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No Day at the Beach While his teammates celebrate an improbable Super Bowl victory, injured Rams quarterback Trent Green is left to wonder what might have been

Feb. 21, 2000
Feb. 21, 2000

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Feb. 21, 2000

No Day at the Beach While his teammates celebrate an improbable Super Bowl victory, injured Rams quarterback Trent Green is left to wonder what might have been

When Trent Green gives you his address, well, he's called double
reverse flea-flickers that were easier to deliver. "Get ready,"
he says, and he gives you some real estate developer's fever
dream, a street name that incorporates no fewer than four
geographical distinctions, an escalating crescendo of suburban
silliness. "I know," he says. "It hardly fits on an envelope. We
really got screwed there."

This is an article from the Feb. 21, 2000 issue Original Layout

Then he laughs, which is pretty much how he always treats bad
luck. But what else can he do? He is, for the moment, the
Unluckiest Guy in America, a title that is at once absurd and
understated, but true nonetheless. He's the poster boy for missed
opportunity, the ultimate what-if, a reminder that a man's fate
can be, at once, both tragic and comical. Really, he just has to
laugh. He could as easily live on Pine Street or be the Most
Famous Player in the NFL.

For the moment he's just another of the NFL's walking wounded, a
typical guy working through rehab, hoping he can make up for the
year he missed because of a preseason knee injury. There are
dozens like him, sad cases all, but let's think about the season
that Trent Green missed, the exaggerated gap between his reality
and his particular fantasy. It's a yawning chasm of
disappointment, a canyon so wide that no amount of
intellectualizing can bridge it. One day you're the starting
quarterback of the St. Louis Rams, playing in the same city
where you starred at Vianney High. The next, through no fault of
your own, you're standing on the sideline, slack-jawed, as your
understudy completes a miracle season that takes your team to
the Super Bowl and brings the understudy the kind of celebrity
reserved for heroes like Lindbergh.

The hard part, as even Green is eager to point out, is that Kurt
Warner fully deserves his success. Becoming the new Spirit of St.
Louis was hard work, and Warner, the Greatest Grocery Store Clerk
to Become League and Super Bowl MVP, did not stint his team or
his legend. But, at the same time, did Green deserve the
obscurity forced upon him just because he stayed in the pocket
too long during an exhibition game? Really screwed there.

Assuming Green could just as well have led the Rams to the
championship--"I assume that," he says--the difference the injury
made in his life is so enormous that you can hardly bear to
consider it. It won't be a surprise if Green, whose high-dollar
contract might be too expensive for a backup quarterback (uh, the
competition for the starting job won't be open this time around),
is traded. He will certainly have to move on if he intends to
start again anytime soon. What a difference a preseason injury
makes.

The real story, though, is that no matter what happened this past
season, Green can't sustain any amount of self-pity. A week after
the Super Bowl, while local TV was still turning up Warner angles
(a visit to his old high school led one newscast), Green was
already retooling for another season. He seemed kind of cheerful
about it. "Well, look around," he told a visitor by way of
explanation. "We've got these two healthy kids who make us laugh.
We've got this great house. Our families are nearby. I'm not
saying there weren't times when I was mad, when I came home from
rehab and thought life was unfair. But look!"

T.J., 2 1/2 years old, was throwing around a miniature Rams
football. Derek, five months, was sucking on a football-shaped
pacifier. Trent's wife, Julie, his college sweetheart at Indiana,
was packing for a trip to Florida. "It's still pretty good," said
Trent.

Green, a sturdily handsome guy whose domestic perfectionism (he
recently painted part of the master bedroom a second time because
the two cans he used the first time did not exactly match)
carries over onto the football field, knows he will get another
chance. He'll be 30 at the start of next season, and the damaged
ligaments in his left knee are mending, so there's still time.
"Maybe not a Super Bowl," he says. "Who can guarantee that? But I
still have some years." He has three of them remaining on a $16.5
million contract that St. Louis used to lure him as a free agent
from the Washington Redskins last February. That's pretty good,
too.

So he's not quite the Unluckiest Man in America. He knows that
better than you. It might have been hard for him to watch the
Rams move on without him, especially as he had worked so hard to
make the offense his, but it wasn't impossible. After all, it
wasn't that long ago that Green was a Kurt Warner story himself.
For most of his career Green was happy just to make a team. And
by the way, he didn't always make it.

"You see what I mean?" he says. "How could I possibly be upset
that Kurt did well? He's one of us!"

Until Green finally made his first NFL start, for the Redskins in
1998, he had taken only one snap in five years. Even in that 1998
season, he came to camp battling for a No. 3 job. "I had never
even been a backup," he says, laughing.

