It's All Downhill From Here: The Gee Gee Greene Story
Sept. 26, 2012
Halfway through his 27th consecutive start for the Navy Midshipmen, Gee Gee Greene was put in position to do something different.
Hundreds of other times in his first three seasons, plus two games of a fourth, he'd taken the field somewhere else. As an A-Back, the title Greene wears in the vernacular of Navy's option offense, that someplace was almost always on a wing or in a slot, between a tackle and wide receiver.
Here, however, approaching the final minute of the first half at Penn State, Greene wandered into the usual domain of a co-called B-Back. He took up residence in the Mids' backfield, as one of two potential ballcarriers behind quarterback Trey Miller.
From where Greene usually stood, running with the ball generally required that he motion parallel to the line, catch a pitch from the quarterback and take a sharp right or left turn. Then, almost inevitably, Greene would make a quick cut contrary to the flow of the play, before continuing upfield.
In this formation, still new to Navy, his path to the ball would be much shorter and far more direct. Miller himself was aligned several yards from center, with Greene looking over his right shoulder.
The ball was snapped, the quarterback turned and instantly gave it to Greene. Bolting from the blocks like a sprinter, he hit a hole straight ahead.
His steps didn't chop, they didn't stutter. They didn't zig, they didn't zag.
Greene ran strictly downhill from there. And by the time he disappeared under a swarm of blue-shirted defenders, he was 19 yards downfield.
Commenting on the radio, former Navy fullback Omar Nelson was aglow.
"It seems when he was able to get the ball five yards deep he just exploded through the hole," Nelson excitedly and approvingly told listeners.
Nelson had seen Greene's previous 180-plus collegiate carries, on which his average gain of seven yards ranked among the Naval Academy's all-time top five. And to think, on most of those rushes, Greene likely covered twice as much ground, going horizontal before getting vertical.
Typically, as soon as he turned a corner, Greene was cutting across the grain; guided as often by natural instincts as the nature of the play.
"If I see a block being set up, my conscious just tells me to cut," Greene explains of his nonlinear way of getting from position A to point C. "It's just natural for me to cut when I see a block developing to the side."
Not to be misunderstood, what comes naturally has served Greene extremely well.
As a sophomore in 2010, Greene ran six times at Louisiana Tech for a whopping 14.5 yards an attempt. A year later, he amassed a career-high 92 yards on nine carries vs. East Carolina.
But in the offseason to follow, Greene got a message from his coaches. Trust your speed, they told him.
After all, few if any Midshipmen can accelerate more quickly from zero to 20 yards -- Greene does it in 2.57 seconds. -- or cover 40 yards faster -- his personal best is 4.50 seconds.
Weighing their words, Greene worked to sharpen his strides and economize his movements. He sought to maneuver less around defenders, in favor of simply running past them.
He started, in a sense, to retrace his steps.
"In high school, we ran the triple option, but we ran it more out of the shotgun," Greene says of his role at Richland Northeast in Columbia, S.C. "I was the guy who ran out of the backfield, so I was more like the B-Back. A lot of times, I would hit it just straight up the middle. Or, it was one or two cuts and I would have a straight shot to the end zone.
"I think that style of running, what I used to do in high school, is what I'm trying to get back to now. Since I've been here at A-Back, it's been more of catching a pitch and running east and west, and not running north and south."
Except that is, on 2nd down and 15, from the Navy 26-yard line, in the second quarter of the season's second game. Greene's coaches had him line up in the gun and, given the way Penn State's Beaver Stadium is oriented, run South to North. Simply get it and go.
In effect, they were putting their trust in his speed.
As for all the steps he's taken the first 41 games of his Academy career, they seem to follow the same pattern as Greene's path through the first 21 years of his life.
Described by classmate and teammate John Howell as "compassionate and caring" and "a real smart guy" who "keeps his nose out of trouble," Greene seems fit to be the subject of a Navy recruiting poster.
To hear Howell and others tell it, you can picture him marching confidently and purposefully toward graduation, beneath Admiral David Farragut's famous phrase: "Full speed ahead!"
But not so long ago, Greene was running the wrong way. Fortunately, intuition warned him to reverse direction, as if he were cutting back to avoid the over-pursuit of wasted opportunity.
