Roy Green got a letter last week from a Cardinal fan who wants to set up a Nickname for Roy Green Contest. The competition could be promoted during, say, Green's weekly interview show on St. Louis station KMOX, a five-minute segment Green describes as the Unknown Radio Show. "They even put a paper sack over the microphone," he says. Until now, the Cards have touted the little-recognized Green as their "three-way light bulb," the "3D-DB" and "the only truly three-dimensional player in the NFL," and some of Green's teammates have begun calling him All-World. But only the thoroughly monikered Ottis/O.J./Juice Anderson, St. Louis' All-Pro running back and Green's best friend, has come up with a name—French Fries—catchy enough to stick. French Fries. Franchise. Get it?
A football player as exceptional as Green deserves a good nickname—and anything else that will get him a little more attention. He's already extremely visible: Playing on offense, defense and four special teams, he's that small, quick No. 25 in cardinal-and-white who rarely comes off the field. "I'm on one side of the ball or the other side of the ball, but I'm not on the sideline side of the ball," Green says. Indeed, while starters normally take part in 60 or 70 plays per game at most, Green has participated in as many as 108 this season. "And he looks like he could go dancing afterward," says St. Louis Coach Jim Hanifan. Says the 5'11", 195-pound Green, "When I was a senior in high school, I never left the field. Your body gets used to it."
Quite simply, Green is the most versatile player in the NFL. Since being drafted by the Cardinals in 1979 from Henderson (Ark.) State University, he has scored touchdowns as a kickoff returner—tying the league record with a 106-yard runback against Dallas as a rookie—a punt returner, a runner and a pass receiver. Three times this year he has both caught and intercepted passes in the same game, a feat not performed even once in a season since the Redskins' Eddie Sutton did it in 1957. Green now has 30 receptions and an NFC-leading average of 22.4 yards per catch, though he's in his first year as a wide receiver. "The only thing Roy hasn't done is tape all our ankles," says St. Louis Offensive Tackle Dan Dierdorf, failing to mention which ankles Green forgot.
Going into last Sunday's game against the Giants in Busch Stadium, the Cardinals had won four straight to even their record at 7-7 and stay alive in the race for an NFC wild-card berth. Green had sparked two of those four victories with big plays: a 33-yard touchdown catch in the final minute against New England, and a 44-yard TD run on a fake-punt play against New Orleans.
In the Cardinals' first series against the Giants, Green ran six yards on a reverse and caught a 39-yard pass to set up a Neil O'Donoghue field goal that gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead. Later in the first quarter, after New York had moved into Cardinal territory, Green, playing nickel back, made a third-down tackle on Running Back Rob Carpenter in the open field to stop New York two yards short of a first down and force a punt. On a subsequent Cardinal punt he made the tackle. But three plays into the second quarter, while trying to run under a long pass from rookie Quarterback Neil Lomax in the end zone, Green pulled his left hamstring. He was out of the game, never to return. The Giants, leading 7-3 at that point, went on to win 20-10 and end St. Louis' playoff hopes.
Green was no more than a fifth defensive back and special-teams player until the second week of this season, when St. Louis found itself short of fast, healthy receivers. "I'm putting you in for one play on offense against Dallas," Hanifan told Green, a former sprinter who had been an occasional receiver at Magnolia (Ark.) High. "I just want you to go in and run by everybody."
Late in the second quarter against the Cowboys, with the ball on the St. Louis 29, Green got his chance. "It didn't matter what they called in the huddle," he says. "I knew what I was doing." Dallas Cornerback Everson Walls lined up across from Green and attempted to slow him with bump-and-run coverage. But Green blew right past. He caught Lomax' pass for a 60-yard gain that set up a Cardinal touchdown and earned an immediate extension of his offensive career: He stayed in the game. "I was kind of in limbo out there at that point," Green says. "I had maybe a slight idea of what was going on." Pat Tilley, the Cards' other wide receiver, had to translate Lomax' play calls for Green, and he didn't catch any more passes. Still, Hanifan decided he would start him on offense the following Sunday against Washington.
