Treating the Odds Like Opposing Quarterbacks
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Less than five minutes were all that separated Rutgers LB Khaseem Greene from the completion of another successful season. And then misfortune struck in the waning moments of the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl. As Greene exploded through the Iowa State line, a scene familiar to the opposition, he planted awkwardly on the Yankee Stadium grass and snapped a bone just above his right ankle. It was one of those gruesome injuries that can make a stomach sick … and a once-promising career derail.
In an instant, Greene’s offseason plans were altered, his future in football uncertain. Topping the to-do list would be a seven-month rehab that included lots of leaning on crutches, teammates and family for support. This injury was a major setback, to be sure. But this was no ordinary student-athlete. Greene has been staring down adversity throughout his life, whipping tall odds as if they were lumbering offensive linemen.
“I was down at first, because I’d never been hurt before or even had surgery,” offered Greene. “It was all new to me. My former roommate Eric LeGrand was one of my inspirations throughout the whole process. I had a million reasons to complain, but I also realized that things could have been far worse. My career could have been over.”
Nothing in life has come especially easy for Greene. Raised in the crime-ridden urban enclave of Elizabeth, N.J., money was about as abundant as hope in the early years. Guidance and mentoring came from a strong mother, Arnessa, but his father, Raymond, was in and out of prison since 1991, when his son was just a two-year-old toddler. While others were visiting grandparents on the weekend, Khaseem was being shuttled around the state to an assortment of penitentiaries to renew acquaintances with his dad.
Like many young men in his situation, Greene found salvation in athletics, using football as a way out of poverty. However, he was hardly a can’t-miss recruit coming out of high school, only fielding scholarship offers from Rhode Island, Hofstra, Akron, Connecticut … and a life-altering one from Greg Schiano and Rutgers. Before getting to Piscataway, though, Greene first needed to do a one-year stint at all-boys Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut to straighten out his academics. There was also a move from safety to linebacker prior to the start of the 2011 campaign. And now this—a badly broken ankle just as NFL scouts began to pay attention.
Greene addressed his injury the way he does most things in life and in football—he attacked it with full force. In fact, he transformed a temporary bum wheel into a positive development by gaining weight and becoming a better student of the game during the offseason. When he was finally cleared for contact last summer, Greene believed he was a step quicker and a step more instinctive than the player who just a year earlier had parlayed 141 tackles, 14 stops for loss and 3.5 sacks into Big East co-Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“Khaseem is an extremely positive kid,” said Rutgers CB Wayne Warren, a fellow fifth-year senior. “The only time we ever saw him down about the injury was on the night that it happened. From the next day forward, he was always positive and upbeat, constantly reassuring the guys around him that everything would be fine.”
Greene’s encore this past season was every bit as impressive as he had hoped it to be. The 12th winner of the Brian Westbrook Tri-State Player of the Year once again led the Scarlet Knights with 136 stops, adding 12 tackles for minus yards, six sacks, two picks, three fumble recoveries and a league-high six forced fumbles. He became a rarity On the Banks of the Old Raritan by being named an AP All-American, and joined Virginia Tech’s Corey Moore as the only two-time Defensive Player of the Year in Big East history.
Greene was the same playmaker in 2012 that he was in the prior season, shedding blockers, timing blitzes and being in the right spot to make plays in a scheme that funneled a lot of the action in his direction. A game-changer by every definition of the term, he was the emotional and physical ringleader of a defense that finished the season ranked No. 4 nationally in points allowed. But it was Greene’s perseverance through pain, vocal leadership and passion for the game that really resonated for a collection of Rutgers teammates who had so often followed his lead over the past two seasons.
“I love contact,” said Greene, whose humble, soft-spoken demeanor off the field belies his ferocity on it. “I feel as if I’ve always had the natural instincts to find the ball, and I love to hit people. There’s something about hitting people that’s appealed to me since I was a little kid.”
His improbable amateur journey from the rugged, unforgiving streets of an inner city to the heights of college football now complete, Greene has turned his attention to the NFL. His stock, which took a sharp hit on that fateful Dec. 30 evening in the Bronx, has been soaring ever since the 2012 season went into high gear. Scouts love his energy, ball awareness, closing speed and penchant for delivering momentum-changing plays. Oh, and they’re also keenly aware of No. 20’s war chest of intangibles, which were in full bloom over the past 15 months.
Thanks to an unsinkable spirit and a dogged drive to be the best, Greene leaves Rutgers with an indelible legacy as the most decorated defender in program history. Had he tapped the brakes along the way, or gotten completely sidetracked in the pursuit of his goals, who’d have really faulted him? The kid had plenty of valid excuses. But quitting or going through the motions simply isn’t in his lexicon. Greene is a fighter, a survivor. And because of that will to keep battling through adversity, as one celebrated chapter of his athletic career closes, another one is set to begin on Sundays.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.