shoot anything in the Army arsenal, but I wasn’t in football shape,” he said.
So he got into football shape and tried again.
“I worked out, got to about 220 and before I knew it I made the Auburn Tigers, I’m leading the SEC in sacks and I’m voted Defensive Player of the Year,” Greene said.
When he came back to Granite City for a visit he was practically unrecognizable.
“He came to the house one time in the summer after his sophomore year and came to the door and I opened it and looked out and he had his sunglasses on. I couldn’t figure out who it was,” Wojcik said. “He said, ‘Coach, it’s Kevin.’ My God, I didn’t recognize him. The change physically was amazing. He hit the weights, I mean good Lord, he had to hit the weights. He was about 225 compared to what he was in high school.”
There was still time for a little fun with his buddy while his burgeoning career was happening, though. Firtos said they didn’t have much money, but they made time for spring break. Firtos was at Southern Illinois Carbondale, but the two would meet up at Fort Walton Beach in Florida to dream about their futures and reminisce about their pasts.
“We couldn’t afford to go to Daytona,” Firtos said. “We’d have like $30 between us so we’d go down to Fort Walton Beach and in the early ‘80s it only had two buildings; it wasn’t developed yet.
“We’d bring a cooler with our protein milk shakes and we’d practice marching Jodies (military marching songs) and have our own thing. I guess we were two goofy dudes in our own world. We made our own fun and we still do.”
That fun ramped up when Greene was drafted in the fifth round of the 1985 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams.
The NFL and a life of success
As a fifth-round pick Greene had to prove himself once again in the NFL. He started out as a special teams player working to find minutes on the defense.
He spent the first three years of his career working his tail off on special teams. He still was getting enough time on defense to prove his talents at hunting quarterbacks. He logged 7.0 sacks in ‘86 and another 6.5 in ‘87 and Rams’ head coach John Robinson decided to make Greene a more integral part of the defense in ‘88.
Firtos remembers accompanying Greene to camp before the ‘88 season and knew he was hungry to step onto a bigger stage.
“Kevin reported with the rookies and new guys in camp and he came out dressed in full gear like the rookies trying to make the team,” Firtos said. “They had a thing called the bar; one guy gets on one side, the other guy gets on the other and you go at it like two bulls to see who wins. Kevin went through every one of those offensive linemen trying to make the team. They stopped practice and were rooting Kevin on and he was screaming, ‘Bring me another one!’ He whooped every one of them and kind of introduced himself.”
He logged 16.5 sacks in ‘88, another 16.5 in ‘89 to make his first Pro-Bowl and then had 13.0 in 1990.
Things were progressing well before he hit a bump in the road.
“In 1991 John Robinson let go of (defensive coordinator) Fritz Shurmur and brought in Jeff Fisher and he didn’t really know how to play me right,” Greene said. “After three years and 46 sacks, Jeff struggled to put me in a good position to play. He tried to get me to fit in his schemes instead of creating situations for me. He really tried to put a square peg in a round hole and it didn’t work. I ended up with three sacks that year and the whole staff got let go.”
He spent one more year in L.A., recording 10 sacks in ‘92, and then everything changed in ‘93. That was the first year of free agency in the NFL and Greene was ready for a new home. That’s when he found Pittsburgh and really stepped onto the national stage.
Playing for the Steelers was like being in heaven for him.
“It was a great three years in Pittsburgh,” Greene said. “On the other side of me, my hunting dog was Greg Lloyd and we just feasted. What everybody saw nationally in the Super Bowl with (Broncos) Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware (this season), that’s what Greg and I were in the middle ‘90s. We were just crushing quarterbacks and it was a great ride. I really enjoyed playing for Steeler Nation and that’s really when I stepped up on the national stage. I was a good player with the Rams, but I went to Pittsburgh in ‘93 and it just took off for me.”
He led the NFL with 14.0 sacks in ‘94 and had 9.0 in ‘95 as the Steelers went 11-5 and ultimately played in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys, his only Super Bowl as a player. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh lost 13-6.
“We had a great defense and we dominated people in Pittsburgh,” Greene said. “It was surreal. What a great ride.”
In ‘96 he left for the Carolina Panthers, playing in an NFC Championship Game and leading the NFL in sacks again with 14.5. He played in San Francisco in ‘97 and was back in Carolina for ‘98 and ‘99 before retiring.
It was a storybook career and Greene. His job was devouring quarterbacks and he did it well.
“One weekend I was hunting Joe Montana and the next weekend was Dan Marino and the next weekend was John Elway, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Steve Young. I crushed ‘em,” Greene said. “This was back in the day where the rules weren’t as stringent on what you could and could not do to a quarterback. I could absolutely crush the quarterbacks back in the day. Now you have to lay them down with kid gloves, gently lay them down. Back when I played I could rock their tail and I did. I knew they were Hall of Fame guys. I knew they were special cats each week and I knew I was in a special time period in the NFL.”
