Back then, a big time for Green consisted of rolling a tire down the street with a stick during the day and sitting on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi at night. He used to spend a lot of time under the bridge that leads to Vidalia, fishing for perch and catfish, but even that was not exactly a thrill-a-minute activity. "I never caught much," says Green. "I'd just beat at the water with my pole." When he was 13, Hugh ran away from home. He slept overnight on a parked bus in Natchez. The next morning a policeman spotted him sitting in a tree overlooking the Mississippi, sulking. "How old are you?" the cop shouted up to the youngster. Said Green, "Thirty-five." That witticism got him thrown into jail. A kindly judge later said to Hugh, who was obviously well built even then, "You ever tried football? That would be better for you than running away." Green took his advice.
The first team Hugh played for was a junior high squad that went 0-4 in a curtailed season. In high school Green thought so many players at North Natchez were better than he that he quit football. But the empty afternoons got to him, and so did Eltee Berry's philosophy. So Green tried again. Since then, he has never considered quitting. "I couldn't do that," he says. "That would be like finding out the king was gay."
Coach Tom Williams of North Natchez says, "A Hugh Green comes along about once every 20 years. We were hard on him, but we got the max out of him." In his senior year Green made 116 solo tackles and was in on 58 more. "The main thing we taught him," says Robert Smith, the school's defensive line coach, "is that playing defense is an honor." Which makes it an honor for everybody watching him except, perhaps, Aunt Lucy, who confesses, "I know he's good, real good, and I'm so proud of him. The only problem is I never have fancied football."
And recruiters traditionally have not fancied Natchez as a breeding ground for football talent. Thus, Green was lightly recruited. Mississippi State was the only major school to show serious interest, and Green signed a letter of intent. That was the winter of 1976. Pitt had hired Sherrill after Johnny Majors, then leading the Panthers to a national championship, announced he'd be leaving for Tennessee. Sherrill was raised on a chicken ranch in Biloxi and therefore pays particular attention to prospects from Mississippi. He had his eye on a tailback from Pascagoula named Rooster Jones, who had scored 52 touchdowns. While studying films of Jones, which included a game with North Natchez, Sherrill and his assistants kept noticing a Natchez kid who seemed to be playing in the Pascagoula backfield. It was Green, doing his thing. Ultimately, Jones, who also had signed with Mississippi State, defected to Pittsburgh and urged Green to check the school out.
"I went," says Green. "And after one day I called home and said, 'I hate it, it's ugly. Have you ever seen black snow?' Next day I called home and said, 'I love it, it's gorgeous. You should see this pretty snow.' " The turnabout was caused by the Pitt players, whom he liked ( Dorsett, by now a Dallas Cowboy rookie, phoned Green and said, "They really do want you. You must be real good"), and Sherrill, whom he believed. Sherrill told Green, "I'm not going to pay you to go to Pitt. And I'm not going to say you'll start or even play. But if you're good, you'll get more publicity here in one year than you will at any other school in four."
As it was, Mississippi State had pretty much ignored Green after getting his signature on a letter of intent, and Hugh, a gentle but emotional person off the field, doesn't deny he was flattered by the attention from the North. "I hate to admit it," he says, "but I think I went to Pitt because I wanted to get on national TV and say, 'Hi, Mom.' " He has. He has also given his howdies to many an opposing quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and offensive tackle who has strayed into his path, which is somewhat wider than a church door. Runners find Green's long arms (his reach is 36") arresting, and his tackles punishing, although at 6'?" and 222 pounds he is not of epic size. ("I know I'm 6'2"," Green contends. "I've always been 6'2". But the pro scouts measured me different. Why would they want to make me shorter?")
Although Sherrill and others deny it, the truth is that Green was a come-along with Jones, who has turned out to be a good but not lights-out kind of player at Pitt. Says Rooster now, "Hugh has hit me a lot but never the way he wants to. And I wouldn't want him to. Man, if he has a weakness, it's only in his dreams, because when he gets on the field, he's all real."
The Pitt coaches began to suspect they had something special when, the summer before he reported, Green asked to look at films. "The great ones, like Dorsett and Green, are all alike," says Sherrill. "They sit in the front row at team meetings, look you in the eye and ask you questions."
But Sherrill normally doesn't start freshmen. So in Green's first game, against Notre Dame, Hugh was forced to watch from the bench—until the second play. Green was first string for the rest of the season and went on to be a second-team All America. The only time Green is benched now is in Pitt's practice sessions. "I guess this is unfair to Hugh," says Fazio, "but there's no need to embarrass our own players."
"You don't teach a player to do what Green does," says Goldston. "It's God-given." Sherrill agrees, saying, "We, as coaches, always take a lot of the credit. But the fact is, we learn an awful lot more from Hugh Green than he learns from us. What we learn from him we try to teach to others." Zingler is in awe of Green. On first meeting him, Zingler said, "Hugh, I hope I can contribute in some small way to your becoming a better football player." Said Green, "Coach, you can. I can get better every day." Nobody questions Hugh's want-to. Says Zingler, "When he puts his game face on, you know he's going to go as good as he can. He senses he has a great obligation to himself. And he never leaves anything for tomorrow."