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    It Was Always Easy Being Greene

    By: Ron Higgins
    SEC Digital Network
     

    “MY GOD ALMIGHTY DO YOU SEE WHAT HE DID? DAVID GREENE JUST STRAIGHTENED UP AND WE SNUCK THE FULLBACK OVER. . .WE JUST DUMPED IT OVER 26 TO 24. WE JUST STEPPED ON THEIR FACE WITH A HOBNAILED BOOT AND BROKE THEIR NOSE. WE JUST CRUSHED THEIR FACE. . .DAVID GREENE BROUGHT US FLYING DOWN THE FIELD.”
    --Legendary Georgia play-by-play announcer Larry Munson’s radio call of quarterback David Greene’s 6-yard game-winning touchdown pass to fullback Verron Haynes in the Bulldogs’ 26-24 victory at No. 6 Tennessee in 2001
        
    It is such a moment why David Greene loved playing football.
            
    He didn’t play for the glory, for the honors, to be the big man on campus.
            
    He played for the moment, good or bad. He played for a university he and his teammates loved. He played for the simple joy of playing.
             
    Now 30 years old and a father of two in business in Atlanta with fellow former Georgia offensive lineman Matt Stinchcomb, David gets reminded of his passion for the game every time he goes to Athens with his family for a football Saturday in the fall.
              
    Because always, always, always, the JumboTron in Sanford Stadium will show David’s clutch TD flip to Haynes in David’s and then-first year Georgia coach Mark Richt’s first SEC road game ever. It was a remarkable play to culminate a stunning 59-yard, five-play TD drive that lasted a mere 37 seconds and accomplished with just one available timeout that made an entire stadium go quiet except for a small contingent of Georgia faithful.
            
    “It’s neat to bring my kids to a game and they still throw that play up on the Jumbotron,” David says. “I never dreamed that day or that play would go in the history books. But hey, that’s the one thing about the game of football. You never know when that opportunity may arise.”
             
    In his four seasons as Georgia’s starting quarterback, David repeatedly took advantage of such opportunities. The bottom line on him wasn’t his 11,528 passing yards and 72 touchdowns to 32 interceptions ratio.
             
    David’s measure was his 42 wins starting every game of his 51-game college career from 2001-2004, making him winningest college QB in history when he graduated. With David, Georgia played in two straight SEC title games, winning in 2002 over Arkansas, losing in 2003 to eventual BCS national champion LSU. His last three seasons, Georgia finished the year ranked No. 3 (2002), No. 6 (2003) and No. 6 (2004) in the coaches’ poll.
           
    More importantly, David’s grace under fire – the Bulldogs won eight games with him in the fourth quarter when the score was tied or Georgia trailed – spread throughout the team.
           
    “I think we were all rowing in the same direction,” David remembers. “It didn’t really matter what anybody threw at us, we were going to stay the course. We may have fumbled and I may have thrown interceptions, but we were going to do whatever we could to win the game.
          
    “We did win a lot a close games, because if it was close in the fourth quarter, we were relatively confident that we’d find a way to win. We didn’t know how it would pan out or who would get it done, but we had numerous situations in which backups would come in and get it done, like Michael Johnson making 13 catches including the game-winning touchdown against Auburn (in 2002) to get us to the SEC championship game. We had different guys stepping up all the time, but it was fun.”
          
    David won’t say it, but he was the team’s power source of coolness. It was something Richt immediately saw his first spring as Georgia’s coach, after coming from Florida State where he had been offensive coordinator and/or quarterbacks coach under Bobby Bowden for 15 seasons.
           
    “When we first started installing the offense in meetings, David always had a pad out taking notes,” Richt recalls. “Then you get on the field, and you’d see he knew exactly what to do as far as fundamentals, ball-handling, staying in the pocket, reading our route concepts. You could see his eyes reading the progressions, knowing exactly where to go. He created wonderful habits that served him well his whole career.
        
    “I think the more fundamentally sound you are, the more confidence you have.”
          
