Wiedmer: Mocs Nation lost true legend in John Green

Wiedmer: Mocs Nation lost true legend in John Green

April 29th, 2019 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

From left, Jerry Arnold, Don Hill, John Green, and Harold Wilkes, members of the University of Chattanooga football team that defeated the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1958, gather at Chamberlain Field on UTC's campus in 2008.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Mark Wiedmer

Mark Wiedmer

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. — Back in the early 1980s, when John Green Jr. was making a pretty fair name for himself on the Red Bank High School golf team, a local sports writer of that era walked up to Green's father at the close of a Lions match and said, "Didn't you used to be somebody famous?"

In the 113 seasons the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has fielded a football team, it would be hard to find anyone more famous in his time than John Edward Green Sr. And that doesn't include what the Little All-America quarterback later did in the pros, when he started zinging touchdowns for the Buffalo Bills, the New York Titans (now the N.Y. Jets) and the Toronto Argonauts.

A single bit of trivia to understand how good he was: When Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota became the youngest player in NFL history to throw four touchdown passes in the first half of his first regular-season game, he also became only the second first-year player to accomplish such a feat. The first was Green during his rookie year with the old American Football League's Buffalo Bills in 1960.

Not that Green — who died last Wednesday, April 24, at the too-young age of 81 after a long and courageous battle with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease — was much for talking about such exploits. As retired Episcopal priest Randy Dunnavant noted during a touching eulogy on Sunday at the Church of the Good Shepherd, "Someone else had to tell me he'd been a pro football player because he never talked about it."

But around the Scenic City, they'll always talk about the performance Green turned in against the University of Tennessee on Nov. 8, 1958.

That was the day the Scrappy Mocs — the school was still the University of Chattanooga back then — went into UT's Neyland Stadium and shocked the Volunteers 14-6 thanks in large part to Green not only engineering two touchdown drives, but also intercepting a pass as a defensive back and averaging 33 yards a punt.

How big was that victory beyond a single football win on a late autumn afternoon?

Said Scrappy Moore Jr. decades later of that victory overseen by his late father, whose coaching talents led him to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980: "It was a great win for the football team, but it was a real upper for the university as a whole. That victory carried the school for a long time."

But to listen to those he touched through the years after those gridiron star turns, Green was never imprisoned by those glory days. He moved on, becoming a devoted husband to Janice, fabulous father to Cathy and John Jr., grand grandfather to Will Clark, Maria Clark, Lydia Green, Madeline Green and Mark Green, and fine friend to most everyone he came across.

"A great guy and a good man," said Martin Boyd, who worked for years with Green at Associated General Agency, an insurance company.

"He always had great stories about teammates he'd had in the pros — I remember one about some guy who ate light bulbs — but that's not who he was. He was a really a good person, such a gentleman."

Yet it was not a life without its low points. Growing up in Mississippi, he contracted polio as a youngster, which left him with one leg shorter than the other. Then, of course, came the unfathomably cruel diagnosis of ALS.

Even then, Green almost never complained.

Recalled golfing buddy John Akers: "When he started to have limited mobility, I'd drive him around in a cart, pull him right up to the tee box or the green because he could barely walk. The last few months he played, he started coughing a lot when he'd take a sip of coffee or something. But as soon as he'd come off the tee box, he'd reach for that coffee, which would lead him to say, 'Don't let my coughing interrupt your tee shot.' I'll forever miss his wit and wisdom on the golf course."

He wasn't just a fine golfer and football player, though. He threw the shot put in the Senior Olympics. But if football had made Green famous, he was still a gifted enough golfer to shoot a 71 at Creeks Bend when he was 61 years old.

"There was a time when I could beat him," recalled John Jr., whose best score at Creeks Bend was a 72. "But in the end, he wound up with the best score."

These stories will live on, of course. Stories such as the one Green's nephews J.D. and Kyle Rutledge tell of the time he got them an official AFL football autographed by all his Bills teammates.

"Imagine what that could be worth today," began J.D., "if we hadn't taken out in the yard and played with it every day until those signatures rubbed off."

Because his chief clients at AGA were trucking companies, there were times the family would be driving down the road and Green would yell at his wife and kids when a dump truck passed, "Did anyone see the phone number on that truck?'

Said Kyle Rutledge: "He had this booming laugh. He'd take over a room."

Now he'll take over a big, soft cloud, telling the folks upstairs about football teammates eating light bulbs and nephews who didn't give a hoot about those folks' autographs.

In Sunday's funeral program, John Jr. and Cathy penned the following for their father: "We'll always remember that special smile, that caring heart, that warm embrace you always gave us. You being there for Mom and us through good times and bad."

May we all one day become famous for traits as honorable and gentlemanly as those.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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