He Can Really Dish It Out

Michigan Panther strong safety David Greenwood, a superior athlete, is a "lumberjack" who loves to cut down opponents
April 23, 1984

At the University of Wisconsin they're called lumberjacks—big, reticent, unheralded kids who come down from the North Woods in flannel shirts and boots and go wild on the football field. David Greenwood, the Michigan Panthers' All-USFL strong safety and transcendent athlete, was a lumberjack when he arrived in Madison as a freshman in 1979.

Born and raised in Park Falls, Wis. (pop. 3,246), which lies 60 miles south of Lake Superior at the western edge of the Chequamegon National Forest, Greenwood himself didn't know how good an athlete he was. He had won the state scholastic high jump championship four years in a row, and in his senior year he'd also won the long jump and high hurdles titles. His basketball team had gone to the state finals twice, and as a senior he had batted .508 as a pitcher, catcher and third baseman on the Park Falls High baseball team. All in all, he had won 12 varsity letters. But Park Falls was a Class B school competing for Class B honors. And its football team was terrible.

"When I went to Wisconsin I wasn't looking too far into the future," says Greenwood. "I certainly wasn't thinking about the pros. There were a lot of things I didn't know about. I mean, I'd never even seen a black person until my basketball team went to the state tourney."

Not too many blacks had seen a white person like Greenwood, either. While on his recruiting trip to Madison, Greenwood joined a group of black varsity football players who were dunking basketballs in the campus gym. At 6'3" and 190 pounds, he seemed too short, muscular and pale to keep the pace. But when the players started getting "tricky," Greenwood let loose. He showed them his standing two-handed dunk, his behind-the-head dunk, his two-balls-at-once dunk. He didn't tell them he had once hit the backboard with his face while warming up for a high school game.

"Afterward they said, 'Hey, white guy, you must be half black,' " says Greenwood. "I was good friends with the black players from then on."

Greenwood started at safety for the Badgers for four years, leading the team in interceptions three times and earning All-Big Ten honors twice. He also punted for three seasons, setting a Wisconsin record for most career punts (185) while averaging 37.8 yards per kick. In track he high-jumped 7'2" and won the Big Ten outdoor title as a junior. He also set the school record in the decathlon (6,893 points) in a brief, and reckless, career as a decathlete. Head football coach Dave McClain called him "the best pure athlete we've ever had." The late Dan McClimon, his track coach, called him "a leftover lumberjack from prehistoric days."

When the Panthers made Greenwood their first pick in the first round of the inaugural USFL draft last year, a reporter asked coach Jim Stanley why the team had chosen a defensive back rather than an offensive player. "We figure he can save more games than anybody would win," said Stanley.

What he had correctly divined was that the entire USFL would be weak in the secondary and that a great safety could make a big difference. "I think a bona fide defensive back is the hardest thing there is to draft," says Stanley. "And I think Greenwood is the best safety in the league. If you count the NFL, he's right up there with them—if he's not the best."

Certainly Greenwood was a force in Michigan's drive to last year's USFL championship. In a critical June game against Washington he recovered a fumble, deflected four passes and blocked a field-goal attempt to help preserve a 27-25 Panther win. In the playoff and championship games he had 10 tackles, two assists, two deflections and an interception.

"He's as big and tough as a linebacker, which makes his blitzes effective because he can go right through a blocker," says Stanley. "And because of the way he can jump, you don't fret as much when the ball's in the air because he's got a chance to get it." Against Arizona this season, Greenwood leaped high above the Wranglers' All-USFL wide receiver, Trumaine Johnson, to make a last-minute interception in the end zone and lock up a 31-26 Michigan victory.

Panther defensive back-field coach Dick Roach has his own sense of Greenwood's value. "I don't think jumping ability is that big a deal," he says. "What a strong safety has to do is play the run like a linebacker, drop deep like a safety and cover man-to-man like a corner. Those are three difficult tasks. The reason you like a guy like Greenwood, who can do those things, is that he doesn't limit what you can do with the rest of your defense. If your strong safety can't cover or can't support, then a linebacker or corner has got to help him, and that's a problem."

The other members of the Panthers secondary are delighted to have Greenwood on their side, though free safety John Arnaud, who was a high jumper at Iowa State (7'2¾"), has one minor complaint. "On our two-deep zone, sometimes I'll jump for a ball down the middle and so will Greenie, and we'll hit in midair," he says. "The guy's so big that it's scary. So now if I see him coming, I have to think about backing off. I can imagine how receivers must feel."

Molly Greenwood, who was born the week the Michigan Panthers opened their 1983 training camp, stands giggling in front of her father, who's seated in the den of the family's Bloomfield Hills duplex. David's wife, Julie, stands beside Molly. Julie, 23, and David, 24, were sweethearts back in Park Falls and got married before Greenwood's senior year at Wisconsin.

