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Indeed, Green, only five games into his second NFL season, has become the player Pittsburgh can least afford to lose. As he goes, so go the Steelers' perennially tenuous playoff hopes. After their 21-3 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night, the Steelers were 3-2 and Green was leading the team with 20 receptions for a 16.2-yard average per catch and three touchdowns.
"There are teams very close to being a fine team that have one guy they can't do without," says former Philadelphia Eagle coach Dick Vermeil. "I know how important one guy can be. I've sat in coaches' meetings and thought, Boy, if we lose this one guy, we're really in trouble."
Brister has shown that he can't find the deep receiver with any consistency, and the Steeler ground attack has only recently solidified in the hands of another second-year man, Barry Foster, who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season. Thus, Pittsburgh has a critical need for an intermediate offensive weapon, and that's where Green comes in. Sure, in Rod Woodson the Steelers have a premier coverage cornerback keying a defense that ranked first in the league last year, as well as a superb return man. But an opposing offensive coordinator can steer his attack away from Woodson's corner, and a kicker can boot the ball away from Woodson. An opponent cannot easily make plans to stop Green, because he sets up in so many positions and goes in motion on so many plays (chart, page 73).
In addition to playing tight end, Green has been used at wide receiver, slotback, wingback and H-back. And he even lined up at running back against the Philadelphia Eagles. Wherever he sets up, Green, who now weighs close to 280, is a scary proposition for opposing defenses. "When I saw him this year, I did a double take," says San Diego cornerback Gill Byrd. "I said, 'This guy's huge. This can't be real.' The guy can run, he can catch, he's the total package. That's why everybody's so excited about him."
You can appreciate what an imposing figure Green is when he lines up next to Pittsburgh's right tackle, 6'3", 274-pound Tunch Ilkin, who is slightly smaller and not as broad below the waist. Against the New England Patriots last season, Green blocked nosetackle Tim Goad into Ilkin and Steeler guard Terry Long, knocking the three of them flying like a bowler making the 6-9-10 split. Until he partially tore a left knee ligament in a preseason game this year, Green ran a 4.7 40—very good speed for any tight end but terrific for a road-grading tight end like Green.
Walton chooses his words carefully when speaking about Green because he doesn't want to make a legend out of someone with 54 catches as a pro. Still, Green is Walton's dream come true—huge, strong, fast, smart, versatile and team-oriented. "He's a combination wide receiver-tight end-tackle," says Walton. "I played against Ron Kramer, Mike Ditka and John Mackey. I really thought Mackey and Ditka were the prototypical tight ends. Now, Green has the chance to be the perfect combination of those guys. But greatness is earned. I'm just glad he wants to be that good."
Now the question is: Will Green be that good this year, given his partially torn posterior cruciate ligament? The Steelers are trying to regenerate the ligament through electronic stimulation for 20 minutes a day, but Green won't be whole as long as he keeps pounding on it day after day on artificial turf. "It's just something I have to play through," he says.
He says it matter-of-factly, the way he speaks about most everything. Green is not cocky, just supremely and almost blandly confident. He says he got "ripped off" in last season's Pro Bowl balloting. Rodney Holman of the Cincinnati Bengals and Ferrell Edmunds of Miami represented the AFC at tight end. He says he's on a par with Eagle tight end Keith Jackson, the game's most acclaimed player at the position. "One day, I want younger players coming into the league to be compared to me," says Green.
Also, he wants the burden of carrying the Pittsburgh offense on his shoulders. "My first game last year as a starter, I knew the team was depending on me," he says. "Before the game, I said to Bubby, All you've got to do is throw it to me. I'll get it.' If somebody's going to depend on me—I don't care what a defense does to me—I'm going to rise to the occasion."
So, too, does he hope to meet his goal of helping more blacks get ahead in life. "I want to be a positive role model for kids," says Green. "Being a professional player gives me an avenue to be heard that other people might not have." He says he would like to buy inner-city real estate and develop housing for the benefit of underprivileged blacks.