The showman in Kevin Greene sometimes overshadowed the football player. Not that the outside linebacker who spent 15 seasons posing over fallen quarterbacks seemed to care.
There was the preening after most of his 160 career sacks, third most in NFL history. The side gig in professional wrestling. The unmistakable untamed blonde hair. The mouth that didn’t seem to have an off switch, be it on the field, in the locker room or in life.
The image Greene carefully cultivated as a hell raiser for four teams from 1985-99 belied the ardent student underneath. How else to explain how a former walk-on at Auburn molded himself into a 6-foot-3, 247-pound force of nature, one that now finds himself in the rarest company of all: the Hall of Fame?
“I wasn’t the biggest (and) I wasn’t fastest,” Greene said. “But as long as you have a motor, you have heart … that will overcome any physical limitations.”
Outsmarting opponents helps. For all of Greene’s considerable charisma, the most important moments of his career often came in silent film sessions far away from the cameras as he searched for weaknesses to exploit.
“I figured out how to pass rush,” Greene said. “I figured out how to put a guy, an offensive tackle three to four inches taller, 80 pounds heavier, put him in a position of failure, and I did that.”
Over and over again.
Perhaps the most startling aspects of Greene’s time with the Rams, Steelers, 49ers and Panthers were his durability and productivity. He missed just a dozen games at a position where longevity is fleeting. Ten times he finished with at least 10 sacks, including 12 with Carolina in his final season in 1999 at age 37.
“Kevin to me represents all the things you want in a Hall of Famer: great work ethic, passion and love for the game, great consistency,” said longtime NFL coach Dom Capers, who will present Greene for induction. “He brought that energy and enthusiasm into the locker room every Sunday.”
It occasionally bubbled over, but that energy is what set Greene apart. There were days while Capers was coaching the Panthers — where Greene served as both outside linebacker and coach-in-training — when Capers would wring his hands over how to set the proper emotional tone. Turns out, he needn’t have bothered.
“You always worried if you have the right things to say before a game,” Capers said. “But I never had to worry about that because Kevin would have that locker room so wired up before we took the field.”
Call it the byproduct of a fervent devotion that extended far beyond mere X’s and O’s. Teammates were “brothers.” The players he led while spending five seasons as a linebackers coach in Green Bay from 2009-13 were his “boys.”
“The way he approached the game is the way he approached life,” said Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. “It might rub some people the wrong way as far as how he went about his business. But at the same time, he coached us for truly the love of the game. It wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about the fame.”
That doesn’t mean Greene was averse to chasing glory. He played eight seasons for the Rams, playing with a brazen style that seemed like a perfect fit in glitzy Los Angeles. Yet one season under taciturn Chuck Knox in 1992 left him cold. He planned an expansive tour when he hit free agency in the spring of 1993. It didn’t last long. One trip through the Fort Pitt tunnel — with downtown Pittsburgh exploding into view as he crossed the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers — and a brief chat with Steelers coach Bill Cowher did the trick.
“I knew 15 minutes talking to coach Cowher, I’d found my home,” Greene said.
Serving as a tag-team partner with fellow outside linebacker Greg Lloyd, Greene led a revival of the “Steel Curtain” defense that propelled Pittsburgh to three straight playoff berths and a spot in the 1996 Super Bowl.
While the ultimate prize never materialized and he left for Carolina after the season, there’s little doubt where Greene considers his true NFL home. Greene will receive his Hall of Fame ring during a halftime ceremony at Heinz Field on Oct. 2 when the Steelers host Kansas City.
“I really bleed black and gold,” he said. “That really was the pinnacle of my career. We just crushed people. We had the right attitudes on defense.”
One that began with Greene and Lloyd and cascaded down the roster.
“His intensity, his leadership, his productivity on the field, was Hall-of-Fame quality,” said former Steelers safety turned coach Carnell Lake. “From classroom work to offseason conditioning, he’s what you wanted in a teammate.”