    Previous Georgia coach Jim Donnan, not Richt, recruited and signed David, an all-state quarterback for South Gwinnett High in Snellville.
         
    But when Donnan was fired following David’s true freshman season in 2000 when he was redshirted, David felt an immediate kinship when Richt arrived in Athens.
         
    “I had a lot of respect for Coach Richt when he was at Florida State, and its quarterback Chris Weinke had just won the Heisman the year before,” David says. “My attitude my first year with Coach Richt was to be a sponge and learn the offense. I knew if I could soak it in and run his offense the way he wanted me to run it, then we had a chance to be pretty good.”
           
    Richt and David also had similar personalities, fierce competitors with steely focus.
          
    “Anybody who plays for Coach Richt, they know he’s extremely competitive,” David says. “I’m cut out of the same mold. I don’t play okay when I’m extremely jacked up. I played better when I was under control and didn’t let emotions get to the best of me.”
           
    Richt recalls David been shaken just once his entire Georgia career.
           
    “We were playing Clemson at home (in 2001) and a linebacker just drilled David right when he threw the ball, just ran right through him, hit him in the chest and chin,” Richt says. “I saw it in his eyes that he was hurt. I didn’t know how he’d play the rest of the day, but he composed himself, played well and we won 31-28.
          
    “Other than that, I don’t think I ever looked in his eyes and say, `Man, we’re going to lose him.’ ”
           
    Richt, who was a backup quarterback during his playing days at the University of Miami in early 1980s, understands how to coach the position.
         
    “Most starting quarterbacks need a breakthrough game in an away game to see if they can handle the heat,” Richt says.
          
    As it turned out, David’s first SEC road game, as well as Richt’s, was a Sept. 29, 2001 visit to Tennessee where the 2-1 Bulldogs faced the unbeaten and No. 6 ranked Vols.
         
    When the Bulldogs took the field at Neyland Stadium on a sunny, gorgeous Saturday, they did so with the knowledge that Georgia had lost on its last five trips to Knoxville.
         
    In fact, at that point, Georgia hadn’t won a game at Tennessee since 1980, that memorable 16-15 victory when a backup freshman Bulldogs’ tailback named Herschel Walker ran over Tennessee safety Bill Bates in a touchdown that introduced future Heisman winner Walker to the college football world.
        
    “Sometimes, it’s bad to be young and naïve, because I didn’t live with the 20 years of baggage that a lot of a Georgia fans had knowing we hadn’t won in Knoxville since 1980,” David says. “I was born in 1982, I didn’t have the same mindset,  I didn’t have all those terrible memories of losing to Tennessee.
         
    “I’d never even been to Knoxville. Sometimes, it’s just good to have somebody with a fresh start that doesn’t have any expectations.”
          
    Because of that, David was almost flawless in his first road start. He brought Georgia back from an early 14-3 deficit and had the Bulldogs in the lead at 20-17 heading into the final five minutes.
          
    “We have the ball and all we got to do is get a first down and the game is over,” Richt says. “But we don’t. Tennessee calls two time outs and it gets the ball back.”
          
    The Vols took over at their 22-yard line and worked to the 38 where then-Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders picked the perfect play to run on Georgia’s 3-5 defense.
           
    "They were playing five linebackers and I noticed a few plays before that when we dropped to pass they were simply turning at the snap of the ball and running downfield to cover passes," Sanders said after that game.
          
    So Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen dropped a screen pass to running back Travis Stephens in the left flat. He picked up blocks and won a footrace to the end zone for a 62-yard TD that gave Tennessee a 24-20 lead with 44 seconds left.
          
    "I had plenty of room to run," Stephens said afterwards. "I made cut off a block, I saw the sideline and nobody in front of me. That's when I knew I had it. It was under a minute to go when I scored and with the defense we have I was 100 percent sure we were going to win the game."
          
    When Stephens crossed the goal line at the front left pylon, shaking off one last tackler, the crowd of 107,592 roared so loud that David recalls feeling something he never felt before or since.
           
    “The ground shook,” he says. “It actually shook.”
            
