Kevin Greene was a leader. In his 15 years in the NFL, and his many other years coaching and raising a family, he earned that designation many times over. As Dom Capers, his coach in Pittsburgh and Carolina, described him, “He influenced everybody that he was around. Everyone had a tremendous amount of respect for him because he not only produced as a player, but because as good of a player as he was he was an even better person.”
Failing to make the Auburn team as a punter, Greene played intramural football before making the varsity team as a walk-on defensive end in his senior year. While undersized, he made up for it with commitment and grit. As he once said, “I wasn’t the biggest, I wasn’t the fastest. But as long as you have a motor, you have heart…that will overcome any physical limitations.”
He’d go on to become a 5-time Pro Bowler and finish his career with 160 sacks, third most of all time. In 2016, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and, in his acceptance speech, offered some insight into his leadership style. With his untimely and unfortunate passing, it’s worth returning to a few of his timely — and timeless — messages.
Throughout his speech, Greene emphasized the contribution of those around him, constantly sharing credit with others. No one succeeds on their own. And great performances rarely arise out of a vacuum. The sooner we all realize this, the better we can focus on leveraging — and contributing to — all of the talents around us.
“I’m standing here as a member of the Class of 2016, and no doubt it’s a great individual honor. No doubt it is. But I must be honest, I am standing on the shoulders of many, many players, many coaches, many people. The good Lord has smiled upon me my entire life, a reoccurring theme is that he has surrounded me with people of high character and great integrity, and they have all left an indelible mark on the very fabric of my life.”
When you’re a part of a team, it’s not necessarily about how talented you are, but about what you have to contribute. Greene would credit one of these greatest contributions to his dad, a retired full colonel and Vietnam veteran. His dad showed him the importance of being actively engaged in the present. He also emphasized the importance of stepping in to lead, even if that comes with initial discomfort,
“My dad had me goal-oriented and squared away at a fairly early age. He placed my older brother, Keith, and me in football and basketball and baseball, and he was either the head coach or he was either the assistant head coach or a position coach. He put us in scouting, in the Boy Scouts, and he was either the head Scout Master or the assistant Scout Master. He set the standard for Keith and me through his actions and the way he carried himself with discipline and regimentation.”
Well before growth mindset became a management buzzword, Greene thrived on challenge. He sought out the best opposition and used struggle as a springboard for growth. As he reflected on his time at Auburn,
“Then I go on to Auburn, and I get a chance to practice against a fellow by the name of Steve Wallace. Steve Wallace was a beast at offensive tackle. He played 12 years, he would go on to play 12 years in the National Football League, Pro Bowl, three-time All-Pro, he won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers protecting Joe Montana and Steve Young. And this man in practice, he beat me down. No doubt he did, and I felt the wrath of my position coach, Joe Whitt. That’s okay. I learned, I learned.
After 15 years, Greene recognized the value of enough. He chose to leave the game on a positive note, on his own terms, and having no regrets that he played with heart and passion every time he walked onto the field. While it’s difficult to ever know the right time to leave anything, the high points and the ending will always define our legacy. More importantly, there’s a lot more to life than any job.
“If you think about it, maybe that’s the best a football player can do is to exhaust his passion and go out on his own terms and along the way have fun kicking people’s asses with your brothers. That’s always fun. Entertain some folks, develop some lifelong relationships and have enough good health to play some football with your son and daughter in the front yard. So that was good.”
Most relevant to today, with the quantity of healthcare and front line workers that put themselves at risk every day to support a country that is doing the bare minimum to support them, it’s important to remember the sacrifices of others. It’s important to remember that there are many people who put themselves at far greater risk than the rest of us. And they deserve our gratitude and our support.
“In closing, I think probably most importantly I want to thank all those brave people that have served and continue to serve our country, from the firefighters to the paramedics to the men and women in law enforcement, those that lay it on the line every day for all of us. And to our combined Armed Forces, all the soldiers out there and all the squids and flyboys and jarheads, gyrenes, all those that stand tall for our beloved country anywhere across God’s green earth, let me say this: That my family and I rest easy at night underneath the canopy of freedom that you deploy. I am eternally grateful, and I salute you, thank you.”
RIP Kevin Greene.