For the longest time, NFL tight ends were nothing more than glorified blockers who caught an occasional pass.
There were exceptions through the decades, but old school tight ends were not always the weapons like they are in the modern game.
As offensive football has progressed, the position has become one of large, nimble athletes who are capable of outracing defensive backs for receptions and touchdowns.
One of the first such players was Eric Green.
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ERIC GREEN 1990
The 6’5, 280 lb rookie tight end made a huge splash with the Steelers as he became the first player in NFL history to catch 5 TD’s in his first 3 games.
Happy Birthday, Eric Green! pic.twitter.com/iiozRmdyUw
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) June 22, 2021
Green came from tiny Liberty University and set the world on fire in the NFL as a rookie.
He was 6’5’ and 280 pounds but played like a receiver.
Throughout the 1990s, Green would be viewed as a prototype for which all future tight ends would be measured.
This is the story of Eric Green.
Bernard Eric Green was born on June 22, 1967 in Savannah, Georgia.
Happy birthday to former #Steelers & #TecmoSuperBowl TE Eric Green (54)! The 1st. rd. pick in '90 was a 2x Pro Bowler who had a 10-year #NFL career. The 6'5", 280lb TE was a physical freak & mismatch nightmare who averaged 536 yards per year in Pittsburgh. Happy birthday Eric! pic.twitter.com/MF8bOqYlSh
— SBlueman (@SBluemanTecmo) June 22, 2021
He grew quickly during his formative years and entered high school as a young man, standing over six feet four inches tall and weighing 220 pounds.
Green began high school at Beach High School in Savannah but transferred to Windsor Forest High School before his sophomore year.
He was a starter at tight end for Windsor for two years and played very well.
However, compared to Beach High School, Windsor was more academically rigorous and Green, he would admit, was a tad on the lazy side when it came to academics.
Although he was well liked, Green’s poor academics cost him his senior year of playing eligibility.
“Our teachers demand a lot,” Windsor coach Buddy Hardy said in a 1995 interview. “I believe he (Green) could have made it here, but he was kind of on the lazy side. He was intelligent and well-mannered – there seemed to be a good family force there – but sometimes folks just don’t listen when they’re that young.”
Not able to play football, Green transferred back to Beach High School, which was predominately black.
As his high school graduation loomed, Green considered joining the Air Force.
Thankfully, a coach from another high school in Savannah knew Green had what it took to play in college and arranged tryouts with Clemson University and Liberty University.
After each tryout, both schools offered Green a scholarship.
However, his mother wanted her son to get a Christian education, so Green accepted the invitation from Liberty, a Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell.
Slow Start at Liberty
As a freshman in 1985, Green was a backup for the 3-4-1 Flames.
The following season he was suspended from Liberty when he was caught drinking beer, a big no-no when it came to the Liberty Way.
Green returned in 1987 only to see limited action in an offense that didn’t use the tight end much.
After two relatively unproductive years, Green had all of 37 receptions in his collegiate career.
That changed before his senior season in 1989 when coach Morgan Hout left Liberty and former Cleveland Browns coach Sam Rutigliano was hired to replace him.
Rutigliano first had a chance to see Green in action during spring practice that year and was blown away by his athleticism.
“That was my first opportunity to see him, that day on the practice field,” Rutigliano said in 1995. “It would be like going to open up training camp with the Lakers and having a walk-on, and it’s Magic Johnson.”
At the time, Green had grown to 6’5”, 285 and reminded Rutigliano of one of his former Cleveland players, All-Pro Ozzie Newsome.
“I drafted Ozzie, and Eric has all the qualities he had,” Rutigliano said. “He’s better than Ozzie now, because he can do everything Ozzie could do and Ozzie couldn’t do everything Eric can do. You’re talking about a 285-pound man who can really run.”
Rutigliano sat Green down and told him about his potential as a professional athlete.
He encouraged Green to give it his all on and off the field and good things would come.
— PGH Sports History (@PGH_Sports_Date) April 22, 2020
Then, Rutigliano installed a new pro-style offense that was tailored to Green’s strengths.
As the Flames progressed through a 7-3 season, Green came alive and collected 62 passes for 905 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Green Becomes a Steeler
With his combination of size, athleticism and stats from 1989, Green drew the attention of several NFL teams.
With pick 21 in the 1990 NFL Draft, the #Steelers selected Eric Green, TE, Liberty.
He posted a great #RAS with elite size, good speed, at the TE position.
He went to two career pro bowls. pic.twitter.com/VeFoFoBVyn
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) June 7, 2019
Scouts from no less than 12 franchises descended on Rutigliano’s office one day in the spring of 1990 to ask the coach numerous questions regarding his star.
“He could be a CEO someday,” Rutigliano told the scouts. “You’re not taking a risk with this guy. He’s Mark Bavaro (former New York Giants tight end) in a bigger package.”