    But David was not shaken. And he got an even bigger break when Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, fearing a sizeable kick return since Georgia’s Damien Gary returned a punt for a TD earlier in the game, ordered kicker Alex Walls to squib kick.
          
    Georgia tight end Randy McMichael returned the kick seven yards, and the Bulldogs had the ball at their own 41-yard line with 42 seconds left and one timeout.
           
    Fulmer basically conceded almost half the field to the Bulldogs.
          
    "I don't know what happened on the squib kick," Fulmer said at time. "It wasn't a very good squib."
         
    Walls's explanation: "I've always been told on squib kicks to put the ball on the ground as soon as possible. It just popped up into a guy's hands. I can't control where it's going to bounce."
           
    The only thing that mattered to David was running the two-minute drill to perfection, which he couldn’t have done any better.
           
    He ripped open the soft underbelly of a Vols’ prevent pass defense. He threw a 13-yard completion to flanker Gary (“He was so shifty you couldn’t touch him in an elevator,” David says) to the Tennessee 46, and missed on a pass for flanker Michael Johnson.
           
    David hit McMichael for a 26-yard gain to the Vols 20 and then found McMichael again for a 14-yard pickup on catches that David recalls “NFL tight ends could only make.”
            
    So there at the Tennessee 6, Georgia called its remaining timeout with 10 seconds left and Richt knew the exact play – P-44 Haynes – that he wanted.
          
    “We had run that play maybe five times when I coached at Florida State and every time it worked for a touchdown or two-point conversion,” says Richt of the play that is still in Georgia’s playbook. “It’s good vs. quarters coverage concept. You run routes that will get the safeties out of there, like corner routes that force double teams. What you have left is fullback as a lead blocker going into the line like he’s going to block on an isolation play. Linebackers have to come meet that. They aren’t thinking pass. They are going to take on the linebacker in the iso.
         
    “Fullback slips by him and gets behind him where there is nobody, because everybody is double-covering wide receivers. It has been a great play vs. that coverage for years.”
          
    David says Richt’s instructions were explicit.
          
    “He told me, `If it’s two safeties, it will be wide open and if it’s one safety, throw it out of the end zone’,” David recalls. “Of course, when I came up to the line. I saw two safeties. It was like standing over that four-foot putt that you know you should make.”
          
    Over on the sideline, when Richt saw Tennessee’s two-safety alignment, he started saying, “We got it, we got it!”
          
    Haynes, who played seven NFL seasons with the Steelers and Falcons, and who now lives in Roswell, Georgia, told Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald last year that the play was “a surreal moment for me.”
          
    “You’ve got to be an actor,” Haynes told Weiszer. “You have to sell that the run is coming. Why, with 5 seconds and I don’t think we had any timeouts left, did they think we were going to run the ball again, did they fall for that? I don’t know.”
           
    The Bulldogs had practiced the play during the week prior to the game. Richt’s biggest concern, once he saw the Tennessee defensive look he wanted, was David throwing the pass too hard.
           
    “But he laid it right in there,” Richt says.
          
    A wide-open Haynes clutched the ball in the end zone like he was holding a newborn baby. Touchdown, Bulldogs. The scoreboard flickered to 26-24 Georgia with five seconds left, and a four-year partnership of trust between David and Richt was officially underway.
           
    “When we hit that play, it was an amazing feeling,” David says. “That’s why guys like Coach Richt are paid the big bucks, to put a freshman quarterback in situations that can be successful. How often do you have any plays within five yards of the end zone that you can tell a quarterback that a guy is going to be wide open? Not often.”
           
    David can’t remember when he heard the late Munson’s impassioned play-by-play call for the first time. But once he did, he felt honored it was 100 percent over-the-top Munson.
            
    “The first thing I thought,” David says, “is `What’s a hobnailed boot?’ Only Larry could do it and pull it off. His emotions were so raw.
            
    “What’s funny is when Travis Stephens scored, he says, `And, IT’S OVER!’ He was closing up the briefcase and ready to get out of there. Larry was the biggest pessimist if there ever was one. But what makes it great, too, to come back and win that game, is that nobody wanted us to win more than he did.”
          
