One of the guys I got in trouble with back in my high school days was a lanky, hyperactive Army brat with a huge chin and some weird sort of energy that led him to do things most of us kids wouldn’t even think of trying.
This was in the late 1970s in Granite City, a place up north in Illinois across the river from St. Louis where an Army depot housed a couple dozen or so military families, mine and his included.
We were outcasts of sorts, in that steel mill town where the Army then was viewed by at least one Granite City South High School teacher as a haven for drunks and wife beaters, or some such sad nonsense.
But that was then. And Granite City was, in every sense I can think of, a working class steel mill town where the air smelled bad and the snow turned the color of rust, and there was probably a bar or tavern on every corner – places with like Sammy’s and Pete and Mary’s and Ernie and Annie’s Sports Tap.
And back then it seemed you could go to a convenience store just about anywhere and buy a gallon jug of cheap Budweiser dregs for next to nothing, the famed brewery being just over the river. But more on that in a minute.
Granite City South was my fourth and last high school, thanks to my father’s moves courtesy Uncle Sam, and there were maybe a couple dozen Army brat teens, maybe fewer, living in quarters on the Depot then and going to that high school. Some of them I’ve remained close to over the years, others I can hardly remember and no doubt they would return the favor if asked.
One of them, one of us, was Kevin Greene, who grew up to become an NFL Hall of Famer. He died Monday, at 58, and a whole lot of folks are sad. Me too.
Kevin was a year behind me at GCHS. He was light years ahead of me in just about everything else, though. I just didn’t know it at the time.
Kevin was the son of a decorated colonel from Alabama, and the younger brother of Keith Greene – an All-American, Eagle Scout young man if ever there was one.
Keith, like Kevin and their daddy, went to Auburn, then got his commission in the Army and went on to a distinguished career as a combat leader and Army aviator (like his daddy), then died in 2012 of cancer.
Like Kevin, who also served in the Army, Keith didn’t make it out of his 50s, passing away at 51. Keith’s death hit me hard at the time, largely because I figured him as the best of all of us kids who lived on the Depot back then – honorable, hard working, kind and decent. And Kevin’s death Monday stopped me in my tracks, too, took me back decades.
My parents were strict with me back then – my father grew up in hard times in South Carolina and while he had the work hard, play hard ethos of the Army NCO of the time he didn’t want me messing up my life by running the streets. I, for the most part the obedient son, was occasionally inclined to try it out.
Few I knew at the time were better to try it out with than Kevin Greene. I won’t say we were best of friends, because we weren’t. His best buddy back then was a local kid named Bob Firtos who grew up to be a firefighter.
But us Army brat Depot kids stuck together a lot, even when we didn’t. Like a time I took a swing at Kevin when he got on my nerves at some point during a pickup football game. And he was like some kind of giant human puppy you couldn’t stay mad at, and so I didn’t, and later decided it was a good thing he didn’t swing back. Or hold a grudge.
Anyhow, at various points and times Kevin would talk me into doing something I probably shouldn’t, like the night we bought a couple plastic milk jug gallons worth of that awful cheap beer for a couple of bucks and rode over to St. Louis.
Kevin had this blue earlier 1970s Dodge Charger or Plymouth Roadrunner (I honestly can’t remember which) with a big old spoiler on the back and it sounded like a jet plane when you cranked it up, and so off we went. I still do not recall much of what happened, other than we apparently had quite a time and he almost drove into the Mississippi River on cobblestones not far from the Arch. I paid for it dearly after I got home sometimes not long before the sun came up.
In the meantime, Kevin kept being Kevin.
A talented high school basketball player, he decided that if the NBA’s Darryl Dawkins could break a backboard, so could he. And so legend has it he did, this 6-foot-2, 165 pound (maybe) kid with a big jaw. He did it after practice by dunking over and over and over again, wearing out the backboard by sheer persistence. I say legend because I didn’t see it. I just heard about it a dozen times a day for a long time, along with other stories that got passed around about Kevin. Even then, he was bigger than life.
And then high school for me was over, and I went on to college, losing touch with Keith and Kevin.
Fast forward maybe to 1985 on Fort Sill. I was in the Army by then, having dropped out of the University of South Carolina to the chagrin of my folks, who by now were back in Columbia, S.C.
While at Fort Sill, I ran across an old Army brat Depot buddy – Mark Marsh, also in the Army and a former teammate of Kevin’s at GCSHS. We had a beer or two and he caught me up on things I’d lost track of.
“Did you hear about Kevin?”
“He was just drafted by the Los Angeles Rams,” Marsh said, then told me about Greene’s rise from a walk-on at Auburn to the 1984 SEC Defensive player of the year.
“Wow,” I said, remembering that 165 pound (maybe) split end we both knew back at the depot. And we had a few more beers and went on our way.
After that, I kept up with Kevin’s career from afar, and occasionally felt some weird sort of affection and kinship with this guy I once knew. You know how it goes when someone you know gets famous. It’s a bit like living vicariously, maybe.
Fast forward some more years, to the late 1990s. I was working at either the Effingham Herald or the Coastal Courier at the time, and the house phone rings.
I knew that voice from hearing it on TV. I can’t remember what I said, but we caught up, and Kevin, by then playing for the San Francisco 49ers, seemed delighted I’d become a hack small town newspaper man and said he hoped we could get together at some point down the road.
A 49ers team Christmas card signed by Kevin followed, and I have it somewhere at the house in a box along with stuff I’ve held on to over the years.
We never did get together, though we later connected when he messaged me on Facebook – a social media outlet I’ve since left. But I kept mostly distant. I never wanted to intrude on that life or take advantage of having known him as a teenager, all those long decades ago.
You might know some of the rest. In 2016, he was inducted into the pro football hall of fame, and during that speech a lot of folks got to see the grown up version of the kid I knew for a year or so in high school. You can see it on Youtube if you want. I suggest you watch if you get a chance.
I was invited to attend the induction ceremony, but didn’t. I probably had to work anyway, but I wish I’d gone now, and ashamed I didn’t find the time.
I could have thanked him for not killing me, all those years ago when I took a swing at him. And then I could have told him I was proud of him and he did good, because I’m not sure I ever did.
Whitten is editor of the Bryan County News.