KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The biggest moment in Ron Green's life won't come Monday night at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., when he and his University of Tennessee football teammates play Florida State for the national championship.
It already happened here a couple of weeks ago, when the fifth-year senior from Severna Park received his undergraduate degree in sociology. In football, Green was something of a natural. In the academic world, he wasn't.
Green is learning-disabled.
"College," he said here recently, "was a struggle for me."
It wasn't much different at Severna Park High School, where Green took his college entrance exams six times before achieving the score needed under NCAA guidelines. Andy Borland remembers the day Green got the news.
"When he finally passed, Ron and his guidance counselor came in to tell me," said Borland, who retired last June after 35 years as the school's football coach. "There were tears in everyone's eyes."
Borland choked on his words, the memories of that day five years ago coming back.
"And now he's got a sheet of paper saying that he's a college graduate," said Borland, who has stayed in close touch with his former player.
Doris Green has memories, too. Of how she and her late husband, Donald, raised their great-nephew. The son of Angela Green and Larry Thomas, Ron Green suffered a bout of pneumonia when he was 3 months old. At that point, Angela asked her aunt and uncle to take on the role of Ron's parents.
When the boy was in first grade, Doris Green suspected he wasn't making the same academic progress that her five children -- now ages 34 through 39 -- had made at a similar stage. So she held him back.
"It was rather tough," she said last week from the family's home in Pasadena. "But he had the determination, and we told him that he could do anything he wanted to do and that nothing would stand in his way. He wasn't going to let his disability stop him from achieving what he wanted."
Doris Green was here for her great-nephew's graduation ceremony Dec. 20, as were nine other members of the family, including his mother. He became the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college. Donald Green missed the occasion by exactly six months. He died June 20.
Carmen Tegano, the associate athletic director for student life at Tennessee, who oversees the school's academic support unit, worked with Green when he first arrived on campus and again recently to ensure that everything was in place for graduation.
"From the first day he arrived, he always had his notebooks ready, his pens in place, his calculator working," Tegano said. "To tell you the truth, he was kind of a nerd. Some kids called him 'Mr. Nerd' behind his back, but Ron's an extremely hard worker and he's done well because he managed his time. Academics were always a priority."
Still, Green needed constant tutoring over the past five years from Lois Prislovski, who directs Tennessee's program for students with special needs.
"I got tutoring almost every day," he said.
Green suffers from developmental expressive writing disorder, Prislovski said. It affects his ability to put down on paper what he hears as well as what he thinks.
In Green's case, it required having note-takers with him at every class, and accommodations were made so that Green could write papers with the help of voice-activated computers and take oral exams.
"What got him through was hard work," Prislovski said. "When he was about to graduate, he was in study hall every night from 7 until midnight. He is very diligent, always asking, 'Can I do something else?' Every nook and cranny of his time was spent working."
It was different in football. That came easy to Green, a gifted all-around athlete who started on Severna Park's varsity basketball team as a freshman and even competed in gymnastics as a 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore. "I got some interesting looks," said Green, who competed in floor exercise and the vault. "They'd say, 'Whoa, who's this big guy?' "
Green had never played organized football until trying out for the sport as a freshman at the urging of one of his friends.
"I thought basketball was my thing," Green said. "I went out and found that I was good at it [football]. I was introduced to Andy Borland and told him that this was my first time playing football. I told him, 'I don't know what to do,' and he said, 'Just do whatever I tell you.' The first day of practice, I was working out with the JV. He said to me, 'What are you doing down there?' "
Said Borland: "He was a man among boys. We struggled where to play him because of his athletic ability. He could run the 40 in 4.5. He had a 31-inch vertical jump. He bench-pressed 300 pounds without any previous training. You look at a kid with that kind of talent and sort of swell up."
Green played some tight end and offensive tackle as a sophomore, but an ankle injury interrupted his season. After Green came back for the team's final two games, Borland put him on defense with hopes of his becoming a dominating player in the mold of Severna Park alum Jamie Bragg, who went on to the University of Maryland.
