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Phillip's blog: An Auburn tradition

The scout team halfback had some speed, some quickness and fierce determination, but not many of Auburn’s coaches paid much attention in the fall of 1980. He’d walked on late, after the season had started, and Doug Barfield and his staff were fighting for their jobs.

Senior Editor Phillip Marshall

After a few weeks, the scout team halfback decided the timing just wasn’t right. He’d been late reporting because he’d joined the National Guard, spending three months in basic training and attending the military police academy. He’d started off behind. He told his coaches he was going to concentrate on his education.

It was almost 20 years later that the scout team half back stood up to make an emotional statement. He would retire from football. Kevin Greene wasn’t a scout team halfback anymore. He was the consummate outside linebacker. He had finished his 15-year NFL career with more sacks than anyone who ever played the position. He played in the Pro Bowl five times and in the Super Bowl with the Steelers. Today, he is a linebackers coach for the Green Bay Packers. He is a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and surely bound for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The prospect of anything like that would have been laughable in the fall of 1980. But almost three years later, a conversation with assistant strength coach Paul White and defensive ends coach Joe Whitt changed everything. White told Whitt he’d seen a young man at the gym that wanted to play football and looked like he could. Whitt told White to tell him to come see him.

By that time, Greene had moved from the National Guard to the Army Reserve and was already a second lieutenant. Greene walked into Whitt’s office and introduced himself. “Hey, Coach, I’m Kevin Greene and I’m your starting outside linebacker,” Greene told Whitt.

Whitt didn’t know whether to be amused or excited.

“He looked the part, but I thought ‘This guy is out of his mind,’” Whitt said later. “More times than not, a guy will fall on his face. He didn’t. You could tell the first day of spring practice he was different. He didn’t know anything about what he was doing, but he was tough and he was a banger. From there, the rest is history.”

In the years since Greene had walked away in 1980, he’d grown from 202 pounds to 232. He’d gotten stronger and had lost none of his speed and quickness.

In the 1983 season, Greene played behind Quency Williams and Gerald Robinson on an SEC championship team. Midway through his senior season in 1984, he became a starter. He led the team in sacks with 10 1.3 and won the Zeke Smith Award as Auburn’s Defensive Player of the Year. The Los Angeles Rams drafted him with the first pick of the fifth round.

Greene played for the Rams, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers. His flowing blonde mane and ferocious intensity made him a star and a crowd figure. He had double-figure sacks in 10 of his 15 seasons.

“You know what? I wanted it,” Greene said. “I wanted it more than other people. I’ve always said I would go to war with a walk-on more than a scholarship player. A walk-on has to scrap for everything. I’ve seen more drive, desire passion and determination in walk-ons’ eyes and heart than anyone else.

“The philosophy I live by is that, if you have the fire in your heart, it will compensate for any lack of ability. Coach Whitt worked really hard with me. I think he saw the fire in my eyes and the passion in my heart.”

Over the decades, dozens of Auburn walk-ons have showed that fire and passion. Six walk-ons – fullback Chris Humphries, tailback Davis Hooper, safety Ikeem Means, center Blake Burgess, linebacker Ashton Richardson and kicker Chandler Brooks – could play important roles when Auburn takes the field in the coming season to defend its national championship. There could be others.

They will carry on an Auburn tradition.

Bill Newton will be forever remembered for his two blocked in Auburn’s 17-16 victory over Alabama in 1972, but he was also an All-SEC linebacker.

Defensive end Willie Whitehead walked on, lettered for four years (1991-94) and played eight seasons in the NFL.

Linebacker Bobby Strickland walked on, lettered three seasons and made All-SEC in 1970.

Center Jeremy Ingle walked on and was the hard-nosed starting center for the unbeaten 2004 team.

Lewis Colbert, an All-American in 1985, leads a long line of walk-on punters and kickers.

Linebacker Alex Lincoln transferred from Division III Mississippi College and became the mainstay of Auburn’s defense in 1999 and 2000. Jason Miska and Danny Skutack walked on and became linebackers who were among the SEC’s best.

The list could go on and on. There’s no way to know who will be the next Auburn walk-on to make good. But it will happen. It always does.

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