- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
At the University of Wisconsin they're called lumberjacks—big, reticent, unheralded kids who come down from the North Woods in flannel shirts and boots and go wild on the football field. David Greenwood, the Michigan Panthers' All-USFL strong safety and transcendent athlete, was a lumberjack when he arrived in Madison as a freshman in 1979.
Born and raised in Park Falls, Wis. (pop. 3,246), which lies 60 miles south of Lake Superior at the western edge of the Chequamegon National Forest, Greenwood himself didn't know how good an athlete he was. He had won the state scholastic high jump championship four years in a row, and in his senior year he'd also won the long jump and high hurdles titles. His basketball team had gone to the state finals twice, and as a senior he had batted .508 as a pitcher, catcher and third baseman on the Park Falls High baseball team. All in all, he had won 12 varsity letters. But Park Falls was a Class B school competing for Class B honors. And its football team was terrible.
"When I went to Wisconsin I wasn't looking too far into the future," says Greenwood. "I certainly wasn't thinking about the pros. There were a lot of things I didn't know about. I mean, I'd never even seen a black person until my basketball team went to the state tourney."
Not too many blacks had seen a white person like Greenwood, either. While on his recruiting trip to Madison, Greenwood joined a group of black varsity football players who were dunking basketballs in the campus gym. At 6'3" and 190 pounds, he seemed too short, muscular and pale to keep the pace. But when the players started getting "tricky," Greenwood let loose. He showed them his standing two-handed dunk, his behind-the-head dunk, his two-balls-at-once dunk. He didn't tell them he had once hit the backboard with his face while warming up for a high school game.
"Afterward they said, 'Hey, white guy, you must be half black,' " says Greenwood. "I was good friends with the black players from then on."
Greenwood started at safety for the Badgers for four years, leading the team in interceptions three times and earning All-Big Ten honors twice. He also punted for three seasons, setting a Wisconsin record for most career punts (185) while averaging 37.8 yards per kick. In track he high-jumped 7'2" and won the Big Ten outdoor title as a junior. He also set the school record in the decathlon (6,893 points) in a brief, and reckless, career as a decathlete. Head football coach Dave McClain called him "the best pure athlete we've ever had." The late Dan McClimon, his track coach, called him "a leftover lumberjack from prehistoric days."
When the Panthers made Greenwood their first pick in the first round of the inaugural USFL draft last year, a reporter asked coach Jim Stanley why the team had chosen a defensive back rather than an offensive player. "We figure he can save more games than anybody would win," said Stanley.
What he had correctly divined was that the entire USFL would be weak in the secondary and that a great safety could make a big difference. "I think a bona fide defensive back is the hardest thing there is to draft," says Stanley. "And I think Greenwood is the best safety in the league. If you count the NFL, he's right up there with them—if he's not the best."
Certainly Greenwood was a force in Michigan's drive to last year's USFL championship. In a critical June game against Washington he recovered a fumble, deflected four passes and blocked a field-goal attempt to help preserve a 27-25 Panther win. In the playoff and championship games he had 10 tackles, two assists, two deflections and an interception.
"He's as big and tough as a linebacker, which makes his blitzes effective because he can go right through a blocker," says Stanley. "And because of the way he can jump, you don't fret as much when the ball's in the air because he's got a chance to get it." Against Arizona this season, Greenwood leaped high above the Wranglers' All-USFL wide receiver, Trumaine Johnson, to make a last-minute interception in the end zone and lock up a 31-26 Michigan victory.