Green Bay Packers All-Pro Running Back Ahman Green Channels Comic Book Hero Batman and Gridiron Icons Walter Payton and Bo Jackson on the Field
A decade ago I wrote a year-long series for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. This story on former Husker great and then-still active Green Bay Packers star running back Ahman Green, who starred at Omaha North and Omaha Central, was not officially part of the series but since it ran in close proximity to it most readers probably assumed it was. In any event, Green certainly qualifies as a legend. The now retired football star is arguably the most accomplished offensive skill player from Nebraska to play at the sport’s highest level. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers may have been a more gifted athlete but his pro dominance occurred in the Canadian Football League, not the NFL, where his playing time was cut to almost nothing due to serious injuries. Green enjoyed a near Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career. He probably needed another healthy year or two, to go over 10,000 yards rushing, in order to secure a spot and he fell somewhat short. But in his prime he was right there with the best backs in the league. You can read several of my Omaha Black Sports Legends articles, which appeared under the heading Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, on this blog, including profiles of Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Roger Sayers, Don Benning, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, and maybe the greatest of them all and someone you’ve likely never heard of before – Marion Hudson.
Green Bay Packers All-Pro Running Back Ahman Green Channels Comic Book Hero Batman and Gridiron Icons Walter Payton and Bo Jackson on the Field
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Green Bay Packers All-Pro running back Ahman Green has a well-publicized fascination with Batman. It makes sense considering the player applies the same old-school, no-frills style to his game as the comic book caped-crusader does to crime fighting. Instead of super powers, Batman gets by with well-hewn brain and brawn. Just like his favorite action figure, the former Omaha Central High School and University of Nebraska All-American, is all about the work. Gifted with size, strength and speed, Green’s worked hard honing himself into a chiseled, fluid dynamo. He is that rare combination of plower who won’t be stopped in short-yardage situations and burner who’s a threat to go the distance on every carry.
The same way Batman disdains trendy martial arts in favor of more basic ass whuppings, Green eschews any fancy moves on the field and, instead, sheds tacklers with brute force, cat quickness, superb balance and unerring instinct.
While his foes on the field may not be as maniacal as the Green Goblin, the NFL’s second leading rusher from a year ago confronts his own terrors in the form of bull rushing linemen, heat-seeking backers and hard-hitting corners. Green’s slashing style may deflect the full brunt of hits, but he still absorbs the force of a car crash every time he gets thrown down, blown up or taken out like a ten-pin. He just keeps on coming though, with a bring-it-on durability that’s his trademark.
And much like his alter ego has a dark side, Green does, too. He was charged with fourth-degree domestic assault against his first wife, who filed for divorce soon after the couple were cited for disturbing the peace in 2002. “I had a lot of stuff going on,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Outside of football I had to juggle a lot of things.” Besides dealing with problems at home, he struggled healing from a series of nagging injuries and finding time to complete his college studies at UNL. Then, last year he got his degree and found a new bride. There’s a sense that by dealing with his personal issues and getting well again, emotionally and physically, he set the stage for his record-setting, busting-loose 2003 performance.
Coming off three straight 1,000-yard years, Green raised his game to a new level in ‘03, setting personal and club records for most carries, 355, rushing yards, 1883, and combined yards, 2,250, in a season, as well as most yards in a game, 218, and longest run from scrimmage, 98. Barring injury, he appears primed, at age 27, to challenge some of those same marks. His 1,883 rushing yards was among the highest single season figures in NFL history. At this pace, he breaks Packers great Jim Taylor’s career rushing milestones in 2005, and gets himself mentioned with the game’s all-time best backs. A case can be made for his inclusion now.
Records are meaningful to Green in-so-far as they are a benchmark for his own progress. “That’s important to me because if a person doesn’t set goals, where are they going? I keep setting goals. After I knock ‘em out, I put another one in and I just keep going. That’s it.” Coming from the tradition-rich Nebraska program made his adjustment to the storied Packers franchise a little easier. “It was kind of old-hat by the time I got here,” he said. “I know what’s happened here in the past and I’m like, Let’s make some new history and let’s roll.”
After a slow start in the NFL with Seattle, where he was never given a chance to be an every down back, he’s evolved into the league’s prototype workhorse. An average game now finds him lugging the ball from scrimmage 20 or more times and catching three or four passes out of the backfield, not to mention all the times he’s called on to block. With a maturity that belies his age, Green is putting the team on his back and taking a pounding, while dealing out some serious hurting, too. It’s just the way he did it as a junior at NU, when he had more than 2,200 combined yards on 300-plus touches (counting bowl stats). With his luxury package design of power and explosiveness, he’s dominating the field again, only against the best players in the world. Taking on such a big role doesn’t faze him. “I don’t even look at it as that. I don’t worry about what’s on my shoulders or what’s not. I just go out there and play football. Whatever happens, it happens. That’s it,” he said.
