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Original Issue

The Beginning of the End

A fateful encounter put tight end Eric Green on track to become the most pivotal Steeler

Wearing a jean jacket with "damage" on the back and a black cap with a huge X stitched into the front, Eric Green, the mountainous tight end of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was an imposing figure seated across the table in a sandwich shop on Pittsburgh's North Side. The day before, Green had refused to take off the cap for a photographer who wanted to see his face more clearly. Instead, Green wanted to make sure that kids who might see the picture would think, Here's a football player who is proud of being African-American, proud of what Malcolm X did for his race.

As you can see, Green, a 24-year-old second-year pro, has a lot more on his mind than just football. Sure, he says, "my goal in football is to catch more balls than any other tight end in history." But he also says, "I'd like to become one of the most influential black people who ever walked the planet. I want to be seen as a person who reached out and helped people, like Sam."

Sam is Sam Rutigliano, and his name creeps into any lengthy conversation with Green. Rutigliano, who was fired as coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1984, found new life in coaching a week before Christmas 1988 when he was hired by Liberty University, a Baptist school in Lynchburg, Va., with a Division I-AA football program. One of the players Rutigliano inherited was Green, an unhappy tight end who had made a total of 37 catches in his first three college seasons. "You could have summed up my football career in one word," says Green. "Frustration."

"When I got there, Eric had a reputation for dogging it a little," says Rutigliano, now in his third season at Liberty. "But the first time I saw him on the football field, I thought, At this level, this guy will be illegal. He was the Mike Ditka-type of tough, move-the-chains tight end. But he was also the Bill Walsh, finesse-type receiving tight end. If you had an Erector set and somebody said, 'Make me a tight end,' this is who you'd make.

"And I knew, because of having coached in the NFL and because of having coached [the Browns' three-time All-Pro tight end] Ozzie Newsome, there'd be a weight attached to my words with the pro scouts. So I just told Eric, 'You can't imagine what's ahead of you. You can't. I've been there, and I know you can get there. But you've got to listen to me.' "

Rutigliano, time tells us, knew what he was talking about. But when the fates brought together Green, an underachieving kid from the poor side of Savannah, and Rutigliano, an enthusiastic, look-on-the-bright-side, lifelong coach from Brooklyn, who could have known that less than two years later Green would become a high-impact NFL tight end and the pivotal player on a playoff contender? "It's kind of mind-boggling," Green says. "No one knows where I'd be if Sam hadn't come to Liberty."

When poor grades cost him his senior season of eligibility at Windsor Forest High in 1984, Green, then a 6'4", 213-pound unheralded tight end, figured he would concentrate on his studies, graduate and then join the Air Force. However, Ken Cannon, the coach at another high school in Savannah, persuaded coaches from Clemson and Liberty to put Green through a workout, and each school wound up offering him a scholarship. Green's mother, Genene Jackson, wanted him to get a Christian education, so he enrolled at Liberty.

Green played backup tight end as a freshman in 1985 but was suspended from school the next year for drinking beer. When he returned, in the fall of '87, he spent much of the next two years buried in coach Morgan Hout's offense, in which the tight end wasn't a featured player. By the end of his junior season, Green, who also had a bit of a reputation for not working hard in practice, was at a football dead end.

At about the same time, Rutigliano found himself in a similar situation. After 31 years of coaching football on the high school, college and pro levels, Rutigliano, then 56, had seen his link to the sport reduced to analyzing NFL games for NBC and ESPN. However, without the round-the-clock demands of coaching, he could devote more time to a burgeoning second career, motivational speaking, which he had taken up following a family tragedy 26 years earlier.

In 1962, five years before Green was born, events began to happen in Rutigliano's life that would change Green's world forever. As day was breaking on a warm summer morning, Sam, then a high school coach in Greenwich, Conn., was driving to a summer job at a camp in Maine with his wife, Barbara, and their four-year-old daughter, Nancy. Sam fell asleep at the wheel of his car, and it ran off the road. Nancy was thrown from the automobile, became pinned underneath a rear wheel and died instantly.

In the course of dealing with their grief, the Rutiglianos became devout Christians. From then on Sam would pray for guidance before making any career move. By living his life this way, he eventually made it all the way to the NFL, only to be fired by the Browns in the middle of his seventh season.

