William Green immediately hugged his grandmother when the Cleveland Browns selected him in the first round of the 2002 NFL draft. Green believed that moment would erase his pain and bitterness.
He watched both of his parents die of AIDS, his father when Green was 12 and his mother about a year later. After their deaths he was separated from his brothers and sisters because nobody in the family could afford to take in five children. He was optimistic that being the first running back drafted that year, and becoming a millionaire after growing up poor, would make him happy.
It just added to his misery.
"To me, it was the strangest feeling," Green said. "I don’t feel any different. What am I supposed to feel like? I was very green. What does this mean? Does this mean I am in the NFL now? What does the money mean? Does it mean I never have to work again in my life? Can I spend what I want and never run out? What is a million dollars? I’m a kid from the street. My wheels were just spinning.
"I’m here, it’s really happening, I can’t believe it’s happening, but it’s not the way I thought it would be. It was really just a world of not knowing. What is going on? What does this just mean? … When I got drafted, it went in the opposite direction. It wasn’t happiness. It was pain and frustration and coming at you from every angle."
If you remember Green, it's probably not for anything spectacular he did on the field. He is labeled as one of the most disappointing draft picks in Browns history. He was the first running back selected in 2002, ahead of future Pro Bowlers Clinton Portis and Brian Westbrook. In four NFL seasons Green had just 2,109 rushing yards. He was better known for the problems he created because of his addiction to drugs and alcohol.
In 2003 he was suspended for four games by the NFL for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. While he was serving that suspension, his fiancee was arrested on charges of stabbing him in the back during an argument.
"Smoking weed and drinking. That was it," Green said of his overall professional downfall. "I had went out and bought these nice cars [Mercedes Benz AMG and a Cadillac Escalade]. I didn’t realize how it was. I was kind of a laid-back guy. I would just let those cars sit and go get a little rental car to drive around. I didn’t like the attention. It was the opposite of me. I wasn’t ready for it."
This is the story he tells wide-eyed kids these days. Green became an ordained minister in 2012.
After years of contemplation, Green decided to start sharing his story with children and churches. The constant demand to hear him led Green to become a motivational speaker. He speaks at schools, churches and corporations, expressing how he fought through his struggles.
What a story he has for them.
Before Green entered the NFL, he was like any other teenager full of hope and ambition. He enjoyed playing sports, loved his siblings and adored mom – until his innocence was taken away.
Green’s father was a heroin addict who contracted AIDS. His father passed along the disease to Green’s mom before he died. He hated his father because of his mom’s death, and then for the eventual separation from his brothers and sisters. Football became his safe haven, but that sanctuary never provided him peace.
He earned a scholarship to Boston College, but that didn't keep him out of trouble. Green was suspended twice because of his marijuana use in college. Nevertheless, he was a gifted athlete, and talent usually overrides off-field issues in sports.
Green skipped his senior season and entered the NFL draft. His college coaches encouraged him to stay because they knew the trouble that loomed without their structure. Green ignored them.
As Cleveland prepared for the draft, Green was the No. 1 player on former coach Butch Davis’ board. Davis and the Browns desperately needed a running back, and the red flags meant Green would probably drop in the draft.
Carmen Policy, Cleveland’s team president at the time, said he was one of the few in the building against the selection of Green.
"William’s presence actually became a point of contention between me and Butch Davis," Policy said. "We had resolved that we just weren’t going to take a chance on drafting a young man who had all the problems that life had thrown at him on his plate, and all the setbacks William had experienced. My position was I know we need a running back, I know we need to improve our running game. He is a talented young man. There were some very positive things said about his personality and the type of human being he was. I just felt there were so many negatives. We were such a young franchise, we couldn’t afford the risk."
Davis disagreed. Policy eventually walked away from the debate.
"When it ultimately came down to it, Butch Davis was very insistent that we needed him, and he could handle it and deal with it and so forth,” Policy said. “Even though I was president of the team, I never interfere with personnel decisions, unless they were matters that affected the reputation of the team or the stature of the brand. It created a real bone of contention between Butch and myself."
The risky move seemed smart during Green’s rookie season.
He rushed for 887 yards and six touchdowns in 2002. He averaged only 3.7 per carry, but he was a rookie with upside. Cleveland made its first playoff appearance since the 1994 season.
Yet, Green was miserable.
