Like father, like son: Gavin Greene, son of NFL Hall of Famer, motivated by faith, family, and football / Caroline Hunt

Photo: Gavin Greene stands for a picture in Robinson-Hale Stadium at Mississippi College, his alma mater. Greene wears his father Kevin Greene’s Hall of Fame Induction Class of  2016 cap and Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt, the team his father chose to present his Hall of Fame ring to him.

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a cold day in Rome, Georgia when the Mississippi College football team begins its pregame walk-through for an afternoon kickoff against Shorter University. One broad-shouldered defensive end sizes up Barron Stadium and begins to slowly walk up and down the turf’s length. 

After he’s done soaking in the environment around him, he goes into the locker room to change out of his warm-ups and into his #97 game jersey. 

He reappears on the green closer to the game’s 1 p.m. start time and taps Choctaws’ defensive coordinator Tony Gilbert, on the shoulder as he reclines on a sideline bench. Gilbert sits up and invites the defender to join him on the bench. 

A moment later, both have bowed heads and clasped hands as Gilbert’s lips move slowly while his player’s head nods to his coach’s words. They then look up simultaneously and Gilbert’s player rises and goes back to the locker room to wait for the start of another game in the Choctaws’ 2021 season.

Praying is how Gavin Greene prepares for the game at hand. 

*  *  *

Being the son of NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Greene ultimately puts a target on his back when preparing for his shot at the League. It won’t be easy to live up to his father’s career record of 160.0 sacks, placing him third on the all-time NFL sacks list, but Gavin Greene is confident in his ability to handle the pressure. 

Greene actually didn’t have aspirations to play football like his dad when he was younger. 

“My first memory of football was getting knocked out by a kid named Ryland Fisher who was a big fifth grader when I was a peewee guy who just started playing. He absolutely destroyed me and I decided then football wasn’t for me.”

Yet, a career shift for his father meant a shift in mindset toward football for Greene. 

“When my dad became the OLB [outside linebacker] coach for the [Green Bay] Packers, I became an equipment and water boy for the team during my summers when I didn’t have much else to do. And that’s when I really started falling in love with football,” Greene said.

However desirous Greene was about this newfound drive for football, his parents, especially his father, had reservations. 

“They worried about the criticism I might get for being Kevin Greene’s son. I wanted to be an outside linebacker just like him and they fought me playing football for a while,” said Greene. “I mean, statistically he’s the best OLB there is and me wanting to live up to and exceed that is daunting. They knew the pressure I’d have.” 

According to MaxPreps, a high school sports statistics bank, Greene played in 23 high school games, tallying 6.0 sacks, 58 solo tackles, 135 total tackles, 2 caused fumbles, and an average of 5.9 tackles per game for Niceville High School, located outside Greene’s native Destin, Fla.

Greene demonstrates a blocking drill in the north end zone of Robinson-Hale Stadium at Mississippi College. During water breaks at Choctaw practices, one could find MC defenders huddled around a goal post base as two defensive players face off to perform the drill trying to out-block the other, as teammates voraciously cheer each on.

The Greene family, consisting of Greene’s father Kevin, his mother Tara, and sister Gabby, moved to Florida after Greene’s father decided to relocate the family to the coast after an illustrious playing and coaching career that took the family to places like Charlotte, North Carolina and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Greene said they moved to the Sunshine State for the sole purpose of being a closer family- so his father could “just be a dad.” 

And, of course, it offered a place Greene could play at a high school that promised much in the way of football, a high school that even gave Kevin Greene the opportunity to coach his son during his senior year. 

Greene’s football success in high school got him noticed by coaches at Southern Miss, a Conference-USA school in Hattiesburg, Miss. And, after two seasons with the Golden Eagles and many memories, Greene transferred to Mississippi College to join the Choctaw family for his remaining college playing career.

At MC, Greene earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and a starting position in the defensive lineup for the Choctaws. He played in almost 30 regular-season games, including games in the shortened spring season of 2020 (due to COVID-19) with an all-career total of 52 solo and assisted tackles, and in the 2021 season alone, 31 tackles. His 2021 season high was 6 tackles on October 2nd at North Greenville University, which he later matched at Shorter University on October 16th and West Alabama University on November 13th. 

