Green pays premium, Ravens get reward Hard work shapes tight end's future

September 13, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

With each crunching block, with each pass reception, with each display of athleticism so rare for a man so big, Ravens tight end Eric Green creeps closer to the player he used to be.

The Ravens will gladly accept a reasonable facsimile of the player who threatened to terrorize the NFL for years when he broke into the league with Pittsburgh in 1990.

Consider that, as a first-round draft pick out of Liberty, Green made five of his first seven NFL catches count for touchdowns. Three seasons later, he played in the first of back-to-back Pro Bowls. He appeared destined to become the league's dominant tight end.

But, even at 6 feet 5, 285 pounds, Green could not bowl over the problems that came his way. Contract problems proved to be his undoing after the 1994 season in Pittsburgh. A knee injury clouded an otherwise productive year with the Miami Dolphins in 1995, during which he missed 39 practices. After Jimmy Johnson was hired, he criticized Green's work ethic and sent him back into the free-agent pool.

Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda and vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome, who knows a thing or two about playing tight end, saw Green as a talent too tantalizing to bypass in September of 1996.

"In terms of size, speed and athletic ability, Eric makes you go 'Whoa,' " Newsome said. "We tell our scouts not to go looking for Eric Green, because they're not going to find another Eric Green."

Green spent most of last season frustrated in Baltimore, where his knee ailment constantly flared up and his weight crept closer to 300 pounds. He caught only 15 passes for 150 yards over seven games, before missing the final three weeks. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery again in January, and, in the busiest off-season of his career, rehabilitated the knee for five days a week.

The new and improved Green has flashed glimpses of his old, intimidating self through the season's first two weeks. His zTC 18-yard touchdown grab in last week's 23-10 victory over Cincinnati did more than put the Bengals away. It reaffirmed another step in Green's journey back to the top of his game.

"I think that [TD] is the first of many this year," said Green, who signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract for barely above the league minimum salary of $275,000 two months ago.

Green cited Marchibroda's tight end-friendly offense and the Ravens' commitment to him as prime reasons to spurn other NFL offers last spring.

"It was a no-brainer for me to stay here," said Green, 30. "Ted has done right by me. He's been very patient with me and my knee, and I feel I owe him. I feel loyal to this team because they worked so hard with me during the off-season. It shows me this team has a vision of great things in the future, and that's something I want to be a part of."

As a teen-ager, Green did not even envision a pro football career. He grew up in the projects of Savannah, Ga., an only child raised exclusively by his mother, a nurse.

"We were one step above poor," he recalled.

Green's athletic skills were obvious on the football field and basketball court at Beach High School, but he gave up sports as a senior to help pay the bills. He spent that year flipping fast-food hamburgers, bringing home about $90 a week.

Clemson and Liberty, a Division I-AA Baptist school, were the only colleges to express any interest in Green, then a 213-pounder. Green didn't bother to show up for a Clemson workout. Liberty took him.

"I didn't actually grow to love football until I was in college, and Liberty was a tough school, especially for a kid from the inner city," Green said. "You're not even allowed to drink beer there, and I did enjoy an occasional beer."

That transgression nearly got Green kicked out of Liberty. He eventually earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and finance. He also dazzled on the football field as a senior, ranking 16th in the nation in receptions (62), while scoring 16 touchdowns. In the next NFL draft, the formerly anonymous Green was selected as the 21st player overall by Pittsburgh.

"What a blessed day that was," said Green, who used his signing bonus to build a dream house for his mother in the Savannah suburbs.

And what a blessed sight Green has been early this season to the Ravens. In the open field, he is a frightening force running with the ball. On the line, he is another blocking plow who fits in smoothly with the host of 300-pounders. Marchibroda has begun to refer to the right side of guard Jeff Blackshear, Orlando Brown and Green as "the color line."

Said Orlando Brown: "Except for having good hands and speed, Eric is really just one of us."

"He's a big body who basically can just take out a linebacker by leaning on him, and he's a big target who knows how to get open," quarterback Vinny Testaverde said. "He's the mold for a tight end."

Despite his setbacks, only Keith Jackson (40), Ben Coates (35) and Shannon Sharpe (31) have more TD receptions by a tight end over the past seven seasons than Green (29). His knee is sound, his weight is under control, his body appears ready for him to make another run at greatness.

"I'm fired up going into every game," Green said. "I want to show everybody in this league that I'm back."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: New York Giants

Site: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

When: 1 p.m. tomorrow

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Giants by 3

Pub Date: 9/13/97

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