One morning after he joined Washington in 1995, Trent Green met with quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron to talk over the minutiae of various pass protections, assignments, keys and blitz responsibilities.
Head coach Norv Turner wandered in and asked what they were up to. Turner liked what he heard. It was critical that they were sorting out that stuff, of course. Good for them.
But then Turner set down his cup of coffee and made a broader point.
“I’ll never forget this,” Green said. “He said, ‘The difference between a guy who isn’t in the league and the guy who’s an average guy in the league, and a guy who’s a Pro Bowl guy and a guy who’s a Hall of Fame guy is the guy who can stand in the pocket knowing he’s going to get hit and yet be able to make the throw.’”
Even if it may seem the last detail of NFL quarterbacking, everything starts with that: the willpower and grit and savvy to feel the fury swarming at you while concentrating on what’s downfield.
“If your mind-set is you’re worried about getting hit, or worried about seeing ghosts, or worried about somebody coming from a different angle … then you’re not going to have much success,” Turner continued. “If you’re not willing to do that, then you should probably go find something else to do.”
This wasn’t the first time Green had heard that message.
But the blunt way it was packaged and delivered left an indelible impression.
Learning to stand tall in the pocket is what accounts for the difference in Green going from once being cut by San Diego to ascending to a truly fine NFL career.
In 11 seasons, including six with the Chiefs, Green made two Pro Bowl appearances and threw for 28,475 yards and 162 touchdowns.
But the same virtue also in some way accounts for the difference between a laudable career and perhaps the immortal sort that confers Hall of Fame status.
If the sack has come to be a momentous and thrilling variable in the game, Green’s case is testimony to its potential darker consequences.
The sack, or, in fact, just the rush itself, can instantly alter not only a play … or a game … or a season … but frame a career itself.
Next year, Kurt Warner will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The two-time MVP with the improbable back story led the St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls, including a victory over Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV, and Arizona to another.
But for one miserable, throw-away preseason play, that could well be Green on the ballot.
“I sincerely believe we would have won the world championship with Trent Green,” said Dick Vermeil, who coached Green both in St. Louis and Kansas City.
If Green wasn’t exactly Wally Pipp to Warner’s Lou Gehrig, the dynamic of what happened still lends itself to friends and family playing what Green calls “the what-if game.”
If Green hadn’t been hurt that year, well, how long might the St. Louis native have been at the controls of a semi-revolutionary offensive game initially contoured to his skills?
“Occasionally, I’ll get caught up in it,” said Green, now an NFL broadcaster who still lives in Kansas City. “It’s crazy how it all works out. Obviously, I’d love to be wearing one of those yellow jackets (that go to Hall of Fame members), and I know it’s not realistic.”
Maybe the saddest, strangest thing about this fickle twist of fate was its abrupt and sheer reversal.
In one moment, forces were aligning at last for Green.
After five years of apprenticing and trying to hold a job, he’d thrown for 3,441 yards with Washington in 1998 as he approached free agency.
He struck a four-year, $17.5 million deal with the Rams and got to return to where it all began for him. He was an offensive tackle with the South County Seahawks youth team before ultimately becoming a quarterback in eighth-grade football after a starter suffered a broken collarbone.
He even was in luck to be coming to a Rams franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1989, had won 22 games in four seasons in St. Louis and had sputtered to a 4-12 season the year before.
No progress was evident, and Vermeil was in trouble.
But there was a lot more bubbling than anyone realized.
The Rams had traded for game-changing running back Marshall Faulk, and had dynamic receiver Isaac Bruce returning after being injured much of the season before. And they drafted receiver Torry Holt.
Those players and several others would make the Rams resemble a track squad masked in football gear.
Catalyzing all this was Mike Martz taking over as offensive coordinator. Martz and Green almost were to be an ensemble, having worked together in Washington the season before.
And it was taking.
Preseason games tend to be more about pretend results than portending anything, but something remarkable seemed to be happening by the Rams’ third exhibition game in 1999, against San Diego on Aug. 28.
Green had been 17 of 21 entering the game, and into the final minutes of the half he was flawless that day. He’d finish 11 of 11 for 166 yards.
But enabled by a conspiracy of curious events, Green’s dream storyline ended in agony.
The injury also figured to ruin the Rams’ season, considering Warner was an unknown who had thrown all of 11 NFL passes in mopup duty.
“We’re cursed,” a longtime Rams official told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch moments later. “We’re (bleeping) cursed.”
In between being cut by Green Bay in 1994 and signed by the Rams in 1998, Warner had played for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe and the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena League.
