State Your Case: Cornell Green, the basketball player who made good
The Dallas Cowboys rewrote the NFL scouting manual in the 1960s, changing the directive from drafting the BPA – best player available – to BAA – best athlete available.
Athleticism became as important to the Cowboys under their Hall of Fame personnel director Gil Brandt as football ability. So Dallas looked beyond the football field in drafting basketball players (All-Americas Lou Hudson and Pat Riley), baseball players (Merv Rettenmund) and Olympic track gold medalists (Bob Hayes, Carl Lewis).
Hudson, Riley, Rettenmund and Lewis all passed on the opportunity to sign with the Cowboys, sticking with their respective sports. But Hayes signed and became a Hall of Fame wide receiver.
Brandt may have missed on Hudson and Riley but did hit on three other basketball players – Pete Gent, Cornell Green and Percy Howard – none of whom were drafted yet all wound up contributing to the Cowboys. Gent started 11 games in 1966, including the NFL championship against Green Bay, and Howard scored a touchdown in Super Bowl X.
But the Cowboys hit biggest on Green.
Like Gent and Howard, Green never played a down of college football. He left Utah State as the school’s all-time leading rebounder and fifth leading scorer. Green was a two-time All-America forward, having taken the Aggies to both the NIT and NCAA tournaments during his three-year college career. The Cowboys envisioned a player with his size (6-3, 208) and leaping ability as a natural cornerback.
Green went to training camp in 1962 with the Cowboys on a lark. He had been drafted by the NBA Chicago Zephyrs and figured he could go to the Cowboys for a week or two that summer until he got cut, collecting $1,000 along the way, before reporting to the Zephyrs for their camp that fall.
But Green never got cut, never reported to the Zephyrs and established himself as a Pro-Bowl talent – arguably, a Hall-of-Fame talent. His candidacy certainly deserves to be discussed as one of the rare defensive backs to earn multi-Pro Bowl invitations at both cornerback and safety. You can count his peers on one hand – Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott, Rod Woodson, Mel Renfro and soon-to-be-a-Hall-of-Famer Charles Woodson.
Green moved into the starting lineup at the end of his rookie year and stayed there for the next 12 seasons. Including playoffs, he started 186 games. At one point, Green strung together 145 consecutive starts, the third best in franchise history.
Green intercepted seven passes in his first season as a starter to lead the team in 1963 and was voted to three consecutive Pro Bowls at cornerback (1965-67). After strong safety Mike Gaechter suffered a career-ending Achilles tendon injury in the 1969 playoff bowl against the Los Angeles Rams, the Cowboys moved Green to safety in 1970. He started the final 70 games of his career there and was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1971 when the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl and again in 1972.
Green intercepted 35 career passes and returned three of them for touchdowns, including a 60-yarder against the Cleveland Browns in the 1966 playoffs. He also recovered seven career fumbles and returned two of those for scores. Green was voted first-team all-pro three times at cornerback and was named to the franchise’s 25th anniversary team.
Green is already in the Utah State Hall of Fame and the state of Utah Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s puzzling why he isn’t in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor and just as puzzling why his name has never come up for discussion for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Cowboys won 63 percent of their games with Green on the field, capturing seven division titles in his 12 seasons, two NFC championships and one Lombardi Trophy. Green had something to do with all that success. A light needs to be shined on his career – and maybe one day that glow will reach Canton.