Rutigliano was shocked when a number of scouts commented that they envisioned Green bulking up a little more and becoming a fleet-footed offensive tackle.
“Putting him at tackle,” said Rutigliano, “would have been like trading for Mickey Mantle and making him a pitcher.”
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Dwain Painter returned to Lynchburg in April and put Green through the paces in a private workout.
Painter threw Green several dozen passes and Green caught them all, except one.
“You’re human!” Painter laughed.
He then returned to Pittsburgh and showed Steelers head coach Chuck Noll tape from the workout.
Noll was sold and agreed that the team needed to add Green to their roster.
With the 21st overall pick in the first round of the 1990 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Green, who was the first Liberty player drafted in the first round in NFL history.
After a Late Start, Green Proves His Worth
Green began his tenure with the Steelers by getting into a contract squabble.
The Pittsburgh front office and Green’s agents couldn’t come to an agreement and Green eventually missed all of training camp.
The Steelers were so frustrated at the lack of progress that they pulled their final offer just before the 1990 season began.
In turn, Green threatened to sit out the entire season and enter the 1991 draft.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed when Rutigliano intervened and called the Steelers front office including team president Dan Rooney.
Rutigliano encouraged Rooney to keep the negotiations open and Green eventually signed his rookie deal a day after the team’s first game.
Since he missed training camp, Green was still a raw player breaking into the NFL.
— PGH Sports History (@PGH_Sports_Date) September 12, 2020
He finally saw the field as a starter in Week 5.
By that time, Pittsburgh was 1-3 and new offensive coordinator Joe Walton was in panic mode.
His offense was abysmal at that point in the season.
In fact, of the points scored by the team through the first four games, none were made by an offensive player except for kicker Gary Anderson.
However, Green quickly showed the NFL why he was a first-round pick when quarterback Bubby Brister found Green twice for touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s 36-14 shellacking of the San Diego Chargers.
The following week against Denver, Brister found Green three times in the end zone during a resounding 34-17 win.
As Green got in the groove, so did the Steelers.
— Nathan Dominitz (@NathanDominitz) April 19, 2016
Walton and his coaches got creative and moved Green around to exploit mismatches, including using him as a receiver, slotback, wingback, H-back, and even a running back along with his usual tight end duties.
The result was a 9-7 final record for Pittsburgh and a Pro Football Writers Association Rookie of the Year nod for Green.
During his rookie season, Green caught 34 passes for 387 yards and seven touchdowns (a career-high).
He was viewed by several teammates and coaches as the primary reason the team’s fortunes turned around that year.
“Without Eric Green, we might not have scored a touchdown last year,” said Steeler defensive line coach Joe Greene after the season.
Green and the Steelers Get Rolling
1991 was the final season for longtime Steelers coach Chuck Noll.
Noll had arrived in Pittsburgh beginning with the 1969 season and saw the franchise go from laughing stock to four-time Super Bowl winner.
Unfortunately, he would go out on a losing note as the Steelers ended the season 7-9.
11-10-1991, the Steelers beat the Bengals 33-27 in overtime. Neil O'Donnell threw for 309 yards & 3 TDs. Trailing in the 4th, he threw 2 touchdowns, then found tight end Eric Green for the game-winner in overtime. pic.twitter.com/Xn3hvbDKjX
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) November 10, 2019
Green began his second year as a pro with lofty goals.
“My goal in football is to catch more balls than any other tight end in history.” But he also says, “I’d like to become one of the most influential black people who ever walked the planet.”
Green increased his stats from 1990 by grabbing 41 passes for 582 yards and six touchdowns in ‘91.
Meanwhile, opponents were still stunned to see a tight end Green’s size, even though it was his second year in the NFL.
“When I saw him this year, I did a double take,” says San Diego cornerback Gill Byrd. “I said, ‘This guy’s huge. This can’t be real.’ The guy can run, he can catch, he’s the total package. That’s why everybody’s so excited about him.”
Walton, Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, marveled at what Green brought to the game and to the tight end position.
“I played against Ron Kramer, Mike Ditka and John Mackey. I really thought Mackey and Ditka were the prototypical tight ends. Now, Green has the chance to be the perfect combination of those guys. But greatness is earned. I’m just glad he wants to be that good,” said Walton.
In 1992, new head coach Bill Cowher arrived and lit a fire under the Steelers.
As Pittsburgh went 11-5 (the most wins since 1979) Green got himself in trouble halfway through the season.
On November 9, the NFL announced that Green would immediately begin serving a six-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy.
— BTSC Steelers (@btsteelcurtain) October 29, 2015
The NFL was vague in what drug Green had used but stated that it was not steroids.
Apparently, it was the second time Green had violated the drug policy, though the league would not confirm it.
“I apologize to my teammates, the Steelers’ organization, my family and my friends,” Green said at the time. “I am looking forward to returning in six weeks.”
The reduced games missed from suspension led to Green’s lowest numbers in his career at the time.