As the fourth of nine children, Alexander Greene is a Junior. So, since everybody referred to his father as Gee, they started calling him Gee Gee. They still do, of course.
He is also the son of Patricia Greene, who worked in and around the Columbia area to support her large family. Her Gee Gee was the younger sibling of one brother and two sisters, and became big brother to two more girls and three more boys.
His family is the reason Greene is in Annapolis. Tragedy within that family nearly led him to an entirely different place.
Eleven years ago, one of his older sisters, who suffered seizures since birth, was beset by another. She was bathing at the time, and drowned. She was only a teenager.
"At the time, when it hit me, I went into a phase where I kind of isolated myself and really was getting into trouble," Greene recently recounted. "Later on, probably like a year after, I realized that my family was looking up to me, and they really didn't have anybody (else) to turn to. So I used it to help me in my family life persevere to get to where I am right now.
"I really don't think about it as much to this day. But when I get into different hardships, I kind of think back to, `you've been through this' and `you've been through that,' so `you can get over this' and move on."
During that dark period, Greene was bright enough to hold his own in classrooms. Meanwhile, he was emerging in athletics. He began to understand a correlation between the two. And despite a peripatetic upbringing, started achieving stability through both school and sport.
"Around eighth or ninth grade, when I realized that I was pretty good in football, just through my coaching I realized that I should focus on that more," Greene says. "I think my ninth-grade year I really transitioned. I got my grades up and really focused on football.
"It was more on my own. I had a lot of coaches who helped me along the way, and encouraged me. But I transferred to a lot of different schools, so I had a lot of different coaches from seventh through ninth grade. Finally, I was stationary from my sophomore year until my senior year, where I was playing for the same school."
Before landing at Richland Northeast, Greene made the A.C. Flora High varsity as a freshman. He transferred the following fall, but was ruled ineligible. His chance to play for RNE came as a junior, when he joined fellow Cavaliers and future college opponents like Mark Barnes and Gary Gray. Barnes went on to South Carolina, Gray wound up with Notre Dame.
His first season, Greene earned all-region honors. His next, he was named all-state and invited to the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas, pitting South Carolina's best against North Carolina's best. Taking note was Navy's assistant coach Buddy Green.
According to a scouting profile on the recruiting website, Scout.com, Greene was 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds; apparently too small to hold the interest of his hometown Gamecocks. Staying close to his mother was a priority, and eventually, in-state Wofford College offered that opportunity.
But more important than remaining near Patricia and the rest of their family, Greene wanted to help care for them.
"We were living paycheck to paycheck, and I wanted to help them do better," he told reporter Andrew Shain of his hometown newspaper The State last September.
The best, if not only way of guaranteeing himself a means of doing that was by considering yet another school, the Naval Academy.
"The main thing for me was having a job when I graduate and financial stability to help out with my family," Greene says today of his thinking at the time.
It also helped that the Southern charms of Green -- the one without the "e" on the end of his name, and one-time, two-sport standout for North Carolina State -- proved irresistible.
"Coach Green was so persistent that I couldn't tell him, `No,'" Gee Gee says, laughing. "Coach Green was a major part of getting me here."
Getting here was itself a major accomplishment.
Before Greene was handed his diploma, no member of his immediate family had graduated high school. And thus when he reported for I-Day in Annapolis as a direct-entry plebe in 2009, he became the first to attend college.
His guaranteed job awaits. But already Greene is providing for his younger siblings.
"They look up to me a lot," says Greene, who has a sister now at Coastal Carolina University. "It's still a goal for me to help my family out, whether that's being there mentally or helping them out financially. That's still my goal, and I plan on doing that as soon as I graduate."
Greene also has a very broad and diverse bunch of brothers who admire him in Annapolis.
"Everyone looks up to him, the younger guys definitely look up to him," said Howell, a classmate who is generally Greene's mirror image on the field, as a fellow A-Back. "He's not afraid to reach out and help a younger guy, or help out one of us."
Greene touches them mainly by actions, more than exhortations.
"Gee Gee is a leader by example," said head coach Ken Niumatalolo. "He's a senior who's played a ton of games. There's nobody that's going to outwork Gee Gee. Younger guys see that here's someone who's been in some big-time ballgames but still works hard. That's the kind of foundation we want our young guys to see. His example has been meaningful to his teammates."
Still, facing the urgency of this, his final season, the reticent Greene has at times spoken up.
