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The Pack's Back Inspired by Walter Payton and a change of scenery, Ahman Green is thriving as the main man in resurgent Green Bay's ground game

Oct. 22, 2001
Oct. 22, 2001

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Oct. 22, 2001

The Pack's Back Inspired by Walter Payton and a change of scenery, Ahman Green is thriving as the main man in resurgent Green Bay's ground game

This being an autumn Saturday afternoon before a home game,
Ahman Green kisses his wife, Shalynn, and hugs their
four-year-old daughter, Ahmani, before banishing them upstairs.
Soon he will join the other Green Bay Packers for their pregame
stay at the team hotel, but first he must tend to one important
bit of business. He closes the living-room blinds, shuts off the
stereo, dims the lights, settles into the overstuffed armchair
and grips the remote. Then in hushed reverence he stares at the
god dancing across his TV screen.

This is an article from the Oct. 22, 2001 issue Original Layout

Never mind that Green has already seen this tape too many times
to count. For the next hour he will watch Walter Payton go from
impoverished boy to Jackson State star to Chicago Bears great,
Super Bowl winner and NFL career rushing leader. Green will
watch Payton dart around and pound through tacklers. Mesmerized
by Payton's grace and skill, Green will fall into a familiar
slack-jawed trance. Only then will he be ready for football.
"It'll always be that way with that video, and it should be,"
says Shalynn. "It's like he has to become Walter Payton. It
relaxes him. When the video is finished, he's in another place,
and I know then I don't have to worry about him."

"Walter was the greatest," Ahman says of Payton, who died of
bile-duct cancer and liver disease in 1999 at age 45. "If I
don't watch the tape, I'm not focused. He's always been my idol,
and I try to carry him onto the field with me."

In the midst of a renaissance that would've seemed preposterous
only a season ago, Green, a fourth-year pro, has made remarkable
strides with his channeling of Payton. After two unimpressive
seasons with the Seattle Seahawks that were marked by a
propensity to fumble and by struggles with coach Mike Holmgren's
West Coast offense, Green was traded in April 2000 to Green Bay,
which needed a kick returner and backup to running back Dorsey
Levens. Thrust into the featured spot when knee injuries plagued
and eventually sidelined Levens last season, Green responded
with shockingly good numbers: 1,175 rushing yards and 73
receptions, both team highs for the year, despite starting only
11 games.

His star is still on the rise for a team that sits atop the NFC
Central with a 4-1 record. Green leads the NFC in rushing with
439 yards, and in a 31-23 victory over the Baltimore Ravens and
their vaunted defense on Sunday, he ran for 54 yards. On a
third-and-nine situation late in the third quarter, he dashed
for 19 yards, setting up his own one-yard touchdown run that put
the Packers ahead 24-10.

"As good as he is, he can be better--which is scary," says
Packers quarterback Brett Favre. "He's young, and he has to
adjust to this offense and to how much we ask him to do. If he
can do that, he can be very dominating."

The 24-year-old Green has even earned comparisons with his hero.
Just as Payton doled out punishment to would-be tacklers, Green
looks to initiate contact. Just as Payton rarely succumbed to
the first hit, Green often leaves the first defender in a heap.
At six feet and a chiseled 217 pounds, he's a deceptively
powerful, breathtakingly fast runner. Indeed, few running backs
can match his ability both to move a pile and outrun defensive
backs--on the same play, no less.

Blessed with tree-trunk thighs and an iron will, Green is a sure
bet on short-yardage downs--last year he converted a league-best
12 of 13 third-and-one situations--but should he encounter a
roadblock, his 4.3 speed can be handy. Ask Detroit Lions
linebacker Chris Claiborne, who hopelessly gave chase in Week 1
after Green was momentarily stopped at the line and then darted
around left end on an 83-yard touchdown run. "His legs are very
strong, but he's very fast, and people tend to forget that,"
Claiborne says.

Green's emergence has benefited Favre, who struggled at times
over the last two seasons when forced to carry too much of the
load. Green has plenty of room to grow as a receiver--though he
leads the team again this year in receptions, with 26, he
dropped three balls in the first two games--but Packers coach
and general manager Mike Sherman says the improvement will come
with time.

That said, Sherman looks smarter every time Green touches the
ball. After serving as the Seahawks' offensive coordinator
during Green's second season in Seattle, Sherman became Green
Bay's coach in April 2000, and he lobbied Ron Wolf, the Packers'
general manager at the time, to deal for Green. "In Seattle you
could see that Ahman just needed more carries to improve," says
Sherman, "but with Ricky Watters in place, there weren't many
carries left."