To make ends meet while he hoped for an NFL break, he’d also worked at the Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for $5.50 an hour.
At work, he’d hone his passing, somewhat, by tossing a bag of marshmallows or rolls of toilet paper to co-workers, all while wearing his “Hello, My Name Is Kurt” badge.
As a nearly anonymous NFL prospect, Warner might as well have gotten the badge back out.
And there were many reasons his chance might never have come.
Moments before Green’s injury, Vermeil called Green over to discuss what to do near the end of the half. Even though St. Louis’ starters were scheduled to play at least a series in the third quarter, Vermeil considered pulling him before halftime.
But if the Rams forced a punt and took over beyond their own 20-yard line, Vermeil thought it worth working on the 2-minute offense.
“Are you good with that?” Green remembers him asking.
Of course, Green said.
So when the Rams took over past their own 20, out came Green and the first-team offense.
A few plays later, everything changed.
At the line of scrimmage, Green saw Chargers safety Rodney Harrison showing blitz. But Harrison was accounted for by Faulk in the called protection scheme.
“So I didn’t even bat an eye,” Green said.
Faulk was about as multifaceted a football player as there ever was, and he was a good blocker. But he had held out for about the first two weeks of camp that year, Green reminded, and he wasn’t quite himself yet.
“He knew he was supposed to get him, but if you look at the block, he’s not real comfortable with where he was at that point,” he said. “He kind of made like a half-block, a ‘not-really’ block.”
Vermeil doesn’t think of the holdout as a factor but said, “Skilled athlete vs. skilled athlete, you win some and lose some. In that case, Marshall didn’t get much of him.”
Over the years, Green said, he’s had different people tell him it was Faulk’s fault. He rejects that premise, though he considers it another of the oddities that made the play become what it did.
Most blame it on what was widely perceived as a cheap shot by Harrison, who previously had been voted the dirtiest player in the league and whom Vermeil regarded about that way.
“Believe me, I was not a big fan of his,” said Vermeil, noting he’d sent film to the league on Harrison’s ambushing style several times.
Yet neither Green nor Vermeil believe Harrison was motivated to injure when he lunged into the back of Green’s knee and caused a career-threatening injury.
It just happened to come exactly as he was most vulnerable, Green said.
Green’s weight had just transferred over to that leg on the follow-through of what would have been his 12th straight completion, a comeback route to the sideline that was offset by a personal foul on the hit on Green.
After the game, Harrison seemed genuinely remorseful.
“If I had it to do all over again … I wouldn’t even blitz,” he told reporters then. “I feel terrible about Trent.”
Though it was years before Harrison approached him to apologize, Green said, he has long since reconciled that it wasn’t malicious.
It’s significant, Green said, that Harrison hadn’t taken a full blast at him.
He might see it differently otherwise, but Harrison had been clipped enough by Faulk that he’d lost momentum and had to put a hand on the ground to keep his balance before hitting him.
“So,” Green said, “it happened.”
As Green began to absorb the devastating injury that tore his medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments and would require multiple surgeries, into the game came Warner.
“It’s tough to really be excited to be the starter in this situation,” Warner said after the game. “I’m just going to try to fill his shoes the best I can.”
Mere weeks later, Warner had become a sensation and a Sports Illustrated cover subject bearing the headline, “Who Is This Guy?”
Vermeil believes that sudden seizing of the moment by Warner, and his subsequent success, makes him worthy of going into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
“How many quarterbacks in the history of the NFL (became) the most valuable player in the league with 16 game snaps in his career? Tell me. Nobody,” Vermeil said. “It has never been done before, and it will never be done again.”
As for Green, who was traded to the Chiefs after the 2000 season, he can chuckle now as he considers how the play helped change the game to better protect quarterbacks.
“Unfortunately for me, I was one of the guys they used,” he said. “‘Here’s the video: Don’t dive at the quarterback’s knees.’ ”
All of this hardly ruined the upbeat Green’s life, of course.
Despite more injuries to come, he went on to enjoy plenty of career highlights of his own, including the Chiefs’ 13-3 season in 2003, before calling it a career in 2008.
Now he’s a presence in the community, particularly through his Trent Green Family Foundation and its goal of “improving the health, education and future of Kansas City kids in need.”
As for lessons learned, well, Green and his wife, Julie, have three children. And as both of his boys were becoming quarterbacks, he shared Turner’s words with them.
Even if the words made for a mixed message in his career, he wouldn’t and couldn’t have had it any other way.
“It’s one of those things,” Green said, “where you can either do it or you can’t.”