"Touchdown, Molly!" yells Julie. And the 14-month-old girl throws both arms in the air.

"Gimme five, Molly" says David, and she pats his outstretched palm.

"High five!" says David, and she raises one hand and slaps skin.

The Greenwoods are a happy football family at a charmed time. The large, sunny condo lacks furniture in a couple of rooms, but nobody seems to mind. Just having all that space is a novelty. Julie was one of four children; David was the eighth of Perry and Laura Greenwood's 11; and roominess wasn't something they grew up with. David, whose father drove a fuel truck for years and now does maintenance work at the Park Falls cemetery, shared three bedrooms and a hallway with his five brothers, while his five sisters slept in one large room. "We always had food on the table, and I always had clothes," David says. "But, yeah, it was sort of crowded."

The liberating effect of space overwhelmed Greenwood one night after a recent Panther home game. "I woke up to these crashes," says Julie, "and I went upstairs, and there were David and his uncle hitting golf balls across the empty living room. Real golf balls."

Everything happened fast for the Greenwoods—from the January 1983 signing ($800,000 for four years) to Molly's birth, to the move to suburban Detroit, to their entrance into a new economic stratum—and they're still sorting things out.

"One day you're poor and in college, and the next day you have $100,000 in your account, and the day after that somebody says you owe $50,000 in taxes," says Julie. "You have to make important decisions fast, and you're always thinking about the future. It's nice, but it's not the glamorous life everybody thinks it is. As David says, we're just average, middle-class people living in the 50 percent tax bracket."

Greenwood smiles bemusedly as his wife speaks. Where he's reserved and subtle of wit, she's verbal and vivacious. David lets Julie handle the family's finances, not only because she once worked in a stockbroker's office but also because David doesn't care much about such things. "Coming from where I did, well, I've always said I can live with it or without it," he says.

A lot of people lived without it in Park Falls, though money didn't seem to matter much in the muskie fishing capital of the world. "You could just about live off the land if you wanted to," says Greenwood. The Greenwood house wasn't deep in the forest, however. It was in town, and David Greenwood spent most of his time playing games with his brothers and neighborhood kids, most of whose parents worked for the local pulp mill.

"My dad worked as hard as anybody," says Greenwood. "Especially in the winter when people needed a lot of oil. He'd be up before dawn and wouldn't get home till eight or nine." Cemetery work is easier, then? "Sure," says Greenwood. "He's got a lot of people under him."

Greenwood was back in Park Falls last winter and got talked into an ice-fishing excursion with some relatives. The boredom of waiting for spring-loaded rod tips to pop up became too much, however, and the men decided to play football to pass the time—with a frozen fish as ball. Typical of the sport, the game ended with an injury. Greenwood sent his cousin long: The cousin lost his concentration on Greenwood's pass, and the rock-hard, spiraling walleye opened a gash in his head.

But now that Greenwood has put Park Falls behind him, he wants full value for his services. Because he signed with the Panthers before the 1983 NFL draft, he wasn't taken until the eighth round by the NFL New Orleans Saints. Projected as a second-round NFL pick, Greenwood has improved his stock since then.

"I signed with the USFL because they came up with a deal I couldn't refuse," he says. "Then it was a lot of money. But now with the NFL fighting back, things have gone nuts. I know my body will only last so long, so I'll go wherever the contract is best. It's as simple as that."

Though the Panthers and Saints own Greenwood's rights in the respective leagues for the next two seasons, lately Greenwood's agent, Greg Campbell, has been shopping his client with other clubs, particularly the L.A. Raiders. "David is a Raiders kind of player," he says. "I think he was born in a black-and-silver delivery room."

Campbell's current asking price for Greenwood is a $1 million bonus up front and $1.5 million over three years. Of course, says Campbell, "That's today. I'm afraid to say about tomorrow."

"Sure it's crazy," says Greenwood of the figures. "I can imagine Steve Young breaking down after signing his huge contract. It will break anybody down. But...." Greenwood almost smiles. "He's a Mormon, and now he can afford seven wives."

If Greenwood is a Raiders kind of guy, it's because of his intensity, a competitive drive that has been with him since he was a kid.

"Our whole family was athletic and competitive," says oldest brother Mike, 33, a foreman in a lumberyard. "But Dave also was a little bit of a show-off. When he was still in grade school he used to go to the high school track meets and match the winning jumps—wearing his street clothes. We older brothers didn't mess with him too much after a while, because he was a pretty rough character."

"He just hates to lose at anything," says Michigan quarterback Bobby Hebert, who hails from Cut Off, La. and is one of Greenwood's best friends on the team. "He may get mad if I say this, but what he reminds me of sometimes is a north Louisiana redneck."