So it was that, in March 1988, Rutigliano gave a speech at Liberty about fellowship. He had been invited there by Jerry Falwell, the evangelist and chancellor of the university. The Flames went 8-3 under Hout in '88, but Falwell, who dreamed of having a big-time program at Liberty, wanted a high-profile coach, which led him to hire Rutigliano, which led Rutigliano to Green.

Rutigliano redesigned the Flames' offense into a pro-style attack that featured his 6'5", 270-pound tight end. Green made 62 catches for 905 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior, and Rutigliano extolled Green's virtues to many friends in the NFL, especially scouts and coaches whose word would carry weight in the 1990 draft. It's more than fate, Rutigliano believes, that his daughter's death, in this roundabout way, led him to become Green's mentor and football savior.

"In my profession I'm going backward, down the ladder," says Rutigliano. "Now I've helped somebody up the ladder. Indirectly, I've been led into a ministry where I've been able to use all my experiences in and out of the game to help Eric. It was like starting out knowing nothing about Magic Johnson, and you figure there's no way a 6'9" guy can play point guard. Then you watch him, and he can. Same with Eric at tight end."

One day, 12 scouts sat around the conference table in Rutigliano's office, listening to his sales pitch on Green. "He could be a CEO someday," Rutigliano said. "You're not taking a risk with this guy. He's Mark Bavaro in a bigger package."

Many of the scouts told Rutigliano they would love to get Green in a weight room, bulk him up and make him the ultimate 295-pound, quick-footed offensive tackle. Rutigliano told them that, with all due respect, they were nuts. "Putting him at tackle," says Rutigliano, "would have been like trading for Mickey Mantle and making him a pitcher."

Steeler receiver coach Dwain Painter worked out Green in Lynchburg, throwing him 60 passes on a hot April day. Halfway through the session, Green finally dropped one. "You're human!" Painter yelled. He showed a videotape of the workout to Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll, who agreed that Green could be the centerpiece of a scheme being drawn up by new offensive coordinator Joe Walton. The Steelers used their first-round draft pick, the 21st overall, to select Green.

The Pittsburgh front office and Green's agents struggled to work out a contract, and Green wound up missing all of the 1990 training camp. Two days before the start of the season, he was still unsigned, and the Steelers abruptly pulled their final offer from the table. Green responded by threatening to sit out the season and reenter the draft in '91. At that point, Rutigliano, who had been kept abreast of the negotiations by Green, intervened. He made two calls to the Pittsburgh front office—one to Dick Haley, the director of player personnel, and the other to Dan Rooney, the team president—and encouraged them to keep the negotiations going. Also, the Steelers began to realize that Green was committed to sitting out the season unless they improved their offer. So after some restructuring of the final offer, the deal got done, and Green signed the day after the season opener.

When he cracked the starting lineup in Week 5, Green was penicillin for a sickly team. The Steelers had started 1-3, their defense and special teams having scored most of the points in their only win, and the offense looked grim: 46 possessions, no touchdowns. In Green, the embattled Steeler quarterback, Bubby Brister, found a savior for the Pittsburgh attack. Green's second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh career catches were for TDs, two of them coming in a 36-14 pasting of the San Diego Chargers in Week 5 and three more in a 34-17 rout of the Denver Broncos the following week. With that quick turnaround, Pittsburgh went on to finish 9-7. It wound up in a three-way tie at the top of the AFC Central with the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Oilers, but missed out on the playoffs as a result of the tiebreaker system.

"Without Eric Green, we might not have scored a touchdown last year," says Steeler defensive line coach Joe Greene, and it's hard to tell if he's kidding. In truth, Pittsburgh was beginning to figure out how Walton's offense was supposed to work, when the multidimensional Green came along to kick the mechanism into gear. On third-and-short he could deliver a devastating block like a tackle. On third-and-long he could catch a 20-yard pass. He was equally valuable to the running and passing games.

Indeed, Green, only five games into his second NFL season, has become the player Pittsburgh can least afford to lose. As he goes, so go the Steelers' perennially tenuous playoff hopes. After their 21-3 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night, the Steelers were 3-2 and Green was leading the team with 20 receptions for a 16.2-yard average per catch and three touchdowns.

"There are teams very close to being a fine team that have one guy they can't do without," says former Philadelphia Eagle coach Dick Vermeil. "I know how important one guy can be. I've sat in coaches' meetings and thought, Boy, if we lose this one guy, we're really in trouble."

