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Wearing a jean jacket with "damage" on the back and a black cap with a huge X stitched into the front, Eric Green, the mountainous tight end of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was an imposing figure seated across the table in a sandwich shop on Pittsburgh's North Side. The day before, Green had refused to take off the cap for a photographer who wanted to see his face more clearly. Instead, Green wanted to make sure that kids who might see the picture would think, Here's a football player who is proud of being African-American, proud of what Malcolm X did for his race.
As you can see, Green, a 24-year-old second-year pro, has a lot more on his mind than just football. Sure, he says, "my goal in football is to catch more balls than any other tight end in history." But he also says, "I'd like to become one of the most influential black people who ever walked the planet. I want to be seen as a person who reached out and helped people, like Sam."
Sam is Sam Rutigliano, and his name creeps into any lengthy conversation with Green. Rutigliano, who was fired as coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1984, found new life in coaching a week before Christmas 1988 when he was hired by Liberty University, a Baptist school in Lynchburg, Va., with a Division I-AA football program. One of the players Rutigliano inherited was Green, an unhappy tight end who had made a total of 37 catches in his first three college seasons. "You could have summed up my football career in one word," says Green. "Frustration."
"When I got there, Eric had a reputation for dogging it a little," says Rutigliano, now in his third season at Liberty. "But the first time I saw him on the football field, I thought, At this level, this guy will be illegal. He was the Mike Ditka-type of tough, move-the-chains tight end. But he was also the Bill Walsh, finesse-type receiving tight end. If you had an Erector set and somebody said, 'Make me a tight end,' this is who you'd make.
"And I knew, because of having coached in the NFL and because of having coached [the Browns' three-time All-Pro tight end] Ozzie Newsome, there'd be a weight attached to my words with the pro scouts. So I just told Eric, 'You can't imagine what's ahead of you. You can't. I've been there, and I know you can get there. But you've got to listen to me.' "
Rutigliano, time tells us, knew what he was talking about. But when the fates brought together Green, an underachieving kid from the poor side of Savannah, and Rutigliano, an enthusiastic, look-on-the-bright-side, lifelong coach from Brooklyn, who could have known that less than two years later Green would become a high-impact NFL tight end and the pivotal player on a playoff contender? "It's kind of mind-boggling," Green says. "No one knows where I'd be if Sam hadn't come to Liberty."
When poor grades cost him his senior season of eligibility at Windsor Forest High in 1984, Green, then a 6'4", 213-pound unheralded tight end, figured he would concentrate on his studies, graduate and then join the Air Force. However, Ken Cannon, the coach at another high school in Savannah, persuaded coaches from Clemson and Liberty to put Green through a workout, and each school wound up offering him a scholarship. Green's mother, Genene Jackson, wanted him to get a Christian education, so he enrolled at Liberty.
Green played backup tight end as a freshman in 1985 but was suspended from school the next year for drinking beer. When he returned, in the fall of '87, he spent much of the next two years buried in coach Morgan Hout's offense, in which the tight end wasn't a featured player. By the end of his junior season, Green, who also had a bit of a reputation for not working hard in practice, was at a football dead end.
At about the same time, Rutigliano found himself in a similar situation. After 31 years of coaching football on the high school, college and pro levels, Rutigliano, then 56, had seen his link to the sport reduced to analyzing NFL games for NBC and ESPN. However, without the round-the-clock demands of coaching, he could devote more time to a burgeoning second career, motivational speaking, which he had taken up following a family tragedy 26 years earlier.
In 1962, five years before Green was born, events began to happen in Rutigliano's life that would change Green's world forever. As day was breaking on a warm summer morning, Sam, then a high school coach in Greenwich, Conn., was driving to a summer job at a camp in Maine with his wife, Barbara, and their four-year-old daughter, Nancy. Sam fell asleep at the wheel of his car, and it ran off the road. Nancy was thrown from the automobile, became pinned underneath a rear wheel and died instantly.