On Sports: Alex Green overcomes odds, sticks with Packers

by: JIM BIEVER/GREEN BAY PACKERS - Alex Green, from Benson High, is in his second season with the Green Bay Packers and coming off a knee injury that shelved him as a rookie.
Obstacles always seem to come out second-best going up against Alex Green, 24, the second-year running back of the Green Bay Packers.

“I’m kind of comfortable being the underdog, playing from behind, surprising people,” Green tells me via phone from Green Bay the day after the Packers’ 23-10 victory over the Chicago Bears.

School? A continuous challenge. Attended summer school every year as a kid. Took four cracks before gaining admittance into Benson High. One teacher at Benson told him he would never graduate. Struggled academically at a pair of junior colleges. Took 26 credits one term at Butte College in Oroville, Calif. Things crystallized when he was diagnosed with dyslexia at the University of Hawaii.

Family life? Not easy. One of eight boys raised by his mother, Phyllis Smith, and his stepfather, Tim Smith. Had two children of his own by age 22. Thought about quitting school more than once to go back to his daughter, now 4, in Portland.

Money? Always an issue. Because of child-support payments, couldn’t afford an apartment at Butte. For almost a semester, lived in his 1998 Chevy Lumina in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Making the roster of a premier NFL club as a third-round draft pick? He wasn’t about to not have it happen.

Then, midway through his rookie year last fall, suffering an ACL tear to his left knee that cost him the rest of the season and jeopardized his position with the team? He shortened a nine- to 12-month rehab process to eight months to make it back for the start of training camp in July.

“It’s a pretty improbable story,” says Leon McKenzie, Green’s track and field coach and freshman football coach at Benson who has known Green and his parents since fifth grade.

Green’s parents were in Green Bay for the Packers’ season-opening loss to San Francisco. Phyllis Smith stayed to watch the team’s Thursday night victory over Chicago.

“Nicest lady you’d ever want to meet,” McKenzie says. “Always has a smile for you. A sweetheart with everybody. And loves her son to death.”

The 6-foot, 225-pound Green is the backup to starting tailback Cedric Benson for a Green Bay team that could again contend for a Super Bowl championship.

Not bad for a city kid who played for a undistinguished Benson team and — though in part because of his academic difficulties — didn’t get scholarship offers from Oregon State or Oregon.

“It’s a great story,” McKenzie says. “Let’s be honest. If you compare the PIL to schools like Lake Oswego or Jesuit or Beaverton, it’s a different world in terms of support. For him to come out of a city school and progress and make it in the NFL ... that would seem like a pipe dream.”

Green’s frustrations at Benson were mostly in the classroom, primarily a result of his reading disability.

“Benson didn’t really suit him,” McKenzie says. “We did not have any academic help at school like a lot of schools do for the special-needs kids. It can be lonely out there when you’re trying to understand and you can’t because you learn different.”

Poor grades and test scores jeopardized his college opportunities, even while rushing for 1,134 yards and 14 TDs and earning all-PIL honors as a senior. He had 197 yards on 15 carries in the 2006 Les Schwab Bowl.

“Alex was as good as any running back in the state,” McKenzie says. “Because he went to Benson, nobody paid attention. That happens a lot. Players on lousy teams don’t get noticed.”

Not entirely true.

Oregon State “showed a lot of interest,” Green says. “I think they were going to offer (a scholarship), but I didn’t have the academics.”

Green started at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, Ariz., but he wasn’t qualified there, either, and didn’t like it at the school. He transferred to Butte during the spring of 2007 and played some that fall. But he blossomed the next season, rushing for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns for a team that went 12-0 and won the national junior-college title.

The time in Oroville, though, wasn’t easy. School was hard, and money was scarce enough that his car was his home for a while.

“He didn’t share that with anybody,” McKenzie says. “He didn’t want anybody to know, even people close to him. He was pretty close to leaving school there, coming back to Portland and getting a job. Thank God he didn’t.”

Green credits close friend Lametrius Davis — a former Roosevelt High standout who played with Green at Butte — with talking him out of it. With offers from Texas-El Paso and Bowling Green, Green followed Davis to Hawaii. But Green had to do extra summer work to qualify academically and arrived just a few days before camp.

After playing a secondary role as a junior, Green blossomed as a senior, rushing for 1,199 yards — second on the school’s single-season list — and 18 TDs while catching 27 passes for 363 yards. He broke the school record with 327 yards on just 19 carries against New Mexico State, then shined at the East-West Shrine Game.

“He was clearly the class of the (tailback) group there,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said at the time.

Green made the Packers as a rookie in 2011 and played in four games, with three carries for 11 yards and one catch for six yards. Then came the injury while blocking on a kickoff return against the Vikings.

“It was a frustrating thing for me, but I talked to a couple of people who said the most important part was to stay focused on the rehab,” Green says. “To not get too down and out and deal with it mentally.”

Green made it back for the first day of 2012 training camp, albeit on a limited basis. The Packers eased him back into competition, and in the final preseason game, he scored a pair of TDs against Kansas City. He didn’t play in the regular-season opener against the 49ers, then had two carries for two yards versus the Bears.

The Packers (1-1) will play Seattle at 5:30 p.m. Monday at CenturyLink Field.

“It’s just good to be back on the field after the injury,” Green says. “I’m not quite back to 100 percent. Almost. It’s getting there. It’s feeling better every day.”

Green says he has learned from running back Benson, an eight-year veteran signed in the offseason.

“Ced has a lot of experience in the league,” Green says. “He tells me what to look for from (opposing) defenses, the ins and outs of the running-back position.”

Some day, Green wants to be a starter in the NFL.

“That’s one of my personal goals,” he says. “It’s something to shoot for.”

Just another obstacle. For the longest time, Green has made it a habit of tossing them aside.

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