Brister has shown that he can't find the deep receiver with any consistency, and the Steeler ground attack has only recently solidified in the hands of another second-year man, Barry Foster, who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season. Thus, Pittsburgh has a critical need for an intermediate offensive weapon, and that's where Green comes in. Sure, in Rod Woodson the Steelers have a premier coverage cornerback keying a defense that ranked first in the league last year, as well as a superb return man. But an opposing offensive coordinator can steer his attack away from Woodson's corner, and a kicker can boot the ball away from Woodson. An opponent cannot easily make plans to stop Green, because he sets up in so many positions and goes in motion on so many plays (chart, page 73).

In addition to playing tight end, Green has been used at wide receiver, slotback, wingback and H-back. And he even lined up at running back against the Philadelphia Eagles. Wherever he sets up, Green, who now weighs close to 280, is a scary proposition for opposing defenses. "When I saw him this year, I did a double take," says San Diego cornerback Gill Byrd. "I said, 'This guy's huge. This can't be real.' The guy can run, he can catch, he's the total package. That's why everybody's so excited about him."

You can appreciate what an imposing figure Green is when he lines up next to Pittsburgh's right tackle, 6'3", 274-pound Tunch Ilkin, who is slightly smaller and not as broad below the waist. Against the New England Patriots last season, Green blocked nosetackle Tim Goad into Ilkin and Steeler guard Terry Long, knocking the three of them flying like a bowler making the 6-9-10 split. Until he partially tore a left knee ligament in a preseason game this year, Green ran a 4.7 40—very good speed for any tight end but terrific for a road-grading tight end like Green.

Walton chooses his words carefully when speaking about Green because he doesn't want to make a legend out of someone with 54 catches as a pro. Still, Green is Walton's dream come true—huge, strong, fast, smart, versatile and team-oriented. "He's a combination wide receiver-tight end-tackle," says Walton. "I played against Ron Kramer, Mike Ditka and John Mackey. I really thought Mackey and Ditka were the prototypical tight ends. Now, Green has the chance to be the perfect combination of those guys. But greatness is earned. I'm just glad he wants to be that good."

Now the question is: Will Green be that good this year, given his partially torn posterior cruciate ligament? The Steelers are trying to regenerate the ligament through electronic stimulation for 20 minutes a day, but Green won't be whole as long as he keeps pounding on it day after day on artificial turf. "It's just something I have to play through," he says.

He says it matter-of-factly, the way he speaks about most everything. Green is not cocky, just supremely and almost blandly confident. He says he got "ripped off" in last season's Pro Bowl balloting. Rodney Holman of the Cincinnati Bengals and Ferrell Edmunds of Miami represented the AFC at tight end. He says he's on a par with Eagle tight end Keith Jackson, the game's most acclaimed player at the position. "One day, I want younger players coming into the league to be compared to me," says Green.

Also, he wants the burden of carrying the Pittsburgh offense on his shoulders. "My first game last year as a starter, I knew the team was depending on me," he says. "Before the game, I said to Bubby, All you've got to do is throw it to me. I'll get it.' If somebody's going to depend on me—I don't care what a defense does to me—I'm going to rise to the occasion."

So, too, does he hope to meet his goal of helping more blacks get ahead in life. "I want to be a positive role model for kids," says Green. "Being a professional player gives me an avenue to be heard that other people might not have." He says he would like to buy inner-city real estate and develop housing for the benefit of underprivileged blacks.

For now, Green will work on redeveloping the tight end position in the NFL. In an era when the pros are using tight ends essentially as third tackles to plow a path for running backs, Green is a devastating blocker who's reminding everyone that tight ends can be valuable receivers as well. And he has Rutigliano to thank for making it all possible.

In the Liberty football office late on a recent afternoon, the light was starting to fade over the George Washington National Forest to the west. Rutigliano had just finished talking about the loss of his daughter 29 years earlier, and a profound sadness filled the room. Then Rutigliano spoke: "Ben Franklin said, 'The things which hurt, instruct.' I believe I'm here for a reason, and Eric Green is part of that reason."

Hank Stram used to do this kind of stuff with his tight end, where you could never find him," Corey says.

When the Steelers and the Bills played on Sept. 8, the Buffalo defense held Green to three catches for 31 yards, but it wasn't for Pittsburgh's failing to do everything in the book to get Green open. He was on the field for 47 of Pittsburgh's 54 offensive plays in that game, which Buffalo won 52-34.

The 10 positions in the Steeler offensive sets that Green played against the Bills and the number of times he played each of them: