Kurt Warner’s first big chance in the NFL came at Trent Green’s expense.
It’s almost surreal to think that Green, who was born in Cedar Rapids, completed 28 of 32 passes in the 1999 preseason before then-Chargers safety Rodney Harrison shredded his planting leg. Green lost his job, and Warner became the NFL’s ultimate rags-to-riches star.
Green rebounded to play six mostly stellar seasons in Kansas City. He’s thrown for 28,475 yards and 162 touchdowns in 11 seasons. Warner’s stats are almost identical. He’s thrown for 28,591 yards and 182 touchdowns over 11 seasons.
Back in 2004, when I covered the Chiefs for the St. Joseph News-Press, I wrote this epic about Green and his life story, which is nearly as compelling as Warner’s tale. Usually in sports, not everything is roses and ice cream for everybody.
KANSAS CITY — Trent Green doesn’t blame Rodney Harrison for the wicked hit that ended his dream season.
He still grimaces about the disappointment and the six long years of rehabilitation that continues to this very day. But there is no blame.
Green, the Chiefs quarterback, just looks at his scar on his left knee as a badge of toughness. Courage. Mental focus. The scar hides the repaired anterior cruciate ligament, medial cruciate ligament and lateral meniscus, and tells a story of perseverance and character. It keeps the 34-year-old meticulously moving forward. Without regret.
The first chapter of Green’s story ends on the carpet of St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome. That’s also where the second chapter, the one he continues to write, begins.
On that rug in his hometown, Green started his third preseason game for the St. Louis Rams. His exhibition numbers were staggering 28 completions in 32 attempts. Against San Diego, Green had thrown a pass with his left leg planted in the rigid artificial turf. Harrison, then a Chargers safety, fell to the ground after a block from Rams running back Marshall Faulk. Harrison climbed from the carpet and drove into Green’s left leg. Harrison destroyed normal structure of Green’s knee and shattered a season that ended with triumph for his team.
But not for him.
He owns the Super Bowl ring earned by the 1999 St. Louis Rams, but he doesn’t wear it. It wasn’t the team he took to the Super Bowl it was the same team he supported as a good teammate.
“It took me six years to get to that point,” Green said. “I finally felt like I had a team of my own, and I proved to myself that I could play in this league. And then to sit back and watch somebody do the things I had aspired to do, and do the things I had hoped to do, it just gave me that much more motivation “
He rehabilitates his knee on off days and after practices. He stretches it and proudly proclaims it’s better now than at any other time since his fourth surgery.
Harrison, now a starting safety with the world champion New England Patriots, has a reputation as one of the NFL’s toughest and, sometimes, dirtiest players. He also continues to torment Green.
In a Monday night game on Nov. 22, Harrison stepped in front of tight end Tony Gonzalez and intercepted a Green pass in the end zone. Two years earlier, officials slapped Harrison with a personal foul penalty for a helmet-to-chin hit against Green that indirectly led to a Chiefs win. Even Green admits that Harrison straddles the border of tough play and dirty play.
“I know everybody wants me to say bad stuff about him,” Green says, “but the only thing I can say is (that) I wish it hadn’t happened. It changed the direction of my life and my career. It changed the direction of Kurt (Warner’s) career. It potentially changed the direction of the team and what happened that season and the people involved.
“The bad that came out it, in terms of a player and a person, I’ve probably taken more good out of it.”
Ironically, a San Diego representative tried to end Green’s career twice. The Chargers drafted Green in the eighth round which no longer exists in 1993. He sat for one season as the Chargers’ third-team quarterback and was subsequently released after the season.
“When I was first cut in San Diego, that is the first time somebody had told me that I was not good enough to play at any level,” Green said. “Being cut for the first time and saying, Hey, you can’t get it done,’ that hurts, and that took a long time to get over.”
He signed with the Canadian Football League’s British Columbia Lions in 1994. Green dressed for just two games before he was released again.
Another shot, perhaps his last shot, remained. He knew if it didn’t work out, maybe a career shift was in order. He always liked the thought of coaching, anyway.
He met with Washington coach Norv Turner in early 1995. After setting just about every passing record imaginable at the Indiana University, Green just wanted a chance to show what he could do.