He would end the ‘92 season with 14 receptions for 152 yards and two scores.
Then, in 1993, Green bounced back with a monster year.
He would collect 63 passes for 942 yards and five touchdowns as the Steelers went 9-7 and lost in the Wild Card round to Kansas City.
Green’s stats were more than enough to get him a Pro Bowl nod for the first time in his career.
Holdout for a Second Time
Before the 1994 season, Green once again held out of training camp looking for a better salary.
“I want to be compensated for what I’ve done, but the Steelers weren’t prepared to do that,” said Green at the time.
After weeks of impasse between the two sides, Green finally signed a one-year $1.4 million contract for the ‘94 season.
It was also revealed to the public that Green had rejected Pittsburgh’s offer of a $10 million contract and signed the one-year deal so he could be a free agent after the ‘94 season.
Today in #Steelers history:
Monday Oct 3, 1994
— BlitzburghUSAVideos (@sdextrasmedia) October 3, 2020
That year, as the Steelers went 12-4 and advanced in the postseason until losing to San Diego in the AFC Championship Game, Green had another Pro Bowl season.
He would catch 46 passes for 618 yards and four touchdowns.
Trade to Miami
As expected, once the ‘94 season concluded, Green tested the free-agent waters.
A number of teams were only too happy to wine and dine Green to entice him to join their franchise.
After meeting with teams such as the Raiders and Dolphins, Green signed a six-year, $12 million contract with Miami.
At the time, his deal made Green the highest-paid tight end in NFL history.
Dolphins FA bust TE Eric Green (1995).Signed 6yr 12 mil FA, 43 catches in 14 games but missed 30+ practices .Cut by JJ in 96 preseason. pic.twitter.com/xCvT7CVxmG
— Dolphins History (@DolphinsHistory) July 4, 2017
Moving to South Florida excited Green and he was overwhelmed at the response he received from Dolphins fans as well as his new neighbors, which included then Orlando Magic teammates Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway.
“I’m trying to get a one-on-one game with Shaquille,” joked Green.
“He’s got awesome potential and he’s very coachable,” said Walton. “Whether he’s the best now or will be the best … I think there’s a darn good chance he could reach that plateau with the Dolphins.”
During the 1995 season, Green caught 43 for 499 yards and three touchdowns.
The Dolphins went 9-7 in coach Don Shula’s final season and lost to Buffalo in the Wild Card round.
After the year, Shula was replaced by former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson.
During summer mini camp in 1996, Johnson was not overly impressed with Green.
He had battled weight issues and Green’s work ethic was less-than-stellar according to Johnson.
Not wanting to put up with a lazy superstar, Johnson cut Green with five years remaining on his contract.
Green Becomes a Raven
After being released by Miami, Green spent the next few months trying to stay in playing shape while looking for a new team.
In late September of that year, the new Baltimore Ravens franchise brought Green in for a visit.
He impressed the coaching staff enough that he was signed to a two-year contract.
With his late start to the year and limited playing time, Green only caught 15 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown as Baltimore went 4-12 in their inaugural season.
2x Pro Bowl TE Eric Green was expected to be one of the @Ravens early stars. Between injuries and weight problems, he had a 65-catch season in 1997 and 7 total TDs with team in 3 seasons. #RavenOTheDay @UKRavens #Ravensflock pic.twitter.com/iSbSPZTbri
— Ken McKusick (@FilmstudyRavens) March 11, 2018
The following year, the Ravens improved to 6-9-1 and Green improved as well, collecting a career-high 65 receptions for 601 yards and five touchdowns.
In 1998, Baltimore would go 6-10 while Green caught 34 passes for 422 yards and one score.
After the season ended, Green was released.
A Final Stop in New York, then Retirement
The New York Jets were the fourth team to give Green an opportunity to play football.
He signed with the organization and started seven games for the Jets.
During that time, Green caught seven passes for 37 yards and two touchdowns as New York went 8-8 in 1999.
After the season, Green retired.
In 10 years, Green’s totals were 362 receptions for 4,390 yards and 36 touchdowns.
He was a two-time Pro Bowler for the 1993 and 1994 seasons.
Although Green did not catch more passes than any tight end in NFL history, he remains memorable.
There are a number of former coaches, players, and football writers that believe Green was the beginning of a long line of big, athletic tight ends that have dominated today’s NFL.
Names such as Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and even Rob Gronkowski come to mind as players that were viewed as Green clones.
Even though Green didn’t have the pro career as Gonzalez, Gates, or Gronkowski, he is still considered as one of the standard-bearers of the modern position.
After retiring from the game, Green returned to Florida with his wife and kids and coached young athletes in AAU ball.
Green’s son, Elijah, is currently ranked as one of the best high school prospects in the nation for the upcoming 2022 MLB draft.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) August 10, 2021
Elijah Green was an outfielder for IMG Academy in Florida.