"There's nothing special about me. I have just always seen so much opportunity out there. My oldest brother, Billy, was a better athlete than me and smarter, too, but in 1956 he got no scholarship offers, and he joined the Air Force. I was part of the first generation to benefit from the civil rights movement. I'd be doing my best right now regardless of what profession I was in."
One last thing, Green adds, "I've never been fired from anything in my life."
In other words, he's good. And talent and determination, in Green's world, will win out. Still, the odds of a black male becoming a head coach in the NFL are far less than of one becoming, say, the mayor of a large American city. How did Green suddenly become "the best head coach possible"?
The process began in Harrisburg, the aging state capital. He was the youngest of five sons of a postal worker and a part-time beautician. Dennis thrived under the firm but loving guidance of his parents, Penrose and Anna, showing resourcefulness and grit even at an early age. Playing football one day at Reservoir Park, 12-year-old Dennis snapped his right arm in a tumble. "Boom, boom!—he broke it in two places, but he didn't cry," says Bobby Green, 52, the second-oldest brother and currently a postal employee in Harrisburg. "He told Mom he thought he might have broken his arm, but she laughed because he acted fine. Later my brother Billy drove him to the hospital and got a cast put on it. Midge—that's what we called Dennis because he was the youngest—learned to write lefthanded. He still can."
Penrose died of a ruptured appendix in 1960, and two years later Anna died of cancer. Billy and the middle brother, Stanley, were out on their own by this time, so Bobby took early leave from the Air Force and, at 22, returned to Harrisburg to be Mr. Dad for his two teenage brothers, Dennis and Greg. "People won't believe this," says Bobby, "but I never had any problem with those boys. I told them to be in on time, do their homework, wash the dishes. It was rough, especially after I got married and had my first daughter, in '64, and a son in '65, but they helped out with the kids.
"My dad always said, 'Your brothers are your best friends,' and I guess we all believed that. But Midge was always so mature. I'd go to parent-teacher conferences, and the teachers only had good things to say about him. He probably could have been anything he wanted."
The old working-class neighborhood on the hill above the Capitol has changed; the sense of community, tidiness and safety that ruled the narrow streets and helped form the Green boys has been replaced by the blight of urban chaos and neglect. The Green family's dwelling has been bulldozed into oblivion, replaced by a vacant, garbage-strewn lot.
As a senior at John Harris High, Dennis was an all-state running back and class president. After Dennis left for Iowa, his high school coach, George Chaump, summed up Green's football skills for the Harrisburg Evening News: "Denny is not the fastest back, but he has quickness and a great natural running style." He started two years at tailback and one at wingback for the Hawkeyes, impressing his coaches and teammates alike with his tenacity and work ethic. "He was a go-getter, just like now," says Richard Solomon, who played at Iowa with Green and is now the Vikings' outside-linebacker coach. "He always had a plan, and he always worked the plan."
"Denny didn't have great speed," says Kerry Reardon, an Iowa flanker at the time. "But he fought for every yard. He was a very serious person who didn't mess around."
Green's years at Iowa were turbulent, politically volatile times on American campuses, and in the spring of 1969, 16 of the 20 black football players boycotted practice to demand additional financial aid and make a statement in support of the black-power movement. It was not like Green to throw his hand in with protesters, but he believed in the cause, and he knew it was just another part of the opportunity he had seized. "We felt the school wasn't ready for us," he says now. "But it was also the times. Black guys wanted to prove their manhood, their boldness, to stand up and be counted. I learned then how things can get lost in the wash, how there's always a misunderstanding behind problems like that. Some of the guys did not come back to the team."