It had been a precarious, and increasingly ridiculous, career. A
1993 eighth-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers--"I was two
picks from being Mr. Irrelevant"--Green lacked the pedigree that
usually gives a young quarterback an opportunity. He was just a
body, glad to be there, making the league minimum. "Pick up
laundry, get the light switches, I was that guy," says Green.

Then, in 1994, he wasn't even that guy. Released by the Chargers
in August, he hooked up with the B.C. Lions as a backup for the
last month of the CFL season. "Julie and I talked several times
about whether I should keep going," he says.

He had a business degree from Indiana and, after a mostly stellar
career with the Hoosiers, enough contacts in Bloomington that he
could make a living there. "But Julie knew I still wanted to
play," says Green. "She knew I didn't want to have any regrets,
wondering if one more training camp would've made a difference."

But it wasn't just one more training camp. Green hooked up with
Washington in 1995, though for each of the next four years he had
to battle for that No. 3 spot. Going into the fourth camp, Trent
remembers giving Julie an all-too-familiar report: "I think I'm
doing well; I'm just not getting enough reps. I don't know what
they're thinking."

Just as there's a fine line between cleverness and stupidity,
there's an equally fuzzy distinction between perseverance and a
lack of self-awareness. At what point do you look at a No. 3
quarterback, five years in the league, and say, he doesn't get
it?

We can't know for sure because Green finally got a chance. Just
as he was beginning to think his quest might be hopeless, or at
least impractical--"At some point a team realizes it can get a
22-year-old making much less than a 28-year-old to hold a
clipboard"--he got his break. Jeff Hostetler was injured, backup
Gus Frerotte was banged up and ineffective. Green made 14 starts
in 1998, passed for 3,441 yards and 23 touchdowns, engineered a
6-3 finish for the Skins after being named the full-time starter
"and suddenly was seeing my name thrown about in the news." See,
before there was the Kurt Warner story, there was Trent Green's.

In January 1999, Washington quarterbacks coach Mike Martz went to
St. Louis as offensive coordinator and became instrumental in
getting Green back to his hometown. The money was important, as
was the homecoming, but Green was mostly impressed with the film
Martz showed him during his visit. Wideout Isaac Bruce, healthy
now, would catch passes. And would you look at that line, with
Orlando Pace! The Rams were shopping for a running back too, and
two months later would trade for Marshall Faulk. "The weapons!"
Green says.

All in all it was a magical time for the Greens. Julie was
pregnant. They were surrounded by family. The 1999 training camp
would be the first at which Trent wasn't playing for a roster
spot. "It was the first off-season in seven years we didn't have
to worry about where to live," he says. "I'd never had more than
a one-year contract."

The Greens bought a house in a distant development--carved out of
old farmland and given the mouth-numbing street name in an effort
to give it country club cachet--and they dug in. "This was the
first place I ever decorated," Julie says. Let the good times
roll.

At first they did. The notoriously inept Rams offense got off to
a sensational start in the preseason. Green, in particular,
looked awesome. In three games he completed 28 of 32 passes.

He even completed his last one, right before Chargers safety
Rodney Harrison smashed into his planted left leg. The pop, the
crunch and the burning were exactly as they'd been described to
Green, and he knew right away that he was out for the season. If
you see film of the sequence, you can register the level of
disaster. Bruce slams his helmet to the turf. Green takes off his
helmet and covers his eyes. It was Aug. 28, two weeks before the
season opener. At a news conference the following day, coach Dick
Vermeil broke down in tears.

Of course, Warner stepped in, and game by game, as his legend
grew, Green's injury no longer seemed so catastrophic. It might
even have been just what the Rams needed. It certainly was what
Warner needed.

Now Green is left in limbo, neither a loser nor a winner, his
future plunged back into uncertainty. Green reminds you that the
team went out of its way to include him in the season, but he
admits there is an estrangement. It's only natural. In his home
office, where he displays artifacts from his various stops, is an
extremely odd memento from this season, the game ball from that
San Diego game. It's like that T-shirt: THE RAMS WENT TO THE
SUPER BOWL, AND ALL I GOT WAS KNEE SURGERY.

Still, it's hard for Green to be discouraged. His knee is a
little sore, but he's been running and throwing the football.
Another training camp is coming up, and you just never know when
you might get lucky again. If there's one thing Green knows after
all this--and he knew it before Kurt Warner did--it's that all you
really have to do to succeed in this league is keep going to
those training camps. You just keep going.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Forgotten man His knee on the mend, Green vacationed in Florida last week not knowing when--or where--he would get his next opportunity to start.COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT Lost season Green, the starter from the moment camp opened, tore up his knee (below) just two weeks before opening day.COLOR PHOTO: BILL STOVER [See caption above]
"How could I possibly be upset that Kurt [Warner] did well?" says
Green, himself a longtime third-stringer.