    Over the years recalling the dramatic finish, Richt and David have recalled two overlooked elements that had to go Georgia’s way.
         
    “We had somebody chasing Stephens when he scored on that screen pass for Tennessee,” Richt says. “By the grace of God, if we had knocked Stephens out of bounds just short of the goal line instead of scoring, they probably would have run some time, scored a couple of plays later and there would be no time on the clock.”
         
    Instead, Georgia got the ball back in great field position wanting to hit Tennessee’s defense with plays in machine-gun, ratta-tat-tat fashion.
          
    “We were fortunate the refs spotted the ball pretty quick after each play on that drive,” David recalls. “Sometimes, when you get that momentum, you want to keep that tempo high. We did it. We poured it on and kept them on their heels all the way.”
          
    As is the case many times with quarterbacks uniquely suited to the college game, David’s college success didn’t translate to the NFL.
           
    After being selected in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Seattle Seahawks, David spent three seasons in the pros with four different teams, including the Patriots, the Chiefs and the Colts. He never played a down in the regular season and retired after the 2008 season.
          
    “There’s no doubt with a little more time and patience, I still believe David would have been a great pro in the right place,” Richt says.
            
    But David made a decision that many players avoid for years. He had started a family and he had a college degree. What he didn’t have was the same love for pro football that he had for college and high school.
            
    “I just loved the feel of college and high school ball,” Greene says. “I love watching the NFL, because the execution level is off the chart. But the NFL didn’t have the camaraderie of college, there’s so much turnover.
             
    “The business side of the NFL makes you feel like you’re sleeping every day with your bags packed, a revolving door for everyone in a locker room except for five or six guys. Everybody handles it differently; I just never enjoyed it that much.
           
    “I knew it was time. I wasn’t playing well, I had a family. My passion for the game changed. I thought I’d be better off coming back home. I’d gotten a degree in risk management and I’d prepared myself for my post-football career. I knew there would be some good opportunities back home. Once I made the decision, I was 100 percent at peace.”
           
    On Saturday, he and his family will be among the red-and-black Sanford Stadium sea to welcome Tennessee to town.
          
    “Tennessee is a team I’ve always had a ton of respect for, because they put out so many good players, they always play tough, they always got a good, balanced offensive attack, they’ve always got some studs on defense,” David says. “To me, it was always a fun battle.
          
    “But I love watching this (Georgia) team. I learned a lot when they played Missouri (in the season opener won by Georgia, 41-20). At halftime (with Missouri leading 10-9), I was like a fan pulling out my hair and saying, `Holy cow, what’s going on?’ But in the second half and on the road, we didn’t panic the least. There was a quiet confidence about them. They just put their head down and just keep grinding.”
          
    Exactly like back at the start of Richt’s Georgia career when he put his offense in the hands of 19-year-old QB who played like he’d been a Bulldog for years.
           
    “I’m forever grateful for Coach Richt to trust me, a redshirt freshman, to be his quarterback,” David says. It was a dream to start for four years for an SEC school in my homestate, and it was just a magical time.
           
    “I got to play with guys like me who loved the University of Georgia, who embraced playing there and being part of the family. I loved playing for those fans.”
          
    And they still love you back, David. They still do.
     
     



     
     

    Ron Higgins Bio

    •  Ron Higgins of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis has covered the SEC for more than 30 years.
       
    •  He’s a 1979 graduate of LSU and son of former LSU sports information director Ace Higgins.

    •  He is a past president of the Football Writers Association of America and an eight-time honoree as the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Writer of the Year.

    •  Working for The Commercial Appeal, Tiger Rag Magazine, the Shreveport Times, the Shreveport Journal, the Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge and the Mobile Register, he has won more than 150 national, regional and state writing awards. He has also written and co-written two books.
         
    •  Higgins is married to the former Paige Blanchard, also an LSU graduate, and has two sons, Carl, a Southeastern Louisiana University graduate who is serving in the military, and Jack, a high school student.