Greene stands in front of the home side stands at Robinson-Hale Stadium. Smiling, Greene poses for a picture on the sidelines. 

One practice, in particular, Charles Watson, an assistant defensive coach, remembers when Coach Kevin Greene paid a little visit to Robinson-Hale Stadium to spend the day with his son and his teammates. 

“One really great memory I have of Gavin is a day his father came and worked with the d-line. You could just see Gavin’s drive and raw hunger for knowledge,” said Watson. “That was a great day at practice for Gavin and it showed me the great relationship he and his father had.”

Kevin Greene is probably the biggest influence on his son’s NFL aspirations. Gavin has been coached by his father all his life. From coaching his son during his senior season of high school in Niceville to being coached from the stands at Southern Miss or the occasional stop-by at MC, Kevin Greene has permeated his son’s playing career in every stage. 

Except for this new stage of life Greene hopes to embark on. 

Kevin Greene passed in December of 2020, a month before Gavin would leave for the spring semester at MC. At just 58, the 2016 Hall of Famer’s death rocked the football world. But, even more so, his absence left Gavin Greene without his mentor, coach, father, and greatest friend.

“My dad was my best friend. We had a really strong relationship and he was one of the most important people in my life,” said Greene. “[The coaches] didn’t push me to come back, they actually said to take the semester off and then just come back if I wanted to. But I needed to be away from home, working on myself and trying to separate myself from the grief there. Huge support here was Coach Gilbert and the other defensive guys.” 

Greene’s faith was tested during this time. 

“I was angry. I just couldn’t understand why us, why now. I loved my father very much and for the first time in my life, I actually questioned God,” said Greene. “I’m not the best Christian out there, but I love Jesus and I try my best. That’s another thing I learned from my mom and dad- that enjoying life is easier when you love Jesus and love each other like Jesus. That’s us. That was my dad.”

The biggest trial of Greene’s 24 years, even more difficult than trying to make it to the National Football League, has proven Greene to be very resilient. He can sit and smile fondly when remembering stories about his father, family vacations, and his father’s faith. 

Former MC offensive lineman and friend of Greene’s, Cade Barrett, says, “Gavin has matured since his dad passed. He sees things differently but he’s carrying it proudly. He follows his father’s ideals and methods. He’ll continue to follow these and show it to others.”

A fierce coach and player on the field and an extremely loving father off, Kevin Greene was one of his son’s biggest supporters, encouragers, and advocates. And, even in his absence, his son is still learning from his father’s life. 

“When I lost him, I learned how important it is to enjoy your family. I could have all the money in the world but it won’t bring back my dad.” said Greene. “Sure, it can buy a little happiness here and there, but the material doesn’t last. What lasts is the time you spend with the people you love.”

Speaking on Greene’s influence on the Choctaw football program, Coach Watson noted the grit of Gavin Greene. 

“I will miss that guy’s hustle. Some days I would leave him in the game longer than normal and he never complained. He would go 100% even when he was tired. There was a play against West Florida where their running back broke for at least 60 yards. If no one stopped him he would have scored. Gavin sprinted the 60 yards and when their running back broke the last defender, Gavin stopped him,” Watson said. “The impact he’s left on our team is that he helped leave this place better than when he got here.”

* * *

As the Choctaws run onto the field at the start of Shorter University’s 2021 Homecoming football game, a small section of visiting fans are wearing gold and navy, standing up and shaking poms and yelling for one player in particular. Two fans wear #97 jerseys and scream louder than all the rest. “Go, Greene! Go, Greene! Go, Greene!” Gavin Greene’s mother and sister fervently cheer him on as he averages six tackles against Shorter, helping Choctaw defense hold Shorter offense. 

The Choctaws win 20-7. 

After the game, Greene is met with a surprise as his entire extended family meets him outside the gates of the stadium, embracing him for a game well-played. They all take a photo together to commemorate the occasion, pride and love shining on all their faces. In between “Hey, I didn’t know you’d be here!” and affectionate hugs, there is one person missing from the celebration. But, that one person missing is actually there in the way a mother and a sister embrace their player as he meets them off the field. 

Photos by Caroline Hunt. 

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