For most young men, playing intramural football isn’t exactly the path to a college scholarship and NFL riches.
However, that was the unusual path Kevin Greene took while at Auburn University.
Greene went from playing pick-up football, to SEC sacks leader, to NFL star in a matter of years.
— Fungible Dave (@FungibleDave) December 21, 2020
He would spend 15 years in the league and become an All-Pro and NFL sack leader.
Two decades later, the man known for his high motor and exuberant behavior died suddenly of a heart attack.
This is the story of Kevin Greene.
Kevin Darwin Greene was born on July 31, 1962, in Schenectady, New York.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) July 31, 2021
His youth wasn’t exactly normal.
Greene’s father was a colonel in the U.S. Army which meant the family moved around quite often.
For three years the Greene family lived in Mannheim, Germany and Kevin Greene stayed active by playing football.
In 1976, the Greene’s finally settled in Granite City, Illinois and Kevin began playing sports at Granite City High School.
He was a high jumper on the school’s track team and also played basketball.
On the gridiron, Greene started for two years and collected all-conference honors for his senior year.
He was eventually inducted into the Granite City Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.
From Intramural Ball to Walk-on at Auburn
After graduating high school, Greene enrolled at Auburn University and began training with the school’s ROTC program for National Guard service with Fort McClellan in Alabama.
He also tried to walk on to the Tigers football team as a punter although he was not successful.
For the next few years, Greene got his football fix while playing for the ROTC’s intramural football team.
Then, in 1983, Greene tried again to walk on to the Tigers.
This time he was successful and played special teams for the eventual SEC champions.
In 1984, Greene was a fifth-year senior and started four games as an outside linebacker.
He would practice against the likes of Steve Wallace and Bo Jackson, both of whom would gain fame in the NFL.
Kevin Greene, an Auburn defensive star in the 1980s and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has died.
He was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 1984. He retired after the 1999 season, and still has the third most sacks in NFL history. pic.twitter.com/WJC7mxTPjS
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) December 21, 2020
Meanwhile, Greene made the most of his final year at Auburn by terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
He would finish the season with 11 sacks, which led the SEC, and received the Zeke Smith Award as the program’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Once Auburn’s 9-4 season ended with a win against Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl, Greene had a candid conversation with coach Pat Dye.
“I asked him, ‘Do you think I have a chance to play in the NFL?'” Greene said in 2016. “And he said, ‘Yes, absolutely. There’s a place out there somewhere for you.’”
Years later, Dye said he knew that Greene had what it took to succeed.
“He (Greene) had an unbelievable work ethic,” Dye said in 2016. “Didn’t make any difference whether he was running sprints, or any competitive drill that we ran, it was important to him that he win. And he displayed that on the field.”
Drafted by the Rams
In the spring of 1985, Greene was drafted by two teams in two different football leagues.
The Birmingham Stallions of the United States Football League selected him in their Territorial Draft.
Then, with the 113th overall selection in the fifth round of the 1985 NFL Draft, Greene was picked by the LA Rams.
It was an amazing achievement for someone who had only four starts in two years of college playing experience.
“Next thing I knew I got drafted in the fifth round by the Los Angeles Rams. It was golden because I got my foot in the door. Now it was on me in training camp whether I was going to succeed or fail, and I wasn’t going to fail. That wasn’t even an option,” said Greene in 2016.
Sure enough, Greene did not fail.
He made the Rams and appeared in 15 games during his rookie year.
Greene’s first sack as a pro came in the ‘85 playoffs when he lined up at defensive end and dropped Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White.
The following year, Greene played in all 16 games and had seven sacks as a reserve, which was good for second on the team.
That is Kevin Greene in the days when this was not a penalty. I actually spun out of this, but after the play I said “are you trying to take my head off?” He just smiled “I wouldn’t try to hurt you, man.” He seemed to be a joyful person, on and off the field. #RIPKevinGreene pic.twitter.com/MEZIEmyli7
— Babe Laufenberg (@BabeLaufenberg) December 22, 2020
In 1987, Greene was second on the Rams again with 6.5 sacks in nine games. He also had an interception return for a touchdown.