Wrestling, coaching and loving life
Greene liked to enjoy life outside of football, too.
During the last few years of his career he even dabbled in professional wrestling with World Championship Wrestling (WCW).
“It was sports entertainment and I just enjoyed being crazy anyway,” Greene said. “I like letting my hair down and just enjoying life and that’s really what Bob and I are all about. That’s what it was with my stint with WCW. I was recruited in by Hulk Hogan, did four pay per views while I was still playing in the NFL.
“I became really good friends with Nature Boy Ric Flair and then a good friend in Macho Man (Randy Savage) and Rowdy Roddy Piper, God rest their souls,” Greene said. “It was just having fun man, coming off the top rope and taking down the Big Show. It was just being crazy and enjoying life and that’s pretty much the code Bob and I lived by in high school.”
Firtos had been there for the NFL ride, so of course he came along for the wrestling, too.
“I was used to the NFL football locker rooms before the game and these were some big scary dudes getting fired up for a football game,” Firtos said. “When I went to wrestling — and they’ve got some gigantic dudes too — but you go in the locker room and they’re all doing hairspray and eyeliner and they’re getting along. It kind of freaked me out. I was used to guys ready to kill each other. It was all theatrical.”
A more serious sidebar to his life was Greene’s passion for the military.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my military career, too,” Greene said. “I became a captain in the Army Reserve, I was a United States Army paratrooper and I enjoyed going to Fort Knox, Ky., and doing my military commitment after that NFL season ended.”
Firtos remembered him visiting troops during Desert Storm during his playing days in the NFL.
And a passion for football still burned in him even after his playing days, leading him to become a linebackers coach for the Green Bay Packers from 2009-‘13.
Greene was integral in bringing in Green Bay standout linebacker Clay Matthews and molding him into a Pro Bowl player. Then in 2011 he finally got to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
The Packers beat his beloved Steelers 31-25 and got him his Super Bowl ring.
“It was bittersweet because I bleed black and gold in my heart, Steeler Nation,” Greene said. “I had friends on that staff, so it was bittersweet to beat the Steelers. It was great to win a Super Bowl and get a ring; it’s what I fought for 15 years, but it also wounded me a little bit beating my old team. It is what it is, but it was a great five years there in Green Bay.”
Remembering Granite City and preparing for the HOF
Through it all, Greene has never forgotten his roots.
He’s given back to Granite City High, purchasing equipment for the school, speaking to the kids and always remembering his days as a Warrior. He hasn’t been forgotten either. He’s a member of the Granite City Athletics Hall of Fame and has memorabilia outside Memorial Gym to remind current GCHS students of his accomplishments.
“He’s a young man that has not forgotten where he came from,” McKechan said. “When I was coaching and when I was the athletics director, he came back. He spoke to our seniors every year; it was in the spring, we had a senior assembly. He talked to them about life.
“I can’t say enough good things about him. His biggest thing is he still has many, many friends here and he gets back a couple of times a year and he hasn’t forgotten the people where he came from and we’re just so proud of him and the accomplishments of what he’s done.”
Greene said with the impact McKechan and Firtos have had on his life, it was a no-brainer to honor Granite City.
“That was really important to me because going to Granite City and how much fun I had at that school and the impact that coach McKechan had on my life and the impact that Bob had on my life and continues to have on my life, I wanted to give something back to the school to honor them,” Greene said. “I just wanted to give something back, whatever it was and just say thank you for your support and loving me back when nobody gave me a chance in hell of doing anything and they supported me.”
It’s just been a great ride for Greene and those in his inner circle. That Aug. 6 night in Canton, Ohio, will be a wonderful way to honor him and those close to him.
“He was never in trouble, kept his nose clean and he was a good example,” Firtos said. “These are the kinds of people you want enshrined. They make the sport look good, they make the league look good. He’s my best friend. I might be a little biased, but it’s written on the walls everything he did. You don’t need to ad-lib, just speak the truth.”
Greene added, “The long wait is nixed now; it doesn’t matter. I am blessed to be on a team of elite players and it’s a team I will never get traded from, I’ll never get cut from and I won’t even be able to die out of. It’s a team that lasts forever and it’s very humbling to think about that.”
And when he gives his induction speech, it will be in line with that mantra he and Firtos have lived since those Granite City days.
“It’s going to be great,” Greene said. “I’m going to get up there and take the same code Bob and I have gone through life with. I’m going to be crazy with it, I’m going to be myself and have fun with it and rock n’ roll with it and let the chips fall where they may.”