Green concedes he was overwhelmed by the complex sets favored by
Holmgren, who had moved from coaching Green Bay to becoming
general manager and coach of the moribund Seahawks in 1999.
Despite peppering his coaches with questions in daily meetings,
Green, who was entering his second year in the NFL, felt lost
from the beginning of the '99 training camp. "It was like trying
to learn trigonometry overnight," he recalls. "Sometimes I'd
line up and be thinking, Where am I supposed to go? I started
focusing less on holding onto the ball, and I fumbled at times."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, for one, sees Green's
propensity to cough up the ball as a transitory problem.
"Fumbling happens to a lot of backs when they come into the
NFL," Dungy says. "The fumbles of most great players decrease
dramatically as they go on. You get guys like Emmitt Smith and
Barry Sanders who fumble a little bit early, but later in their
careers they hardly ever fumbled."

Green had tasted disappointment before--he wasn't taken until
the third round of the 1998 draft, despite having been
Nebraska's second-leading career rusher before he left following
his junior year--but slipping into Holmgren's doghouse was
particularly vexing to him. Holmgren acknowledges that he was
the wrong coach for a man who too frequently put the ball on the
ground. "I didn't know him very well, but Ahman was hurt a lot,
and he did fumble a lot," Holmgren says. "I'll be the first to
admit that my patience with that is very, very short. When I was
in Green Bay, Edgar Bennett fumbled as a rookie, and I sat him
for five games."

"The only reason I played after that," Bennett, now the Packers'
director of player programs, recalls with a laugh, "is that
everyone else got injured."

Still, Sherman liked Green's work ethic, and midway through the
1999 season the Seahawks made him their third-down back. Green
was heartened by the responsibility, and though he rushed for
only 120 yards that year, he felt more comfortable in the
offense by season's end. Then came the trade. "I'd hoped to get
it done in Seattle," he says. "It's like what Walter says in the
video, that looking for a trade is the coward's way out. I was
shocked."

Says Holmgren, "We desperately needed a cover corner, and Green
Bay had Fred Vinson. Capwise, the numbers were close." Vinson
tore his right ACL before the 2000 season, reinjured the knee
last spring and is out of football. "I think Ahman's a great kid
and a very good runner," Holmgren continues. "The trade worked
out for Green Bay."

Although Holmgren is speaking of the Packers, he could as easily
be speaking of the city. It takes a certain kind of player to
embrace relocation to the NFL's smallest town, in part because
Green Bay reveres its players like no other city in the league.
"I love it here," Green says repeatedly, whether it's driving on
a near-empty freeway at 5 p.m. ("Rush hour," he says with a
smile) or getting his mail and waving to his neighbor, a man
mowing his lawn in head-to-toe Packers regalia. "I'll do
anything to repay the team and the town for receiving me and my
family as they have."

"All he's done, from his first day, is work hard, and that's why
we took him in like a brother and accepted him as our Number 1
guy," says veteran Packers safety LeRoy Butler. "More than
anything, he works on his weaknesses. That's why we love him.
He's our diamond in the rough."

Having attended Nebraska after a stellar high school career in
Omaha prepared Green for Green Bay's sleepy, fishbowl existence.
"It's eerie how much this place is like Lincoln," he says. "Both
have that tradition, those big names, great coaches."

During the off-season Green took classes at Wisconsin-Green Bay
toward his degree in geography, a subject he hopes to teach in
junior high when his playing days are over. He also helped coach
a high school baseball team, and he and Shalynn cheered Ahmani
in her small role in a community-theater production of Ragtime.
In perhaps his strongest affirmation of love for his adopted
home, Green re-upped with the Packers in July, signing a
five-year, $17.5 million contract. "They committed to me," he
says. "It's what I wanted to do."

"To him, the simple things matter," Shalynn says of her husband.
"That's how he's always been: authentic."

On a mid-September afternoon Green feels like watching another
video, one he screens two or three times a month. It's a
highlight reel of the 1991 title run of the North Omaha Boys
Club Little League Football Bears, whose uniforms were modeled
on Chicago's and who featured the touchdown sprints and
bone-jarring tackles of a spindly legged number 34. On one play
14-year-old Ahman dashes through the line and, before crossing
the goal line for his umpteenth TD, drops his shoulder into a
defender, who crumples to the ground. "I broke his collarbone,"
Green recalls. "Poor guy." He quickly loses himself in memories.
The only sound in the room comes from the repeated rewinding of
the tape to his favorite moments.

The silence is finally broken by the slam of the garage door and
the yelping of Ahmani, home from preschool. "Dad-dy!" she cries
as Green steals a look at the reel's final touchdown run. The
video pauses--number 34 slumped in the end zone, exhausted from
his last long run--and he looks down to find Ahmani standing at
his side. It's time to swap the past for the present, and the
future. He drops the remote and scoops her into his arms. This,
too, seems like one heck of a trade.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Hole puncher Rushing yards were hard to come by against Baltimore, but Green (30) ground out 54 of them and scored once.COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG Right at home Ahman, with Ahmani (left), Shalynn and the family dog, expects to be a part of the Green Bay community for years to come.
Few can match Green's ability to move a pile and outrun
defensive backs--on the same play, no less.