Greene Becomes a Starter
After three years of getting sacks while mainly used in pass-rushing situations, Greene was moved to outside linebacker in 1988.
Defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur wanted to put Greene on the field more and take advantage of his size and speed.
RIP Kevin Greene, one of my all-time favorite L.A. Rams. pic.twitter.com/zD2L9PGbYX
— Ross Yoshida (@RYDesignLA) December 21, 2020
Greene responded with 16.5 sacks, which was second in the NFL only to the Eagles Reggie White.
“I wasn’t the biggest [and] I wasn’t fastest,” Greene once said. “But as long as you have a motor, you have heart … that will overcome any physical limitations.”
In a Week 16 game against San Francisco, the Rams needed to win the game in order to make the playoffs.
Greene helped the cause by sacking Niners quarterback Joe Montana 4.5 times.
LA would win the game 38-16 to qualify for the postseason but lost to Minnesota in the Wild Card round.
In 1989, Greene once again corralled quarterbacks 16.5 times, which was good for fourth in the league.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) September 21, 2017
His play that year finally brought him accolades in the form of first-team All-Pro and his first Pro Bowl.
Greene also helped LA get to the playoffs where they advanced to the NFC Championship Game before falling to San Francisco 30-3.
During the 1990 season, Greene collected 13 sacks which gave him 46 total sacks in a three-year period.
That marked the most sacks in the NFL for any position during that period.
RIP Kevin Greene, 91!
A Rams Great. pic.twitter.com/And1q3RTJh
— Saint Lou (@SaintLou17) December 21, 2020
In 1991, the Rams hired Jeff Fisher to be their new defensive coordinator.
He moved Greene constantly from defensive end to linebacker.
That proved to be a detriment to Greene and he ended the year with only three sacks.
Following the Rams’ dismal 3-13 record, the entire coaching staff was fired.
1992 saw Greene return to his natural outside linebacker spot by the new coaching staff.
The result was Greene leading the team in tackles with 87 (a career-high) and 10 sacks.
His play that year led to praise from the media and Rams coaching staff.
“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,” said Greene’s position coach, Dick Selcer.
Greene is Traded to the Steelers
By the end of the 1992 season, Greene was still feeling underutilized as a player and was tired of losing.
At that point, the Rams had suffered through three straight years of sub-par football, winning only 14 games from 1990 through 1992.
Greene specifically wanted to play for a team that used a 3-4 defense which is what Shurmur used when he coached Greene with the Rams.
The Pittsburgh Steelers used the defense and signed Greene to a three-year deal.
He was teamed with the likes of Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, and Levon Kirkland to form part of a greatly talented Steelers defense nicknamed “Blitzburgh.”
As the Steelers went 9-7 in ‘93 and lost to the Chiefs in the Wild Card round, Greene was having a great year.
That season, he had 12.5 sacks and 67 total tackles.
— Fantasy Football Hall of Fame (@halloffame_icon) December 22, 2020
In 1994, he had 14 sacks, which led the NFL, and was voted to his second Pro Bowl and named a first-team All-Pro.
Additionally, Greene was voted the NFLPA AFC Linebacker of the Year along with Chargers linebacker Junior Seau.
“He had such a will to inflict a sack on the quarterback,” said Steelers’ inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky, who played linebacker with Greene. “Back in 1993 when Kevin showed up here, that was his main goal. He would always say, ‘I have to get to the quarterback.’”
Greene was voted to the Pro Bowl for the third time on the strength of his nine sacks and 48 tackles.
Pittsburgh’s talented roster finally reached the promised land in 1995.
That season, the team went 11-5 and reached Super Bowl XXX against the Cowboys.
The Steelers would end up losing the game and then they lost Greene not long after.
A Panther, then a 49er
Due to salary cap restrictions, Greene was released by Pittsburgh after the Super Bowl.
In three years with the team, the Pittsburgh defense had 139 total sacks, which led the league.
The unit also boasted a league-best 3.48 yards per rush during that span.
