You probably remember Nealon Greene as a mobile quarterback, able to avoid the pass rush and then dash for yards. But the Greene you watched in the CFL didn’t start out that way.
“I started out playing centre,” said Greene. “I was one of the hogs growing up. I got the opportunity to play halfback one year and grew from there. I wanted to have the ball all the time instead of just a couple of hand offs. I had to develop throwing, which I knew I could do because I played baseball as well.”
Greene, now 46, remembers going to a Dallas to work out for the CFL. He’d become Clemson’s all-time leading passer by the time his college career ended in 1997.
“I was just taking a chance on every possibility,” Greene recalled. He wound up being offered a contract from the Toronto Argonauts. “I was the fourth quarterback. I was behind the eight ball.”
When coach Don Matthews left the Argos for the Eskimos after the 1998 season, he traded for Greene. Greene spent three days driving from Toronto to Edmonton. His knowledge of his new home was limited.
“I knew about Wayne Gretzky and Warren Moon, who was one of my idols growing up,” Greene said.
The Eskimos went just 6-12 with Greene as the starter in 1999, but he provided some memorable highlights. Topping the list, a 180-yard rushing performance against Saskatchewan in a 39-6 win on July 16. That’s a record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback.
“The field is wider, longer. As far as my style of play as a quarterback, being able to move around, I enjoyed the game,” said Greene, who soon fell in love with Edmonton.
“It felt like college, like Clemson, playing in that atmosphere. The fans were so supportive, whether I had a good game, the game was close.
“They were always cheering. They were an extra player on the field pretty much.”
The Eskimos went 10-8 in 2000. Greene threw 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions while rushing for 765 yards. However, they were upset in the West semi-final by the B.C. Lions.
In 2001, Greene jockeyed for playing time with Jason Maas.
“It was just a mutual respect, just like with Dan Crowley and Marcus Crandell when they were there,” he explained. “We thought whoever was out there could get the job done. You don’t want anyone to back down and say, ‘OK, he’s the starter,’ You don’t get any better doing that.”
Greene was traded to the Saskatchewan in February of 2002. Before he became a Roughrider, he could never imagine living in Regina.
“All I know when I flew in, I was glad to be flying out soon,” he laughed. “But when I got there, and got to understand how the fans supported the football team, that passion for the team and the community is what made me want to stay there.”
Greene suffered a broken leg in the first game of the 2004 season. Looking back, he feels that put him on the path to retirement.
“I didn’t give it enough time to rest. I wanted to be back. Coach Don Matthews used to say to the guys, ‘You can’t make the club in the tub,’” he said. “When I broke my leg, it was my first time being under the knife. It was a lot of mental and physical strain to get back.
“I came back a little back too quick. It played a part in my leg being fatigued a lot. I couldn’t run people down like I used to.”
Greene’s final season was with Montreal with 2006. He then returned home to Westchester Country, New York. He now works with at-risk kids at a youth ranch and runs Team Greene Athletics.
“Everything is channeled around the youth, keeping them involved. My motto is, ‘Changing athletic students to student-athletes.’ I want to give them that path, where I didn’t have as much help,” Greene said. “Help them build a profile, give them opportunities to win scholarships, give them opportunities as far academics and sports.”
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