Sunday, December 31, 2017
USA TODAY: NEALON GREENE REMAINS A ROLE MODEL
The natural ability to buy time comes in handy when the 41-year-old Yonkers native rolls into work each day at St. Christopher’s, a residential treatment center for at-risk children where he’s the recreation manager.
Does the name ring a bell?
Greene was a dual-threat quarterback at Lincoln High School who graduated in 1994 and went on to establish records at Clemson, which is going against rival Alabama on Monday in a College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
He also played nine seasons in the Canadian Football League, piloting teams like the Edmonton Eskimos and Saskatchewan Rough Riders.
The athletic resume is awfully impressive.
Kids who land at places like St. Christopher’s really don’t care about credentials, though, so Greene is always looking for a way to cast a long shadow.
He’s knows from experience the impact of a caring environment.
“For me, it’s about being part of the supporting cast for these kids now,” said Greene, who’s also a therapeutic crisis intervention trainer. “I might’ve cut up and run around in the same neighborhoods as some of these kids, but my supporting cast kept me on the straight and narrow. I had people like my coach, Arnold Shell, who was outside the home and getting on me, ‘I’m going to tell your mom if you don’t go to class.’ I know it helps have that person casting a shadow over you and pushing you in the direction you need to go.”
The wins he celebrates now come outside the lines when a kid with a troubled past beats the odds, earns a diploma and gets into college or finds a job.
“I heard about him when I got here,” said Michael, a student at St. Christopher’s who also played for Greene on a travel basketball team. “He doesn’t play games. He is serious about school work, serious about practice.”
Admittedly, he gets to be the good cop most days.
“He’s lost his voice a couple of times,” said Jordan, another resident who also played basketball for Greene.
In the beginning
Most of the students and staffers aren’t old enough to remember the football exploits of this former Journal News Player of the Year. He was electric in between the lines.
“Nealon Greene was Donovan McNabb before there was a Donovan McNabb,” said Lincoln head coach Rob Bannister, who was an assistant for one season while Greene was playing in Lancers purple. “I saw this kid do amazing things. He was a phenomenal athlete. If you blitzed him, Nealon would run for 10 or 15 yards.”
Lincoln had a reason for hope against Section 1 powerhouses.
“When I sit down at holiday time with mom and she pulls out the old tapes I realize how long ago it was,” Greene said.
And despite his 5-foot-10 stature, the colleges began to call.
“It came down to Syracuse and Clemson,” Greene said. “Ultimately, I wanted to get out of the snow. I can remember getting to Clemson and signing like 150 autographs. I didn’t have a clue how these kids knew who I was, but they read Blue Chip Illustrated and watch everything they can about football. It shows how in tune fans are down there. I quickly got in tune with the fact that they watch everything you do.”
The adjustment to Death Valley was not particularly difficult.
Greene moved into the starting lineup as a freshman and led the Tigers to a trio of bowl games. He started 42 games in all and became the school’s all-time leading passer with 5,719 yards and 35 touchdowns. That mark has since been surpassed. Greene also rushed for 1,066 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Every time I watch them play I want to put that helmet back on,” Greene said. “Last year, when they won the national championship, Dabo Swinney asked us to come back for the parade, but it was late notice for me. This year I’m geared up. If they win, I think I’m going to get a ticket and go celebrate with the guys.”
That’s where the industrial education major began to work with kids.
“In Edmonton, we had a stay in school project that had us going to all these little towns,” Greene said. “They were trying to sell more tickets, get more people to come and they were using like eight of us as catalysts. So we’d go to schools, tell our story and sign autographs to help promote the Edmonton Eskimos. The next thing you know I had people asking me to come talk with their kids and I stayed in the offseason when somebody offered me a job. It just stuck.”
After retiring from the CFL, he came back home and quickly landed a job.
“We learned that Nealon was available and we probably recruited him join our staff with the same level of tenacity that high school stars are recruited by colleges,” St. Christopher’s CEO Robert Maher said. “Without exception, Nealon is one of the most respected, kindest, nicest and well-liked staff members we have. He is admired by both students and staff for his giving 100-percent in what he does. He is an outstanding role model and one of our greatest assets.”
There is no formula in place for reaching kids who come in from troubled environments or heartbreaking circumstances, so Greene prepares in much the same way that he used to get up to speed on an opposing defense.
“A lot of kids who come in here, they’re from Yonkers so I know their family or I know somebody who knows them,” said Greene, who has six kids of his own and works a second job at Fed Ex. “That’s helped me with a lot of kids. You have to build good relationships with these kids that’s what I’ve been able to do in the last 11 years. When we get a new kid, I’ll go introduce myself and it’s like, ‘Who are you. How do you know my name.?’ They don’t know I get summary sheets and get to know who they are before they get here. The kids feel comfortable because I’m approachable.
“There are times when this job can get to you, and you want to quit and do something else, but I always enjoy coming in and dealing with the kids. You have to take the bad with the good.”
Greene is the campus link to fun and games.
He organizes weekly trips, hands out jobs, oversees athletic pursuits off campus. There is little applause in this line of work, but the gratification is greater when a young life is changed for the better.
“You have to be active in dealing with the kids,” Greene said. “You have to be involved. You can’t do the job from afar. You have to tune in with what’s going on, be part of the ‘in-crowd’ as the kids say. You learn how to break barriers.
“After going against Florida State, this is nothing. Taking hits from All-Americans was more stressful than dealing with these kids.”