After all, he did it before.
“There was a little indoor soccer field that was near the Redskins practice facility, because they didn’t have an indoor facility,” Green said. “We went over to this barn in the middle of February, had a little workout there and right then and there, they offered me a contract.”
Turner was Dallas’ offensive coordinator and helped the Cowboys win the Super Bowl in 1992 and 1993. He liked Green and planned to draft him, but San Diego selected him first.
“When I went to Washington,” Turner said, “we were looking for a young guy to come in and give him a chance. Trent came in and I’ll tell you this: for that period of time until he got the chance to play, he was the hardest-working guy on our team.”
Unfortunately for Green, he was stuck behind two younger quarterbacks Heath Shuler and Gus Frerotte, and both had more experience. Shuler was the franchise’s top draft pick in 1994 and his development was the Redskins’ top priority.
Green didn’t play for even one snap during his first two seasons in Washington. In 1997, he attempted one incomplete pass in the season finale.
But everything changed in 1998. By then, Shuler was out of the league and Turner’s faith in Frerotte who’s known primarily for injuring his neck by head-butting a wall after scoring a touchdown in 1997 waned. Green’s preseason passes were sharp and accurate. Other coaches watched him in scrimmages and the preseason and wondered who he was and where did he come from.
“I remembered when we scrimmaged Pittsburgh and Bill Cowher said, Who’s that No. 10? He’s awfully good-looking,'” Turner remembered. “I said, He might be our best guy; we just need to play him.’ That was the year we ended up playing him, and he did awfully well for us.”
By the second game of 1998, Turner inserted Green, and the quarterback became a bonafide NFL starter. He completed 54 percent of his passes for 3,441 yards and 23 touchdowns. He suddenly was a hit on the Beltway.
But stalwart Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke died shortly before Green’s success, and the team was up for sale. Prospective owners failed to assure Green that Turner or Redskins general manager Charley Casserly would stay in their positions, and Green shopped around.
“There was no direction, and it was very frustrating for me because with my ties with Norv. I really wanted to stay,” Green said. “I enjoyed my four years there, and I enjoyed playing for him.”
Contributing to the situation was the departure of Green’s quarterback coach, Mike Martz, who had just accepted the offensive coordinator position with the St. Louis Rams.
“We could never really get anything in concrete before free agency started, and then with Mike going to St. Louis, and it just all kind of unfolded that way,” Green said.
The St. Louis Rams signed Green in a last-ditch effort to save then-coach Dick Vermeil’s career, as well as shed the label as the NFL’s worst team of the 1990s. The Rams moved from Los Angeles after the 1994 season and entered the 1999 season tied with Cincinnati for the worst record in the decade. After two seasons, Vermeil’s approach seemed to wear thin with players.
Green seemed a natural fit in St. Louis. As a product of nearby Kirkwood, Mo., Green brought consistency to an offense that was just starting to take off.
Before the draft, the Rams traded for underachieving, yet talented, running back Marshall Faulk to couple with top-notch receiver Isaac Bruce. They drafted future Pro Bowl receiver Torry Holt. The result was mesmerizing that preseason.
Green completed almost 88 percent of his passes for 406 yards and posted an extraordinary passing rating of 126.8. But after suffering his massive knee injury, Green’s life changed forever.
He anguished through four surgeries to repair the knee. He watched his backup, former stock boy Kurt Warner, become possibly the greatest success story in NFL history. Warner’s path paralleled Green’s in many ways: Warner moved from Division I-AA football to Arena Football to grocery stores to NFL Europe to career backup to chance starter.
Warner completed 65 percent of his passes for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns that season to lead the Rams to a Super Bowl title. He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and his story captivated the nation.
Green, conversely, watched the scene in disbelief. He could have led the Rams to the same success. His first real shot was over before it started.
Some compared his situation to 1920s New York Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp sitting out a game, which allowed Lou Gehrig a shot to play. Gehrig then played in 2,130 consecutive games.
“To tell you the truth, that was a lot of motivation to get back and to play,” Green said. “After hearing the Wally Pipp story 100 times, I didn’t want that to be my final story.
