After the starters for both teams had been introduced before that night’s NFL exhibition game at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on Aug. 18, 1962, the public address announcer asked the 78,000 spectators to direct their attention to the home team sideline. The lights were dimmed, and a spotlight shined on a muscular, handsome young man in a tweed jacket and skinny tie.
“Here is another member of the Cleveland Browns offense,’’ the PA announcer told the throng. “No. 45, Ernie Davis.” Davis trotted onto the field — in those dress clothes rather than helmet and pads — and a thunderous applause rocked the old stadium hard by the shores of Lake Erie as Browns fans officially welcomed the Heisman Trophy winner from Syracuse University. The rookie running back’s leukemia reportedly was in remission, and there was hope Davis might be able to join another former Orangeman, Jim Brown, in the Cleveland backfield sometime that season.
“Oh, man, what a night that was,’’ recalled John Brown, an offensive lineman who had blocked for Davis at SU and was hoping to do the same with the Browns. “You could actually feel the ground shake from that ovation. It was like a mini-earthquake. I never witnessed a more emotional outpouring for one man.”
Sadly, Davis would never play a down in the NFL. Several months later, his leukemia returned. On March 30, 1963, he penned a story for the Saturday Evening Post — a national magazine with a circulation in the millions — titled “I’m Not Unlucky.” Seven weeks after that optimistic, upbeat feature hit newsstands and mailboxes, a nation mourned the death of Ernie Davis at age 23.
This Saturday night inside the sold-out Carrier Dome, I suspect the ground will tremble again as another beloved SU athlete is recognized for all he’s done and all he continues to do while confronting the most daunting of odds. Tim Green, who as a young twentysomething helped resurrect a moribund Syracuse football program, will have his No. 72 jersey retired during halftime ceremonies at the Orange’s home game against defending national champion Clemson.
Close to 50,000 people will thank the two-time All-American defensive end and Rhodes Scholar finalist for what he achieved at SU and what he’s accomplished since. After graduating from SU, Renaissance Tim went on to have a successful eight-year NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons; author 40 books, including several New York Times bestsellers; earn a law degree from SU and become a practicing attorney; deliver critically acclaimed analysis on Fox Sports national football telecasts; contribute numerous stories and commentaries to National Public Radio and ABC News; and start a “Reading is Weightlifting for the Brain” program that’s encouraged tens of thousands of elementary and middle school students to put down their electronics and pick up books.
But the biggest reason they’ll be clapping hands, stomping feet, screaming approval and wiping away tears is for what Green is doing now — battling, with grace and dignity, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a debilitating, fatal neurological disorder, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The outpouring will be reminiscent of the love Davis received that memorable night in Cleveland and the thunderous ovation Gehrig, the former baseball slugger, was given at Yankee Stadium in 1939, when he proclaimed himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Like Davis and Gehrig, Green has not allowed his disease to dampen his optimism and gratitude. While going public with his ALS diagnosis during a heart-wrenching 60 Minutes interview last fall, Green told CBS journalist Steve Kroft: “Some people would say, you know, ‘Tim, God bless you.’ And I’d say, ‘He already has.’ ’’
Green, though, doesn’t want sympathy; he wants action. Action directed at finding a cure for ALS, which currently afflicts 30,000 Americans. He initially refused to take his story to the masses because he was fearful it would lead to a pity party. But his son Troy convinced him that by going public, he could inspire others dealing with similar challenges, and help raise awareness and research funds. He could mobilize people the way he had during his illustrious football career and with his reading initiative.
He used the 60 Minutes interview to announce the launch of his #TackleALS campaign. On the lead page of the crusade’s website, he succinctly sums up his mission with the words: “Don’t be sorry, let’s beat this!” The site also includes a video, featuring the likes of Tom Brady, former Falcon teammates Brett Favre and Deion Sanders, and former Fox football broadcast partner Joe Buck encouraging others to join the fight. To date, roughly $3.3-million has been raised, with every cent donated to the Healey Center for ALS Research at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The response has been tremendous,’’ Troy Green said by phone the other day. “It’s come not only from family and friends, but from total strangers. And it’s funding the exploration of some encouraging new drugs that may pause the disease and eventually cure it. We are really excited about those developments. We truly believe a cure will be found, and when it does all these people who joined the #TackleALS teams will have played a role.”
Any blocker who lined up opposite Tim Green during his football days quickly learned how relentless and determined he could be. Opponents and coaches marveled that he had a motor that never quit. In ALS, Green is confronting an opponent that’s undefeated, but he remains undeterred. It may have made speaking more difficult and robbed him of the dexterity required to type, but its hasn’t stopped him from continuing to pursue his passion of writing. Using a special pair of sensor glasses that connects a laser to letters on a computer screen, Green plods along, one letter at a time. He recently completed the third in a trilogy of adolescent books he’s collaborated on with New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter. “Grand Slam” will be published in March, and will mark the sixth book Green has written since being diagnosed.
“It’s obviously a longer and more tedious process for Dad to write, but you won’t ever hear him complaining,’’ Troy said. “People tend to forget that ALS is largely a physical disease. His brain is 100 percent intact. Physically, it might be tougher for him to express himself, but mentally dad is sharper than ever. He’s still writing, still working with his law firm, still filling up his days with so many positive, productive things. The disease is far from stopping him. Heck, it’s barely slowing him down.’’
His refusal to be defined by the disease is inspiring. His fight brings perspective.
“Drawing on that old one-game-at-a-time football mantra, Dad is taking it one day at a time,’’ Troy said. “He views each day as a clean slate, a blessing. It’s amazing to watch, and it is inspirational. I see the way he goes toe-to-toe with this hideous disease every day. And it makes the little things I’m struggling with seem even smaller.”
Friends routinely check in with him, his five kids and his wife, Illyssa, who’s been a rock throughout this ordeal. And he’s received thousands of cards and letters and Facebook posts of support from total strangers, including many teachers and students who took part in his reading program and were inspired by his books, which often dealt with the importance of perseverance and kindness. The loving response is a reminder of how many people, from all walks of life, he has touched along the way.
“Tim always had this charisma; this ability to connect with people,’’ says Blaise Winter, one of Green’s teammates on SU’s famous “Four Wheel Drive” defensive line of the early 1980s. “He was a great, caring teammate — one of those people who was a unifier who brought people together. That he’s still trying to do that in the face of what he’s going through doesn’t surprise me. He always has looked out for the other guy.”
Winter will be there Saturday night. So will about 50,000 others. Yes, many will be there to see if SU can pull off a monumental upset of Clemson the way it did in the Dome two years ago. But regardless of the outcome, the enduring moment will occur at halftime. The building will be rocking like a mini-earthquake. And Tim Green will feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.