Greenwood's aggressiveness in college earned him a reputation as a headhunter and cheap-shot artist, charges still occasionally leveled at him by opponents. The present Wisconsin track coach, Ed Nuttycombe, who had been an assistant to McClimon, saw Greenwood's recklessness as part of a larger discipline. The coach tells about the time Greenwood was in a decathlon and had one chance left to clear 13'6" in the vault. Greenwood charged down the runway with fire in his eyes, sailed over the bar, missed the cushion and landed flat on his back on the cement at the side of the pit. People thought he was dead. After a minute he stood up, spit out some blood and continued with the competition, ultimately clearing 14'6".

What makes the incident truly remarkable is that Greenwood knew as he planted the pole that he was going to miss the pit, and still went through with the jump.

"I didn't get my hands over my head, so I knew I was going off to the side," he says. "But I rejected the idea of quitting. I thought I could keep from landing on my head. I was fired up. I had to make it."

"I'm not sure he felt pain at all," says Nuttycombe. "And it would be hard to measure his courage."

It also would be hard to name a sport Greenwood couldn't excel in. He runs the 40 in 4.55; he golfs in the 70s; he punts for the Panthers, last year averaging 41.4 yards per attempt. Much of his ability traces to his legs. "They're just explosive," says Nuttycombe.

Indeed, when Greenwood won the Big Ten high jump crown by clearing seven feet on a windy, rainy day, he weighed 215 pounds. Moreover, he had just finished spring football and hadn't practiced jumping in weeks. When he cleared 7'2" indoors, he weighed between 210 and 215. Nuttycombe points out that he's one of the heaviest men ever to clear that height. Jürgen Hingsen, the 229-pound world-record holder in the decathlon who has also cleared 7'2", is the only heavier one that comes to mind.

Greenwood was a natural for the decathlon, but he only competed in it twice, once as a sophomore and once as a junior. He was hindered each time by a lack of practice in certain events, notably the 1,500, the 400, the shotput, discus and javelin. Still, in his first try, at a meet in Gainesville, Fla., he scored a commendable 6,466 points.

In his second attempt, at LSU in the spring of 1981, he was sailing along until he got to the javelin. "I reared back and threw it as hard as I could and nearly tore my arm off," says Greenwood. "And it didn't go anywhere. Technique is everything in the javelin, but I'd never practiced because javelins aren't allowed in the Big Ten. I was disgusted and I promised I wouldn't enter again until I knew what I was doing." Though he jogged through the 1,500, Greenwood finished with his school record.

"He picked things up so fast that just from experience and maybe two more meets he'd have gotten 7,500," says Nuttycombe. "And with work he had the potential to be an 8,000-point decathlete, to be in the top 20 in the world."

Greenwood thought a lot about the decathlon. He decided that if football didn't pan out, he'd get back into it, try to pick up a sponsor somewhere and aim for the '84 Olympics. "But I don't know if I'd have enjoyed it," he says. "Talent won't do it for you. And all I can think about is that 1,500."

Football is Greenwood's natural sport, and in a recent Panthers-San Antonio Gunslingers game at the Silverdome it was easy to see why. On a sweep he takes on the Gunslingers' 260-pound right tackle and knocks him flat. There's no real need for it—somebody else makes the tackle—but the fact that it can be done at all is a statement. Shortly after that he breaks in from the left end of the line, dives and deflects a field-goal attempt. Nobody blocked him, but the football axiom says that even unobstructed, an outside rusher shouldn't be able to get to the ball before it's kicked.

Then in the fourth quarter Greenwood gets tackled for a big loss after trying to scramble with a high punt snap. In the stands Julie watches him closely as he jogs to the sidelines. She nods her head.

"David's mad now," she says.

And he looks it as he prowls the sidelines—jaw thrust forward, arms stiff, the old aggressiveness rising up. A few plays later he blitzes, gets knocked down, scrambles up and chases quarterback Rick Neuheisel 15 yards behind the line before smashing into him and forcing a fumble. The Panthers recover at their own nine and win 26-10.

NFL scouts are keeping a close watch on Greenwood. "The only question we had about him coming out of school was 'catch-up speed,' " says Gil Brandt, vice-president of personnel development for the Dallas Cowboys, voicing the concern of most NFL teams. "That's a big thing for us now. It means acceleration, breaking after the cut. They don't have the Kellen Winslows and Todd Christensens in that league, the big, fast tight ends that a strong safety has to cover over here. So it's hard to tell.

"But David's such a strong, tough, competitive kid. I don't know if he'd be a Pro Bowler in the NFL, but I think you could win a championship with him."

The Panthers already have and, with a 6-2 record, have a shot at another title. For most teams in most leagues, that's enough.

TWO PHOTOSGreenwood metes out punishment on the field, and as far as Molly is concerned, he does the same thing at the dinner table. PHOTOGreenwood gets a kick out of being multitalented. PHOTOIt's miniature golf, David and Molly style. PHOTOLife is a ball for these two average middle-class folks living in the 50% tax bracket.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)