“I didn’t want to be that Sports Illustrated Where Are They Now’ kind of thing.”
Green went through excruciating rehabilitation just to walk again. He reflected on his career. He thought about Coach Vermeil, his wife, Julie, and others who helped him reach his status as NFL quarterback. It was hard. But he accepted it.
“As much as I’d like to sit here and say how bad it was and how negative it was,” he says, “I probably took more positive out of it than anything, and it’s probably made me a better person and player.
“Don’t get me wrong I wish it never happened.”
Green played in eight games and started five for the Rams in 2000. Warner suffered a broken hand in a 54-34 loss to Kansas City that season, and Green capably handled the offense. He completed more than 60 percent of his passes for 2,063 yards and 16 touchdowns. More importantly for himself, he just got back out on the field.
“It was very rewarding for me my first start with the Rams in 2000 against the 49ers,” he said. “Because of all that hard work and everything I’d gone through, in terms of the surgeries and the rehab that paid off.”
However, with Warner still the media darling in St. Louis and one year removed from the MVP, Green understood his chance wouldn’t come in St. Louis. Rams officials knew it, too, and started shopping him around.
The Miami Dolphins were one of the first teams to pass on Green. Despite a below-average passing attack, then-coach Dave Wannstedt chose to stick with starter Jay Fielder.
“We could go out in that parking lot and have Jay Fiedler and Trent Green throw side by side, and you couldn’t tell the difference,” Wannstedt said at the time.
But Vermeil, who retired after the Super Bowl, re-entered coaching, this time with the Kansas City Chiefs. In an odd shake-up, Pro Bowl quarterback Elvis Grbac, who threw for more than 4,000 yards in the 2000 season, opted for free agency and left Kansas City.
The Chiefs looked for a quarterback, and Vermeil and Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders (who was the associated head coach in St. Louis) wanted to install a similar scheme to the Rams’ the match was perfect.
Green left St. Louis for Kansas City, but at a stiff price. The Chiefs traded their No. 1 pick to St. Louis for Green and a fifth-rounder.
Chiefs President Carl Peterson wore a Chiefs tie as he walked into the press conference announcing Green’s arrival. He heaved added expectations upon Green that first day.
“It’s right up there with the Joe Montana trade,” Peterson quipped.
Saunders also glowed after the trade.
“I’ve been around two great quarterbacks in my career Joe Montana and Dan Fouts,” he said of the two Hall of Famers. “And I really, truly believe Trent Green has the qualities of those people. Great courage, great ability.”
Green hobbled into the press conference with his wife and smiling young son, T.J., in tow. He was six weeks removed from another knee surgery and wouldn’t be able to practice until the 2001 training camp.
“We have plenty of time,” Vermeil said at the time. “He’s got a lot of years left in his career. If it’s the middle of training camp, if it’s before training camp, if it’s the third league game, sooner or later, he will be our starting quarterback and play very well.”
Green’s start in Kansas City was less pomp and more pop. He struggled with an offensive attack that tried to stretch the field with receivers that didn’t fit the big-play profile. Green shouldered much of the blame and pressed, admittedly, too hard at times to make big plays.
“We were really trying to get everyone on the same page in terms of the program,” Green said. “Guys were just learning about Coach Vermeil and what he was all about, what his program was all about. Guys were trying to figure out the offense, the terminology. We were trying to figure it out from a personnel standpoint because from a personnel standpoint, it was set up to run more like a West Coach offense, and this isn’t a West Coast offense.”
Guard Brian Waters said everyone was uncomfortable with the situation.
“A lot of people were kind of skeptical because (Green) really hadn’t played that much since he’d been injured,” Waters said.
In his first start as a Chief against today’s opponent, coincidentally, the Raiders Green was erratic, completing 16 of 37 passes for 222 yards. But he connected with rookie Marvin Minnis for a 30-yard touchdown pass to tie the score late in the game. But like so many games in his tenure, the Chiefs defense failed to hold and the Raiders won on a last-second field goal, 27-24.
Green started every game that season and threw for 3,783 yards. But he was intercepted 24 times and threw only 17 touchdown passes. His efficiency rating was near the NFL’s worst at 71.1.