Erased now is the tag of fumbler that dogged him from Seattle and that surfaced last year when he had trouble holding onto the ball. “Oh, yeah, it’ll probably never be forgotten, but it’s behind me. It’s definitely behind me. But some people never let stuff go,” he said. “I just go out there and play every game knowing that stuff can happen. That’s just part of football. You’re competing. It’s a back and forth battle. You’re not going to have a perfect game. Well, I don’t want to say never.”
That he remains productive and healthy carrying such a heavy load defies the odds and speaks not only to his good fortune but to his great work ethic. His penchant for paying the price with grueling workouts in the off-season is something he took from his real-life idol, Walter Payton, a righteous back Batman would have loved. The late-great Chicago Bear was renowned for his toughness on the field and his extreme conditioning drills off it that culminated in running, full out, a hell hill few dared testing and fewer yet conquered.
“What I do when I am working out, whether lifting weights or running, is I push myself to the end, to where I ain’t got nothing left,” Green said. “That’s what Walter Payton did when he worked out during the off-season. The intensity of his off-season workouts was higher than any training camp or game. He pushed himself harder than anybody else did, so that when the season came along he was in top shape and he didn’t worry about being tired or getting hurt.”
To give himself that same edge, Green religiously pumps iron and runs stairs until his muscles and lungs burn. “If I’m going to be in the right kind of shape, I’ve got to make sure I have my butt in the weight room lifting weights — getting stronger, bigger, faster — because if I don’t I’m going to start getting hurt” and wearing down, he said. “I’m trying to find a hill to run the way Walter Payton did.”
Payton also embodied the warrior figure Green sees himself as. Growing up in L.A., where he lived before returning to his native Omaha for high school, Green adopted a style Sweetness made famous. “He was the kind of runner I was. I was scrappy. I never went down easy. I was just tough. That was something I learned out in L.A. because, you know, you have to be tough to get along in this sport, especially there, where the competition’s real high. And that was the way my idol ran. He ran tough. He didn’t die easy. He was just the type of running back I Iike.” For his pre-game inspirational ritual, Green watches the Pure Payton highlight tape.
Bo Jackson was another back he patterned himself after. “He was blessed with the ability. He was fast and he was big and he took that and he ran very hard with it.”
The legendary feats of Payton-Jackson and the mythic heroics of Batman aside, Green’s work ethic springs from a more prosaic source, his parents, Edward and Glenda Scott. “My parents were older, and with that I developed that work ethic that if I want something I’m going to have to work for it — it’s not going to be given to me,” he said. “And some days it’s going to hurt, but if you really want it, you’ve got to fight through the hurt, fight through the pain, fight through the sweat, the blood and the tears to get where you want to be. And that’s how I think.”
If he could, Green said he would incorporate into his regimen a drill that simulates the hits he takes during a game. “I wish I could, because that would be my workout every single day of the week, but you can’t. You can’t imitate a football game.”
Getting himself ready to weather the hits and the upsets of a pro football career is all about focus, he said. “My philosophy on life is, just attend to the things you can control like your body. I control my body. I control what goes into my body. With my job, I’ve got to make sure I’m eating the right foods and that I’m in the right kind of shape. Anything on the outside — the stuff that you don’t hold in your hand and that you can’t control — don’t worry about it.”
Consistent with this no-nonsense approach is Green’s grounding in the fundamentals of the game. “I was fortunate to have a line of good coaches that taught me the basics. That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “Once you get taught that at an early age, everything else will come easier and you’ll be able to excel faster just by knowing the fundamentals of your sport.”
Green got his football start playing in Los Angeles midget leagues. He said the talent pool there steeled him for his return to Nebraska. “I played pretty well and I knew if I could survive out there, which I did, I could come out pretty good in high school ball here.” Once back in Omaha, where he lived with his grandma, he made his first splash on the local gridiron starring for the North Omaha Bears, which he helped lead to the 1991 national youth football (ages 13-14) title in Daytona, Florida. He began his prep career at North High, playing little as a freshman before starting on the varsity as a sophomore, when he ran for more than 1,000 yards. Two decades earlier his uncle, Michael Green, ran roughshod for North.
Ahman then heeded the wishes of his mother to attend her alma mater, Central, where he transferred prior to his junior year. He said switching schools was more about honoring his mom than any dissatisfaction with North or any desire to join Central’s fabled roster of running backs. “My mom wanted me to graduate from the high school she graduated from as a keep-it-in-the-family type thing.”