“Kevin Greene is a great player against the run and one of the best pass rushers in NFL history. He is almost unblockable,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Regardless, Greene was off to his third team, the Carolina Panthers, in 1996.
Kevin Greene ranks 3rd all-time with 160 sacks and went to 2 Pro Bowls as a Panther.
He was the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year in Carolina's trip to the NFC Championship.
— Will Bryan (@Pantherstatsguy) December 21, 2020
The 1995 expansion franchise Panthers had ended their first year with a 7-9 record.
Greene was brought in and added to a linebacker room that included former Saints player Sam Mills, former Oiler Lamar Lathon, and former Colt and Seahawk Duane Bickett.
The unit helped Carolina reach the NFC Championship in only their second year.
Greene was outstanding as he led the NFL with 14.5 sacks.
He also set a league record with five consecutive multi-sack games during the year.
Although the Panthers would lose to the Packers in the NFC title game, Greene was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl and was also voted as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year and NFC Defensive Player of the Year.
Then, despite the fact that he was an integral part of the Carolina team, a contract dispute led the Panthers to release Greene after the ‘96 season.
He landed in San Francisco where he was used as a situational rusher and accounted for 10.5 sacks.
Back to Carolina and Retirement
After the 1997 season, Greene returned to Carolina.
In 1998, he had 15 sacks which tied him for third in the league with the Giant’s Michael Strahan.
He was voted to his fifth Pro Bowl and named the NFC Linebacker of the Year.
During the season, Greene had an altercation with his position coach, Kevin Steele, during a game and was suspended for one game.
The heat of the moment as well as the Panthers’ difficulty in winning games got the better of Greene that day.
“I lost my composure in the heat of the moment,” Greene said after the game. “It’s an emotional game and I will apologize to the entire team tomorrow.”
The following season, Greene posted 12 sacks, his fourth consecutive year with double-digit sacks.
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 19, 2013
Surprisingly, Greene decided to retire after the season.
In 15 years, Greene had 160 sacks, which placed him third on the all-time list.
He also had the most sacks in league history for a linebacker.
Greene had 10 or more sacks during 10 different seasons.
Greene was a five-time Pro Bowler, a three-time first-team All-Pro, and a second-team All-Pro once.
He led the NFL in sacks twice and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year as well as NFC Defensive Player of the Year.
Greene was eventually named to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and placed in the Steelers Ring of Honor.
While still playing football, Greene made his professional wrestling debut in World Championship Wrestling in 1996.
He continued to appear at various wrestling events for the next few years but was shut down by his NFL employers to prevent injury.
With his athletic career behind him, Greene returned to the NFL as a coach in 2008.
In 2009, he was hired by his former Pittsburgh and Carolina coach, Dom Capers, as the outside linebackers coach with the Green Bay Packers.
Greene was a member of the coaching staff when Green Bay won Super Bowl XLV against the Steelers after the 2010 season.
— Sweep Studios (@SweepStudios63) December 21, 2020
It was Greene’s first world title as an NFL player or coach.
After the 2013 season, Greene left the Packers to help coach his son’s high school team in Florida.
Then, in 2016, Greene was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He would return to coaching with the New York Jets in 2017 and 2018. Greene was not retained for the 2019 season.
On December 21, 2020, Greene unexpectedly died of a heart attack at his home in Destin, Florida. He was only 58 years old.
In memory of Los Angeles Rams + NFL Legend, Kevin Greene. pic.twitter.com/1kppvHx2hD
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) December 21, 2020
The loss shocked the NFL community as Greene was known as a health and fitness buff who trained constantly.
“We lost an amazing player and person this morning with the passing of Kevin Greene,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said at the time. “His sudden death is a shock to us all as he was a close friend and teammate to so many people in the Steelers family.”
Although Greene has passed on, he is remembered fondly by friends, family, and former teammates.
“I’ll remember him as someone who never gave up. He gave you all he had from the first whistle until the last whistle blew. He was dedicated to making sure he helped his teammates win, an unselfish guy. He always put the team first. He went out there every day to get better and to make his teammates better,” said former Auburn teammate and NFL fullback Tommie Agee in 2020.