Finding a position
As a junior, Green moved to nose guard.
"All of a sudden, I found a position I was good at it," he recalled. "I didn't know what I was doing, but they told me, 'Just get the guy with the ball.' "
Said Borland: "By the last game of his career, he was killing people."
Green finished his senior year with 186 tackles and 16 sacks, one short of the Maryland high school record. The recruiting process that began when Green was a sophomore -- "That kind of amazed me," he said -- ended when he picked Tennessee over Nebraska for the simple reason that he felt more comfortable in Knoxville than he did in Lincoln.
Part of the recruiting class that included All-American Peyton Manning, Green redshirted his first year here. As a redshirt freshman, he started six of 12 games and was named to the Southeastern Conference's all-freshman team. He started nine of games as a sophomore at left tackle, but missed the team's Citrus Bowl win over Northwestern with a knee injury.
"I hurt my knee in the Kentucky game that year, and they said it was a bruise," Green recalled. "On the first day of practice for the bowl game, I tore my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament]."
After undergoing surgery in January 1997, Green tried to make it back for spring practice. But after pushing himself a little too hard in the weight room, the knee swelled and Green sat until the fall. He wound up starting five of 13 games, but he was now part of a six-man rotation the Volunteers used on the defensive line.
Green expected to be a starter at right tackle this season, but an inflamed knee cost him two weeks in the spring and several snaps in the fall. But with injuries to starters Jeff Coleman and Fred Weary, Green could play a great deal in the Fiesta Bowl.
"It's been a disappointing year," Green said a few days before Tennessee's 24-14 victory over Mississippi State in the SEC championship game. "I went from playing 40 to 50 snaps a game to 20 to 30. I just want to try and get through it. I didn't know if I was going to come back at all [after the spring]. I was in so much pain."
Because of the inflammation, Green practiced only a couple of times a week through the regular season. But defensive line coach Dan Brooks said recently that Green and fellow tackle Billy Rat-liff have had time in the past few weeks to regain their health.
"I don't think he could have handled it any better than he did," Brooks said of Green. "Ron has started a lot of football games and has been very productive."
A shot at the NFL
Asked if he believes Green has a chance to play in the NFL, Brooks said: "I don't think there's any question. He's a powerful guy with a lot of quickness for his size [6-1, 275]. With the pros being so specialty-oriented, he could be attractive to some teams."
Brooks' favorite story about Green doesn't have to do with his ability to drag down tailbacks, but with his singing voice. It came the week the Volunteers played at the Citrus Bowl and Green went with the team to a chapel service.
"It was the biggest church in Orlando, something like 5,800 people, and Ron stood up and sang in front of everybody," Brooks recalled. "He's got a great voice. He just cuts loose."
Green has been part of a gospel group, Unity, performing at churches and for youth groups around Knoxville. He sang the national anthem at the SEC swimming championships. After the Fiesta Bowl, Green will make a tape for a New York record producer who is a friend of Prislovski's.
One to remember
Like his high school coach, Prislovski and Brooks get a little choked up when talking about Green.
"He's a poster boy for our program," Prislovski said. "Ron has helped shake the stigma away of being learning-disabled. He's such a cool guy, the other kids on the team ask me now if they can be part of the program. That's one of his legacies at UT."
Said Brooks: "He's one you'll remember the rest of your life."
Andy Borland certainly will. The former coach had planned on going to the Fiesta Bowl, but he had to give up the trip because of a broken foot. Borland still has the jersey Green gave him from the team's Citrus Bowl appearance.
"It was a pretty neat way to thank you," Borland said.
Ron Green plans on saying thank you in another way. Though he intends to try out for the pros, Green also is determined to help children with learning disabilities at some point in the future.
"I want to show them that if they work hard, they could do what I did," he said.
Pub Date: 12/30/98