As far as Central’s rich tailback legacy, he said, “I wasn’t really into it. I just knew from the year before they had a guy — Damion Morrow — running the ball real good. I knew he was there, but I didn’t know all the other running backs that came out of there, like Calvin Jones, Leodis Flowers and Keith Jones. There’s been a long line of running backs there that I didn’t know about till I got there.” One name he did hear growing up was Gale Sayers, who set an exceedingly high bar for the Eagles’ running back tradition by earning All-America honors at the University of Kansas and NFL Hall of Fame status with the Chicago Bears.
Since then, Central’s become a prime feeder of college football talent. Its pipeline of talented backs dates back to at least the late ‘50s with Roger Sayers, the older brother of Gale. The Brothers Sayers even played one season together (1960) in the same backfield. Long overshadowed by Gale, Roger was a top American top sprinter and a spectacular small college back-kick returner for then-Omaha University.
Distinguished Central backs of more recent vintage include ex-NU stars Joe Orduna (Giants, Colts), Keith Jones (Browns, Cowboys), Leodis Flowers and Calvin Jones (Raiders, Packers) and current Husker David Horne. There was also Jamaine Billups, who switched to defense at Iowa State. And there were guys with brilliant prep resumes who, for one reason or another, never duplicated that success in college. Terry Evans was one. Damion Morrow, another. After an unprecedented sophomore year in which he ran for more than 1,700 yards, Morrow shared the ball with Ahman Green his last two years at Central, when each topped 1,000 yards. The pair are on a short list of backs in Nebraska 11-man prep football history to ever rush for 1,000 or more yards in three seasons.
According to Green, Morrow was “an awesome back” and just one of many “great athletes” he was around while coming up in Omaha. “Just pure athletes. Some of them didn’t get the opportunities that I got. Damion Morrow, Ronnie Doss. Zanie Adams. Stevie Gordon. The list goes on and on.” Green is well aware of his hometown’s considerable athletic tradition and brags on it whenever he can. “I’m always defending Omaha here in Green Bay,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Who else is from Omaha?’ I tell ‘em. ‘Ya’ll just don’t know that we’ve got a great line of athletes. Not just from football, but from all other sports.’”
Knowing he’s now considered in the same company as Omaha’s athletic elite — with legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers — makes him “proud,” he said, “because those are names I heard about and how great they were. I’m just proud, because it goes to show that my hard work has paid off for me and is continuing to pay off for me and my family.”
With most of his family still in Omaha, Green gets back often and stays active in the community. “I do a lot of stuff with the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club,” he said. “Just recently, we had our third annual high school all-star basketball night, where we had men’s and women’s games, a three-point shootout and a dunk contest.” And in that way things have of coming full circle, he will soon be teaching football basics. “This summer I’m having my first Ahman Green Youth Football Camp, for kids 8 to 14. It’s a non-contact camp for boys and girls where I teach the fundamentals.” The June 28 and 29 camp is at North High School.
After his break-out 2003 season, Green’s fame is on the rise but his ego is not. “I haven’t changed. I’m still that little kid that grew up in Los Angeles and that was born in Omaha. If you talk to my family members, they’ll tell you — I’m still Ahman.”
Coming off his monster year, when the 10-6 Packers added a wild card win before being knocked out of the playoffs by Philadelphia, Green feels the club is ready for a title run. “We’ve got the tools in line to do big things,” he said.
Heading into his seventh NFL campaign, he knows he’s in the prime of a career that also has its limits. The end isn’t in sight yet, but he knows it’s only a matter of time. “I think about it,” he said, “but it’s something where I just play it by ear, like I always do. My body will let me know if I’ve had enough. I’ll listen to that. I’ve been listening to it for awhile now. When my body says it’s enough, it’s enough.”
Any talk of walking away from football is premature as long as he stays healthy and keeps producing. Then there’s the elusive perfect game he feels may not be so impossible, after all. “I just go into every game knowing I’m going to give it my best that day for my team. Who knows? It might happen. I might have a perfect game.” KAPOW. BAM. ZOOM. No. 30 saves the day again for Gotham City, er Green Bay.
- Ahman Green officially retires (profootballtalk.nbcsports.com)
- Green Bay Packers: Does 19-0 Season Make Them the Best Team in NFL History? (bleacherreport.com)
- 2011 Green Bay Packers and the 10 Best Teams in NFL History (bleacherreport.com)
- Lettermen In The News: Ahman Green Joins Big Ten Network (lostlettermen.com)