JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Famer Ernie Green Recalls His Early Days With Clevel
By Jamie H. Vaught
If you are a true pro football fan, you probably have heard of Ernie Green.
As you may recall, Green (pictured) was one of several standouts who helped head coach Blanton Collier and the 1964 Cleveland Browns capture the coveted NFL championship during the pre-Super Bowl era.
It was Green, a halfback who did a lot of blocking for legendary running back Jim Brown and quarterback Frank Ryan (who several months later got his Ph.D. in mathematics), clearing their victorious paths on the field during that memorable season.
Green, who starred at the University of Louisville, actually was good enough to be the lead running back. He later was named All-Pro in 1966 and ’67 before retiring due to an injured knee. In 2013, the Cleveland Plain Dealer listed Green as among the top 100 players in Browns history, ranking him at No. 43.
But Green didn’t mind his unglamorous role with the Browns. He also blocked for Leroy Kelly, another legendary running back for Cleveland, in later years,
“No, it didn’t bother me to be referred as the ‘other’ back (to Jim Brown),” Green recently wrote in an e-mail. “I was the ‘other’ back. It never bothered me because it was never about me. It was always about the team and the effort that we had to put out to win. The ‘other’ back had a job to do. That was more important than anything else.”
For his outstanding seven-year NFL career, Green was recently selected to the Lexington-based Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame along with four other inductees for the hall of fame’s 2017 class. (The other inductees are William Gay of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, Virgil Livers of the Chicago Bears, Bruce Kozerski of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Todd Perry of the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins.)
Green didn’t really know what to think about his latest honor.
“The day I received the news of my selection I was really blown away,” said Green. “I had no idea that I was being considered. My initial thought was ‘why me and why now?’ I did not spend any time searching for answers to those questions.
“Right away, I began thinking about all the hours, days, and years I spent preparing myself to be as good as my talents would permit. I was able to conclude that the selectors from the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame thought the efforts that I displayed during my career was worthy of this great honor. I am deeply humbled, honored and grateful for this recognition.”
That’s not all.
Green and the 1964 Browns also will receive the 11th annual Blanton Collier Award for Integrity. The national-level award, named after ex-UK and Browns coach, recognizes individuals who have shown outstanding integrity both on and off the field. Of course, the 1964 Browns -- which also included star wide receiver Paul Warfield -- were coached by mild-mannered Collier and they are the last squad to capture an NFL title in Cleveland.
Along with the 2017 Hall of Fame inductees and the 1964 Browns, Green will be honored during weekend festivities this month in Lexington. The celebration will begin with a ring ceremony on Thursday, June 22 at the Keeneland Sales Pavilion, and a golf outing fundraiser and an induction ceremony at the Lexington Opera House on Friday night, June 23.
Green, who grew up in Columbus, Ga., discussed in detail how he ended up at Cleveland and has warm remembrances of Collier.
“All my memories of Coach Collier are fun and joyful,” said Green, whose Collier-coached squad also played in the NFL Championship game following the 1965 season, losing to Green Bay 23-12. “I believe that had it not been for him, I would not have been traded to Cleveland from Green Bay.
“I had been drafted by Green Bay and had gone to training camp with the team. Training camp started early for Green Bay because they had won the NFL championship the year before and was scheduled to play the College All Stars in the first game (exhibition) of the 1962 season.
“Ernie Davis was drafted by Cleveland and was scheduled to play with the College All Stars in the game against Green Bay. Ernie became ill and was unable to play. Because of Ernie’s illness and the fact he would not be able to play, Cleveland was in need of a running back.
“Coach Collier joined Cleveland after leaving the University of Kentucky in 1962, the same year I was drafted by Green Bay. When Ernie Davis’ illness surfaced, Cleveland needed someone to replace him. At the same time of these events, Green Bay had too many running backs and Cleveland was in need of one.
“Coach (Vince) Lombardi of Green Bay and Paul Brown of Cleveland were friends. The two coaches talked and Paul Brown expressed interest in me in joining the team. However, Cleveland needed to check me out. Coach Collier was asked to take on that responsibility. He and Coach (Frank) Camp, my U of L coach, were dear friends.
“Whatever was said during the conversation must have impressed him because when we met for the first time it was as if we had been friends forever. Coach Collier took a real interest in me from the moment I arrived until he retired. He was an outstanding coach and could teach all positions on the field. Every day after practice he would corner me and we would work on things that would make me a better player.
“If my career in Cleveland is considered a success, much of credit should go to Coach Collier.”
Asked about his favorite memory of his sports career, Green, who also played college baseball, said, “My favorite moment in my sports career was winning the 1964 NFL championship. This game was very special because we had a tough time earning our way into the divisional championship.
“The first half of the year was not good for us. We did not play well. However, during the second half of the year, we played better and qualified for the NFL championship (game).
“Baltimore (led by second-year coach Don Shula and QB Johnny Unitas) became our opponent. They had a great year and won their division with three games remaining in their regular season. We were the underdog and everyone was talking about how badly we were going to lose.
“Game day was really exciting. The game was played in Cleveland before our fan base of more than 82,000 (actually 79,544). We won the game and Baltimore never put a score on the board (with a final score of 27-0).”
What about Jim Brown?
“It is very difficult to think of a favorite memory for Jim Brown,” recalled Green, who gained 3,204 rushing yards (averaging 4.8 yards per carry) and caught 195 passes for 2,036 yards during his pro career. “Each game we played he would make a catch, break a tackle and complete a run that would make me say to myself, ‘How did he do that?’
“One game comes to mind. Early in my career we played the Cowboys in the Cotton Bowl. Jim made a run that to this day I have never seen anyone else make. The play started on the Dallas five-yard line The play was our famous sweep to the left. The key block was the one I missed on the linebacker. He was able to force Jim back to the 10-yard line. Jim out ran him and was able to turn the corner toward the goal line. Nine Cowboys hit him and he was able to score the touchdown. This was the greatest run that I have ever seen.”
After his football career ended, Green spent one year as an assistant coach with the Browns and served as assistant vice president for student affairs at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Also, he is a successful businessman, running a manufacturing firm in the Dayton, Ohio, area that produces components for the automobile industry.
“We are still involved in our business however, not so much in the daily operation,” said 78-year-old Green, a breast cancer survivor who spends winters in Ormond Beach, Florida with his wife, Della. “Our president and chief operations officer manages the daily operations of the company.”
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If you would like to see some of the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Famers and the selected members of the 1964 Browns club, you can purchase tickets for the June 23 induction ceremony in Lexington. For more details, you can go online at kyprofootballhof.org or call 859-276-3488.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
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