Green suddenly had an additional playbook, extra meetings, doubly intense practices and even special nighttime film sessions with Receiver Coach Emmit Thomas, himself a former defensive back. Fortunately, Green is diligent, and his favorite avocation just happens to be watching movies. He made it all look easy against the Redskins by catching four passes, one of them a 58-yard touchdown toss from Lomax.
"There are certain guys you want to throw to, guys you know will hang on to the ball," says St. Louis' veteran quarterback, Jim Hart. "Roy's one of those." Green demonstrated that in the Cardinals' second game against Dallas, a 20-17 St. Louis victory, with a remarkable one-handed TD catch at the back of the end zone. "Oh, you can tell Roy's a receiver," says Thomas. "Every time he comes back from a route he's saying, 'I was wide open....' "
Certainly there are other NFL players capable of playing both defensive back and wide receiver. In 1980, Green Bay's James Lofton was pressed into service as a safety late in a game with the 49ers, and this fall, just one week after Green's first interception-reception double, Wide Receiver Dave Logan of Cleveland did the same thing against Atlanta. Logan, who played only two downs as an extra defensive back, hasn't appeared at that position since. Last Sunday, after the injury to Green and a subsequent shoulder injury to another Cardinal defensive back, Ken Greene, St. Louis demonstrated its newfound faith in versatility by inserting reserve Quarterback Rusty Lisch at safety. But as Dierdorf says, "Maybe a lot could play both ways, but it's one thing to say you're able and another to actually do it. In a game of gifted athletes, Roy is exceptional."
Green's anonymity through all of this can easily be explained. First, when Mel Gray, Tilley and St. Louis' top four defensive backs are injury-free, Green doesn't start. He still logs more total playing time than a starter but can not accumulate impressive statistics at any one position. Second, he played his college ball—as a defensive back—in something called the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, an NAIA league with such teams as the Ouachita Baptist Tigers and the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys. He intercepted nine passes as a senior but to little acclaim. Besides being in the considerable athletic shadow of the University of Arkansas, Henderson State, with its enrollment of 2,600, didn't even have a sports publicity department.
Green didn't take part in high school football until the 11th grade, at which point he made up for lost time by playing six positions and even kicking off. "I used to practice with a Dixie Cup as a tee," he says. "A lot of distance, but no accuracy." Actually, Green did try out for his eighth-grade team but quit after a dispute with the coach. "I wanted to be a runner, and he wanted me on the offensive line," says Green. Versatility does have its limits.
After his first NFL season, Green returned home for a crack at baseball, with the semipro Magnolia Riders of the Ark-La-Tex League. By his account, he led the league in batting with an average in the .480 range. More recently, he has spent his off-season time playing basketball. In both sports, Green plays every position. Correction: Football versatility has its limits.
Green lives in a condominium 20 miles from downtown St. Louis with his wife, Sharon, a receptionist at a bank, their 13-month-old daughter, Miyosha, and their dog, Rock. And Ottis/O.J./Juice Anderson. "Juice and I are like brothers," says Green, who nevertheless says he's reluctant to let Anderson babysit for Miyosha.
"What about you?" Sharon asks her husband. "You were afraid to pick her up for the first two or three months."
"I've fumbled a few in my time, you know," he says.
Rock is a Rottweiler. "Like the kind in the Damien-Omen II," says Green. "A devil dog. When we first got it I couldn't figure out what it was. Juice told me it was a Rottweiler. I said, 'Great, a rock wilder. Let's call him Rock.' "
"The thing about Roy," says Bill Atkins, an assistant coach, "is that he works so hard, yet he's so loose and upbeat. I've never seen him grumpy." Green can be serious, though, when talking of his parents getting divorced when he was a child or of Miyosha nearly dying from a digestive problem. He often speaks to youth groups about the importance of education, though Green himself didn't graduate from Henderson State. He's still several credit hours short of a degree in phys ed and English, and he says he probably won't have time to finish until his football career is over. "Which won't be for a while," he adds.
His days on defense could be numbered, however, simply because he has become so valuable to the St. Louis offense. "Being a receiver is a lot more exciting, with a lot less pressure," Green says. "On defense you can give up seven points on any play. Sometimes I look at the guys covering me and even feel a little sympathetic."