GREEN BAY, Wis. – With the Green Bay Packers battling in training camp in Summer 2010, one voice frequently rose above all others.
It was second-year outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene. And one word resounded more strongly than others.
“Zombo!” the excitable Greene would bellow whenever undrafted rookie Frank Zombo made a play.
Zombo made a lot of plays that summer. He made the Packers’ roster and wound up starting eight times and recording four sacks to help the Packers win the Super Bowl.
“I was talking to a friend the other night and showed him some pictures of me, K.G., Clay Matthews, Erik Walden, Nick Perry, Dezman Moses,” Zombo said on Tuesday in remembering Greene, who died unexpectedly on Monday at age 58. “There’s a picture of the six of us. I was like, ‘Those were the glory days.’ I think about K.G. all the time. He was a big part of what I think got me in the NFL. Obviously, he was a lot more skilled than I was but his skill-set related to how I played and he was able to get the most out of my ability. So, I was able to make the Packers and have a nine-year career from learning how he did it, just his aggressiveness and the way he approached the game and his mind-set.”
Greene was a fifth-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Rams in 1985. He had 15 tackles as a rookie but 16.5 sacks in 1988. With 160 sacks in 15 seasons, he ranks third in NFL history. He was selected to five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams. In 2016, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I regarded him as a personal friend and a true Hall of Famer in every sense," Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said in a statement. “He possessed the most incredible can-do attitude of anyone I ever met. He was a great player, but more than that, he was a great man.”
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That’s what Zombo and Clay Matthews considered Greene, as well. After his playing days, Greene dabbled in a number of things, including professional wrestling and a series of coaching internships. When Dom Capers was hired as defensive coordinator in 2009, he appointed Greene his outside linebackers coach.
“So much of my success was a direct result of him, but he was so much more than a coach,” Matthews posted on Twitter. “He often referred to me and the other OLBs as his kids and taught us how to be a professional in all aspects of life.”
Kids are what kept Zombo and Greene in touch over the years. They last talked before last year’s Super Bowl, when Zombo’s former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, won the championship.
“I’d say a couple times a year, we would really text back and forth,” said Zombo, the father of three boys with a fourth on the way. “I’d send him some pictures of my kids and tell him I had some future cobra strikers on the way. He’d always get a kick out of that. He always told me how important it was for him to be a father and how much he enjoyed being a father. It was cool to relate with him. I always brought up my kids as future cobra strikers because that was his phrase for us.”
In 2010, the Packers finished second in the NFL in points allowed in part due to the play of Matthews and the rest of Greene’s rag-tag group of outside linebackers. In the Super Bowl, with the game slipping away from the Packers and Charles Woodson out with a broken collarbone and not available “to rally the troops,” Greene pulled Matthews aside and told him, “It is time.”
Matthews blasted Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall and forced a fumble. Desmond Bishop recovered, and the Packers turned it into a touchdown to lead 28-17.
“He was the exact same guy” behind closed doors, Zombo said. “Obviously, extremely intense. But it was awesome playing for him because he lived it so he could relate to the player. Even if you got beat, he wouldn’t really get on you because he knew, playing in the NFL, you’re going to get beat every once in a while, so he never really rode you for that. The only time he’d really get on you was if it was something effort-based. He ingrained into us to always play with tenacity and effort. What you saw out there, there was no putting up a front. That was Kevin Greene right there. At all times, he was intense and he was regimented. He was just a great all-around human being.”