Kevin Greene was a trailblazer. A three-time All-Pro, a five-time Pro Bowler, the 1996 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Greene, as a player, helped re-defined the pass rusher by giving a new outlook to the outside rush by pivoting between defensive end and linebacker (something almost taken for granted in this day – looking at you, Khalil Mack). Greene was an innovator, giving undersized (he himself is 6’3”, 247 lbs.) outside rushers a new litany of moves and stunts to pull off against linemen to punish and push through to get the QB. And, oh boy, did Kevin get the QB. At 3rd all-time in sacks at 160, Kevin Greene has changed the game of football on and off the field, and his passing is a great time to remind ourselves of this particular fact.
Greene wouldn’t be a blue chip prospect, though, and his hard work and dedication to the craft came back in dividends beyond comprehension. Greene went to the University of Auburn and enrolled (and graduated) in the ROTC program and attempted to walk-on to the football team as a punter.
What a story that wouldn’t have been.
He was placed as a linebacker and made the team in 1983. In 1984, he won the team’s defensive MVP and finished his Auburn career with 69 tackles (nice) and 11 sacks, good enough to win him SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 1984. Despite the fact that Greene was a second lieutenant and could’ve continued his military career, Greene was drafted by the Birmingham Stallions in the USFL in 1985, but he was also drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the 5th round, 113th overall pick of the 1985 Draft. For the next three years, Greene would line up as a LDE in the Rams nickel D and he was second on the team in sacks in ‘86 and ‘87. In 1988, Greene finally became the starting left outside linebacker in Fritz Shurmur’s Eagle-5 linebacking defense, and it started hot for Greene. Greene’s 16 ½ sacks that year only trailed Reggie White’s 18 sacks.
After posting 16 ½ sacks again in 1989, Greene was selected to the First Team All-Pro and this was the perfect bargaining chip for a new contract, which he lobbied for and even held a 39-day holdout until he got 3 years/$2.5m. He finished the 1990 season with 13 sacks, giving him 46 total sacks over the past three years – top of the league for that stretch. However, the Rams changed defenses and defensive coordinators in 1991, going from their 3-4 to 4-3 and moving Greene to DE. The switch hampered his statistics and the team’s failures were all over the field. The entire coaching staff was sacked in ‘91, replaced by Chuck Knox and his new staff. However, in Knox’s 4-3 defense, Greene managed to return to dominance, accepting his new role and even going so far as to say publicly in a local newspaper he would like to rush the passer more often, but he understands why he can’t.
“Kevin’s a more complete player than he is given credit for, people only seem to notice the home run, but not seem to see the singles,” his linebacker coach Dick Selcer said in that same local newspaper.
Take these last two sentences and you can understand why Kevin Greene packed his bags and headed to Pittsburgh. It took the dawn of NFL free agency, a 3-4 system, and a big 3 year/$5.35m (it was 1993!) contract to send him to the Steel City, but he would immediately flourish as a premier defensive player in the league, but not one of the top names of the league. Greene never irradiated pure star power like Joe Montana, Deion Sanders, or Lawrence Taylor. Much like his coach said above, Greene was the everyman pushing his hardest to be the best, giving everything on every down, not just the big plays. A team like Pittsburgh welcomed that attitude with open arms and wide smiles.
He had 12 ½ sacks in his debut season with the Steelers, but the following season of 1994 would be another All-Pro and Pro Bowl season for Greene, with 14 sacks (led the league) and tied for the best linebacker in the AFC with Junior Seau. But in his third year, in which he would break 100 sacks and join The Club, Greene would get a taste at the Super Bowl for the first time in his life and, sadly, the only time as a player. The Steelers would end up losing to the Dallas Cowboys in the game, but Greene had made his mark in Pittsburgh. Later on in his career, he would don the Steelers’ logo on his Hall of Fame ring for the respect he had during his time there, despite only spending three years of his fifteen year career with them.
Greene would be a free agent again after his remarkable three years in Pittsburgh, and he ended up going to the second year team of the Carolina Panthers where he would post some of his best numbers of his entire career, leading the league in sacks for the second time in the past three years and setting an NFL record with five consecutive multi-sack games. In only their second year as a team, Greene helped the defense of wily veterans led by Sam Mills get to the NFC Championship game to lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. After a dispute, Greene left to San Francisco (on a whopping six year, 13 million dollar contract) and played a more modern day pass rusher taking outside rushing QB snaps called the “elephant” role then. He only played 14 games, but in those fourteen he got 10 ½ sacks. And due to yet another dispute, he finished his career in Carolina.
Despite being suspended for one game after attacking his linebacker coach, Greene was named the NFC Linebacker of the Year with 15 sacks, which still stands tied as the sack record for Carolina. Finishing his career in 1999, he finished with 12 sacks, totaling 160 sacks. It still stands as the all-time sacks record for a linebacker, ahead of Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas. He is one of four players to lead the league in sacks in multiple seasons, one of three players to record more than 10 sacks in a season in at least ten different seasons, and was among the top eight players in sacks eight different years. He was inducted into the all-90’s team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was also inducted as a player into Canton in 2016.
However, during this Carolina/San Fran tenure, Kevin Greene was on TNT on WCW Monday Nitro for a short stint in an angle with Steve “Mongo” McMichael, another NFL player-turned-wrestler personality. The angle was worked with Greene and McMichael teaming up as partners, but Mongo betrayed Greene to join the Four Horsemen. Despite the fact the Four hadn’t been the biggest deal at that point (read: NWO), this was still an angle that got eyes on the prize for WCW, something they clearly valued more important than actual good programming. And for purist fans, this was hope that there would be some tension between the Four and NWO at some point, not that it would make sense booking wise. (This wouldn’t happen until late 1998.) Despite the fact Greene was in a wrestling promotion, he still shined with his athleticism and his charisma, even if he was greener than grass. He had exceeded expectation and done his job to the best of his ability.
Following playing football and wrestling, Greene ended up becoming interested in coaching, getting multiple internships before getting another as an assistant linebackers coach for the Steelers in 2008. He was then hired by his old coach Dom Capers as an outside linebackers coach for the Green Bay Packers the following year, helping big name linebacker Clay Matthews out in so many ways. It only took them a few years to help the Packers win a Super Bowl, giving Greene his first Super Bowl ring and his only one. He stepped away after a couple of years to focus on family, but rejoined the coaching saddle for two years as a linebackers coach for the Jets in 2017 for Todd Bowles, and when Adam Gase took over for Bowles in 2019, Greene was let go.
Kevin died by his wife and his son and daughter. A consummate football player’s player, Greene shook pass rushing to its core and reintroduced a new level of game on the outside for defenders. He was a beaming light of sportsmanship and class, even when he was a rowdy son of a bitch. Greene was one of the funniest humans to be mic’d on a football field, even giving Brett Favre and Randy Moss a run for their money. His all-around, Swiss Army Knife-like versatility to be a great football player as well as a great coach is taken for granted by thousands if not millions of normal fans. Beyond the fact the man was a football player, Kevin Greene knew that it took every single amount of everything you have in you to make your dreams a reality. He walked-on to Auburn and was almost a punter. He played on a team that didn’t use him properly. He loved a team that wanted to move on from him. He had disagreements. He had fights. But most of all, and very importantly, Kevin Greene didn’t back down.