“He took a lot of pressure,” Waters said. “It was hard on him because he was really the only person on offense. Everybody else was learning, and he was trying to teach everybody.”
Turning it around
It all clicked.
For all the sputtering and lack of production that encapsulated the 2001 campaign, the Chiefs offense became a machine in 2002. Forty points in a season-opening win. A 41-38 overtime loss to the world champion Patriots. Three more games of more than 48 points, including a beating of Wannstedt’s Dolphins and Green’s former Rams.
Overnight, it seemed, Green led the NFL’s most potent offense.
Still, the accolades didn’t come. He finished with 3,690 yards, 26 touchdowns a 92.6 passer efficiency rating. But a Pro Bowl berth wasn’t in the offering.
Green did earn respect from his peers and former coaches, as well as those who surrounded him. He became the leader Vermeil expected, and the team rallied behind.
In 2003, the offense continued its torrid pace. Green threw for 4,039 yards and 24 touchdowns as the Chiefs zoomed to a 13-3 record. He combined with running back Priest Holmes, who set the NFL’s single-season touchdown record of 27, to produce one of the best seasons in team history.
One moment that stood out for Green and Vermeil was the naming of the Pro Bowl roster. With ESPN’s cameras in tow, Vermeil screamed and embraced Green’s name for selection to the game.
“I’m excited about all of the (Pro Bowlers), but if there’s a special air of excitement within me emotionally, it’s to see Trent Green do it,” Vermeil said. “When you go through what he has gone through and to end up being selected with the competition there is in the National Football League in the AFC for quarterback, it’s a real honor.”
This season, Green again has put up numbers comparable with the league’s best. He ranks third in the NFL in passing yards with 3,860 and has put up a career-best 66.4 completion percentage.
He’s led the Chiefs to the NFL’s highest scoring output the last three years. The team led the NFL in scoring last year at 30 points a game. This year, ranked second, the Chiefs average 31.
Green has 21 games with a passer rating higher than 100. He has 11 fourth-quarter comebacks. He’s sixth all-time in passer efficiency rating.
Yet, on Wednesday, he was named a alternate for this year’s Pro Bowl. “I have never been a real big attention-grabbing guy, trying to get to a lot of attention drawn to myself,” Green said. “I am not super-flashy or anything like that.
“I am who I am. If that draws attention, then great and that is what made it so rewarding last year to go to the Pro Bowl.”
Despite his numbers, Green’s still a bit of an NFL anomaly. In press conferences, he is at times aloof; other times playful. His build is average at 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds. He displays a rugged charm with a dark complexion and a slight silver hair tone. He puts people at ease with a wiry, easy smile but simultaneously almost appears distrustful.
He generally keeps to himself and his family, which consists of his wife, Julie, and two sons T.J. and Derek. He’s popular with his teammates but not really a vocal leader.
He might be the NFL’s best unknown marketing quantity.
In another market, Vermeil says, Green would reach celebrity status.
“Media has an impact on it, promotion, everything has an impact on it,” Vermeil said. “No question about it. It’s almost a secret that he’s the only quarterback in the National Football League that’s been over a 90 efficiency rating three years in a row. If he’s in Chicago, he might be doing commercials for a shaving cream because that’s what he’s done. It’s just a different part of the country. Maybe it’s better this way.”
Entering his situation in Kansas City, Green says, the biggest fear was injury. He’s alleviated those concerns with a team record 62 consecutive regular-season starts.
He’s also too young to talk about retirement. Although Green’s six months younger than Brett Favre, who’s perpetually dishing clues that retirement is close Green’s never considered retirement.
He enjoys playing too much.
“There’s two different ways to look at it. I wish I had played much sooner than I did, but I had the benefit of learning,” Green said. “I am about 140 starts behind Brett. In terms of wear and tear, his body is in much different shape.”
Turner, who coaches against Green today, said Green just needed an opportunity.
“His is a great story because it wasn’t easy,” Turner said. “He played for us and played awfully well that year and ends up going to St. Louis and gets hurt you know the story. It’s a great story.”