By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
The long, flowing blond locks Kevin Greene sported during his 15-year NFL playing career are gone, but the fire and passion he showcased throughout it is not. A fifth-round NFL Draft pick in 1985 out of Auburn by the Los Angeles Rams, it wasn’t long before Greene began to make his mark at outside linebacker. In 1996, he was named both NFL and NFC Defensive Player of the Year. He was the NFL sack leader in both 1994 and 1996, and along the way was selected to five Pro Bowls. He remains the NFL’s third all-time sack leader with 160, and is the all-time sack leader among linebackers. In 2016, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
By that time, Greene had already embarked on the next phase of his football life – as a coach. Greene retired from the NFL following the 1999 season. After taking a break from football for several years, he found himself missing it. With a little help from his wife, he re-entered the world he had once dominated.
“I had played my passion out. I had played my fire out,” Greene recalled in his still-distinct southern drawl. “I didn’t watch football, or Super Bowl, or nothing for the first five years (after retirement). I pretty much stayed away.
“Then I found myself twiddling my thumbs and being a dad and that was great, I enjoyed that. But, the fire and passion started to come back and around year eight or nine my wife was like, ‘You need to get off your tail and get back into football.’ I’m kind of hee-hawing around so, she found (Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator) Dom Capers’ number and said, ‘Give this man a call.’”
Greene called Capers, who had been his head coach at the Carolina Panthers in 1998. After Greene completed an internship with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008, Capers hired Greene in 2009 as his outside linebackers coach where he stayed through the 2013 season, including the team’s Super Bowl XLV win in 2010. He stepped away from coaching for three years to spend time with his family and then in 2017, Greene joined the New York Jets in the same capacity.
Greene’s hair is shorter now and, at age 55, tinged with gray, but that’s all that’s really changed. He’s simply transferred his knowledge of, and passion for, the game into helping his young linebackers be the best players they can be.
“I don’t see myself as a coach, I see myself as an old player sharing words of wisdom about the position with my young kids, with other players,” Greene said. “I know I can’t play the game anymore. I know I can’t knock the crap out of anyone anymore but, dadgummit, I can share tricks of the trade with folks and if they’ll listen, they’ll see it actually works.
“(This is the) same thing I did as a player. I used to take young outside linebackers, young rushers underneath my flipper and show them tricks of the trade – show them how to watch film, show them what to look for, how to attack certain blocks and how to attack certain pass sets so, I kind of see myself in the same way having played this position for 15 years.
“I have a better vision about this position than I ever did as a player. I think I’m a better coach than I ever was as a player in this position. I see it more clearly. I have more of a crystal-clear sight or viewpoint of how this position should be played because of the time I put into it. So, I just tell the kids, if it was me, I’d play it this way. If you try it, I bet it’ll work.”
And Greene’s players are all in.
Jordan Jenkins, now in his second year, talked about the impact Greene has had on him.
“He’s a true players’ coach. He’s done it and he’s done it exceptionally well,” Jenkins said. “When he says something, you know it’s right and you don’t want to go against it. In the back of your mind you sometimes want to do it your way, but with Kevin Greene there is no, ‘I’m going to do it my way.’ His way led to his success so, naturally you’re thinking that, ‘I need to follow in his footsteps.’ It quells that urge to rebel.”
Of course, Greene’s Hall of Fame status can initially be a little intimidating.
“It took a while (for the awe to wear off),” Jenkins admitted. “You hear about Kevin Greene; He got the jacket and you think, ‘This is my coach.’ He has it written on his board, Trust in the Process. He knows there’s going to be growing pains, but he wants us to keep trusting that what he says is right.”
“It’s super humbling because you can’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know,” rookie Dylan Donahue said. “Especially as a rookie, if I try to do things my way and it doesn’t work it’s like, ‘What did I tell you?’ He really cares about us and wants the best for us. He’s so passionate about us. (And when you do something well) he gets all fired up, ‘I told you! I told you!’”
Asked about his future goals, Greene points to his 16-years as a Captain in the Army Reserves.
“I was never deployed, but I have commanded troops and soldiers in different capacities. I’m always up for bigger and better opportunities. I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at commanding other groups of folks. But, the football bounces in strange and mysterious ways. I always marched to the beat of my own drum and that seems to work.”
Donahue agreed, “The perfect way to say it is, there’s a method to his madness.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.