When Mike Green of the Bears walked into a Starbucks in suburban Chicago one afternoon last month, he drew not even a second look, or any looks at all. If All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher had walked in, there would have been a mob scene, but the 6-foot, 195-pound Green went unrecognized by the cashier, the businessman sitting at a table reading a newspaper and the mother tending to her baby.
For Green, a safety, being overlooked is nothing new. In fact, he's famous for it. As the last player picked in the 2000 NFL Draft (seventh round, No. 254 overall), he was once a "Mr. Irrelevant." That distinction earned him a free trip to Newport Beach, Calif., where he was honored in a ceremony and given gifts in an annual tongue-in-cheek tribute to the NFL's truly trivial.
Green is doing his best to make his Mr. Irrelevant tag irrelevant. Through Sunday the fifth-year pro ranked second on the Bears in tackles (76), behind linebacker Lance Briggs. He also led the team in fumble recoveries (four) and was tied for third in interceptions (two). "Sometimes I can't believe it myself," the soft-spoken Green says of his success. "But I guess it's like that passage in the Bible: '[Many that are] first shall be last; and the last shall be first.'"
When Green arrived at Bears training camp in 2000, he was just praying he would make it through the first week. Though he'd starred as a swift, hard-hitting safety at Northwestern (La.) State, he had zero name recognition and no clue about the mental challenges he would face in camp. Green recalls staying awake many nights learning the team's 50 coverage schemes. "In college," he says, "we had, like, six."
Green won over the Bears' coaches with his hustle and his coverage skills, and he earned a roster spot. During his second season he excelled on special teams, then played well as an extra defender on nickel and dime packages. By his third season Green was a starter; that year he was second on the Bears, behind Urlacher, with 138 tackles.
Green, who signed a five-year, $10 million contract extension in October 2003, is now a vital cog in the Bears' secondary. He had nine tackles and an interception in Chicago's 21-10 win over the Packers on Sept. 19, and eight tackles and a fumble recovery in a 28-21 victory over the Giants on Nov. 7. "He's made plays," says Bears coach Lovie Smith. "He's made interceptions. He's come up with big hits."
But while Green has made it in the NFL, he knows he'll never shed the Mr. Irrelevant tag. As one of two Mr. Irrelevants currently starting regularly in the NFL (Giants fullback Jim Finn is the other), Green understands that no matter how successful he is, he will always be associated with being picked last.
Though he's shy, Green has learned to be gracious in dealing with whatever attention that distinction still brings him. He even played along at the Mr. Irrelevant ceremonies, appearing at the event in 2000 along with other former Mr. Irrelevants. Green even rode in on a fiberglass whale. Like any good defensive back, he didn't mind picking off all the gifts thrown his way that day. "Tshirts, caps, jerseys from all the NFL teams, four or five watches," Green recalls. "They had to ship five or six boxes to my house."
Now those same Mr. Irrelevant organizers are wondering if Green isn't trying to put them out of business. "Mike's a terrific guy, and we're really glad for him," says the group's founder, Paul Salata. "But if he keeps it up, we're not going to be known as the champions of the underdog much longer. And to think, we made him a celebrity!"
Judging from the reaction at that Starbucks, Green isn't quite famous yet. But he's certainly relevant.
LAST AND (USUALLY) LEAST
Mike Green's success is an anomaly for recent Mr. Irrelevants. None of the last four players to hold that title are on an NFL roster
ANDRE SOMMERSELL, LB
He's been cut twice in three months--first by the Raiders in training camp and last week by the Browns.
RYAN HOAG, WR
He was on the Vikings' roster earlier this season, but in October he was placed on their taxi squad.
AHMAD MILLER, DE
He never made an NFL roster and has been on the injured list of the Dallas Desperados of the Arena league.
TEVITA OFAHENGAUE, TE
He was on the practice squads of the Cardinals and the Jaguars in 2001, but has been out of football since 2002.
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES
Once a long shot to make the Bears, Green is now their second-leading tackler.
RALPH WACLAWICZ/WIREIMAGE.COM (INSET)
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