In early August, speaking to Patrick Stevens of The Washington Times, his position coach Danny O'Rourke said that Greene "is starting to realize that he has a voice, and that people listen to him."
More recently, Howell described how that voice now resonates in the huddle and around the practice fields.
"This year he definitely stepped up the vocal part," Howell says. "When someone messes up, Gee Gee's always encouraging them to do better. Even when someone did something well, but could have gone harder, Gee Gee tries to get in their face or get in their ear to say, `Hey, push yourself a little harder.'"
"In the past I really wasn't a vocal leader like that," Greene admits.
His tone changed early in preseason training camp. Seniors were asked to speak to the entire team, and Greene carefully considered what he would say. Something he heard and something he read helped him find his voice.
"I put a lot of thought into what I wanted to address to the team and what I wanted us to accomplish for the year," Greene recounts. "It was a long message. I went to church that previous Sunday and they talked about survival tactics. I just went into depth about each of the tactics and related it to football. A lot of it was based on a mindset."
Greene also let his teammates in on something not so secret anymore.
"I read a book recently, The Secret, and read about the law of attraction, how you play out what you want to happen in the future in your mind, and it comes to reality," he said. "I just talked to the team about that, believing and having faith, basically visualizing us having success this year.
"Previously, I did more of reverse psychology. I'd talk negatively, then try to prove myself wrong. Then once I read The Secret, it changed my whole mindset coming into the year."
It may seem that Greene is messing with a good thing, no longer thinking bad things on the field. Because whatever his outlook the last three seasons, the results realized were better than most could envision.
Never mind that the one exception was his first collegiate rushing attempt. He lost seven yards on it at Ohio State. Greene has gone a long way since, as in more than 1,300 yards, resulting from fewer than 200 carries. Those numbers are impressive enough to merit Greene's inclusion on this year's official `watch list' for the Doak Walker Award, which is given to the nation's best running back.
Unaccounted for -- at least outside of O'Rourke's meeting room -- are the numerous other times his blocks cleared the way for Howell or someone else to pick up yards and post up points. They're what make Greene the complete, capital-A back he's become.
In some respects, he's a composite of predecessors at the position.
Before ever playing a down for the Midshipmen, Greene admired the abilities of Reggie Campbell. When practice started as a plebe, recent grad Shun White was still around to be a steady influence. And early in his career, stalwarts like Bobby Doyle and Cory Finnerty offered daily demonstrations on the art of blocking.
They also shared a pride, and trust, that still exists among Greene and his contemporaries.
"In the meeting room, blocking is one of the number-one things we always talk about.," Greene expounds. "Coach (O'Rourke) always says he believes we can run the ball well, so he focuses more on the blocking aspect.
"For me, when I'm on other side and I know I have to block for John or for Bo (Snelson) or anybody else, I know my block is going to be key. Most of the time, a block from the A-Back is the key to springing a big play. So I think there is a lot of pressure on us to make the (blocks), but we trust each other and that makes it a lot easier."
"If Gee Gee gets the call, I'm going to make sure he has a clean running lane to go score a touchdown," says Howell. "He might be the one scoring, but I feel just as responsible as he does. I'm sure he feels the same way for me."
"It's a good feeling on both ends," Greene adds. "Most of the time when you're making that key block for the person running the ball, you don't get all the glory, but he knows. When he scores a touchdown, he's the first person who comes over to celebrate with you after a touchdown.
"It's kind of like being an unsung hero in the offense. Then when you're on the other end, if I score a touchdown and I know the play was sprung by a block from John or Bo, I go straight to them, thanking them for making the block."
There's a clear understanding of the unselfishness inherent in his position; one Greene might just convey in a future role.
Foretelling his post-Academy career, Greene sees himself becoming a Surface Warfare Officer. Often he envisions being a federal agent another five years after that. But more and more, he pictures himself coaching football.
It's no secret; the game's been good to Gee Gee Greene. Without it, he likely would have kept running laterally long ago, instead of moving forward in life. By staying in the game, he could help others do the same.
"Probably one of the main reasons is being able to reach out and help kids," Greene says. "And basically develop them to accomplish what they want to."
If that's the direction he chooses, the kids Greene coaches would do well to follow in his footsteps.
Considering where he's been, where Greene's headed is all downhill from here.