"I was just lucky," Green said. "I wasn’t half the player. It just kind of happened that way. Maybe the linemen were blocking better on that Sunday. I didn’t have the drive. I just was out there playing."
Green did not care, and that became evident the following season.
After compiling just 559 yards and one touchdown in seven games, Green was arrested for drunk driving and marijuana possession. He was suspended by the NFL. During the suspension, Green and Asia Gray, his fiancée before they were married, had a domestic dispute. Gray tried to scare Green and cut him during the argument, which led to more negative headlines.
"All the things I had dealt with as a child, all the torment, all the nightmares, all the difficulties we had seen, all of that was coming up in my life," Green said. "That was hard to deal with. I had a lot of unforgiveness and a lot of pain. I was a 22-, 23-year-old kid. It was tough. Nobody to tell you the truth. Everybody wants something from you."
That is why Green felt relief when the NFL suspended him.
"To be completely honest with you, it was a chance for me to get out and get away," Green said. "I enjoyed being able to get away. I didn’t want to play football anymore at the time. They sent me off to a place. I was in Boston. That is where the rehab facility was. I was able to see my friends. At that part of my life, I really started to get some healing. But you got to understand that the whole time I was on that field, I didn’t want to be on that field. I didn’t want to play. My desire to play the game was gone at the time. It was a tough in my life. For me, that was a way out."
Gray had every reason to leave. Her husband was partying. He fathered a child with another woman. The man she loved was spiraling out of control.
Before walking out the door, she sat down with Green with the goal of convincing him to become a Christian and believe in God. At first, Green resisted. He eventually broke down and decided it would be the only way to become a better husband, father and man.
"You realize no matter what anybody has done to you in life, you have to be willing to forgive them," Green said. "That’s the key to Christianity. That is the only thing that made me understand what I needed to do. And as a man, I realize there were times I started to get high, get drunk, some weed, and party, and I see how I could have been like my father. "He was a kid out there. He didn’t have a father. He was living in his environment, selling drugs or using drugs. There were times I could have come home and gave my wife a disease because of the parties, getting drunk or getting high. I realized that I blamed him for a lot, but we’re all human. I could have made the same mistake and been in the same boat. I was blessed enough not to.”
Green was starting to turn his life around, but it was too late for his NFL career.
Policy, who eventually became a supporter of Green, had taken a job with the San Francisco 49ers. Davis was replaced by Romeo Crennel. Green was healing, but the damage was done.
“We had new coaches coming in, and you were the old guy, and these are the new guys," Green said. "The bridges were burnt.
"'There is no way I am putting you on my field. I cannot rely on you.' There were times I would try to talk to Coach Crennel and say, ‘Hey, I’m different guy. I’m a different person, Coach.’ I’m in camp and beating these guys out by far, and I know I should be the starter.
"'The bottom line is we can’t trust you.' That was my fault. It hurt."
Green’s football career ended after the 2005 season. He had just 20 carries for 78 yards his final year. He attempted a comeback in 2008, but his skills were diminished. His football career was over, but a new profession began. He now travels around telling people how to avoid the same mistakes he made.
"To hear the report of how he’s doing, it’s very uplifting," said Policy, who currently runs his own winery (Casa Peina). "It’s almost inspiring. I’m delighted because you just saw something in him that caused you to like him, and root for him. When I say root for him, it’s far more than as an athlete. It’s root for him to find a hand that will help pull him along, and help pull him in the right direction."
Green, now 34, is finally down the right path. His website, fittingly, is WillieGreenInspires.com.
He is the father of eight children. They currently live in Berlin, N.J., and recently purchased a home on four acres to have more room. The fancy cars he once drove have been replaced by a 12-passenger van to haul around his family.
Green’s grandmother died four years ago, but she saw him turn his life around. There were times she was uncertain it would happen. Even Green was unsure how his story would end.
Most NFL observers will remember Green failing in the NFL, but his success has been overcoming the pain that tormented him, even on draft day.
"Knowing what I know I know now, I would have done everything differently, from start to end," Green said. "I would have had my motivation, I would have had my drive, I would have been able to focus and study and be a player. Those first two years I was drunk and high. I wasn’t studying. I was just lining up and saying, ‘Whatever.’
"I think a blessing for me is I know I would have done everything different, but the other blessing is I can look back and it heals me. I don’t regret it. It doesn’t make me depressed because I can still use it for a greater purpose to help others and change their lives and encourage them. I can use it for something."
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