EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – The most productive tackler in the NFL sits in front of his rivals with … well, how to describe this … nails brightly painted and earrings dangling.
The man who has dragged down more running backs, quarterbacks and wide receivers than anyone else the past two seasons — a league-best 254 tackles and counting — has a winner’s confidence fixed in his eyes, and a simply darling bracelet around his wrist.
You see, Chad Greenway doesn’t much care how he looks. If he’s in it, he’s in it to win it.
The opponents are his daughters, 5-year-old Maddyn and 2-year-old Beckett. The game: Pretty Pretty Princess.
The game box reads, “Become a princess in this jewelry dress-up game! Ages 5 and up.” Greenway, the 29-year-old, 240-pound former Iowa all-American, is apparently the “up” part.
“Yes — he even gets competitive,” says widely smiling wife Jenni, “about Pretty Pretty Princess.”
A big kid — with unmatched effort
That unflinching drive — whether against The Girls or Green Bay — has propelled the former nine-man football quarterback from Mount Vernon, S.D., to a career stacked higher with results than notice.
Quite simply, Greenway, a 2011 Pro Bowl pick, has become the most dependable linebacker in the NFL. The Vikings rewarded Greenway, the No.17 pick of the 2006 draft, with a five-year deal a season ago worth more than $40million. The man who teammate Jared Allen affectionately calls “a meathead” has, somewhat quietly, chiseled a perch as one of the most consistent and effective defenders pulling on shoulder pads today.
Greenway excels the old-fashioned way, by running as hard as possible at opposing ball carriers, lowering his body and applying as much force as his 6-foot-4 frame and physics will allow.
Touchdowns are for stars mugging in deodorant commercials; the guys who leave the parking lot in sports cars. Coaches build locker rooms around the guys who make tackles, the players clocking out at the end of the day in blue jeans and four-wheel drives. Greenway is a tackler’s tackler, with no halfway, kinda-sorta gear — not on the field, and not when fake, plastic jewelry is on the line.
“He’s like a big kid. He would do anything to make the girls laugh,” Jenni said. “He’ll get down and dirty. There’s no line he won’t cross.”
That includes the line of scrimmage on game day. Kyle Rudolph, a Vikings tight end who starred at Notre Dame, said the man he considers a big brother leads the NFL in another stat.
“The biggest thing about Chad, his ‘want to’ is unmatched by anyone in this league,” Rudolph said.
A pause lingers when Greenway is asked to define what, specifically, has made him the best pure tackler among a world of elite players.
“I don’t know, necessarily,” said Greenway, scanning his brain for reasons. “I just try to get to the ball, by any means necessary. I think it comes from the Iowa days, playing with guys like Bob Sanders (a former Iowa all-American who became an NFL defensive player of the year), and the types of guys who really taught me how to play the game from a mental and physical standpoint when you’re on the field — to impose your will on people.
“In that day and age, it was Bullies of the Big Ten — just the mentality that we’re going to fight you every snap and be tougher than you. It’s not always pretty. It might be five yards down the field sometimes. It’s not all (tackles for loss) and sacks, but somebody’s got to get the guy down.
“Just refuse to get tired in a game, refuse to give up on a play and just get there by any means necessary.”
Efforts extend beyond the field
In professional sports, humility is a trait that often can feel superficial and awkwardly delivered by untrained actors — a hoped-for description routinely sought but more rarely deserved.
Greenway, though, wears humility as easily as a frayed and fading T-shirt from college.
The Vikings named Greenway their 2011 Community Man of the Year for charitable work, including the Lead the Way Foundation he and Jenni launched during his rookie season in 2006.
The foundation started as a way to help families dealing with childhood cancer, but has expanded into a range of diseases affecting kids. One part of the program called “Chad’s Locker” outfits sport-styled lockers with iPads, game consoles and notebook computers at children’s hospitals.
Families can use the gear to email family members or enjoy a break from the heaviness of the situations they face. The foundation also hosts luncheons for the mothers of affected children, family trips to Wisconsin Dells and more.
Greenway plows through golf tournaments, fundraising dinners and other events with the measured relentlessness of an NFL game. The foundation helps five children’s hospitals in the region, with expansion plans in the works.
“I want to look back … and know I did more than just play ball and collect a check,” Greenway said.
The Greenways provide a break because, in so many ways, they struggle to count all of theirs.
“He always says, it takes a lot of lucky coincidences to get where he’s gotten,” said Jenni, a former Hawkeye distance runner in track and cross country captain, known then as Jenni Capista. “He played with guys in high school who could’ve played at the collegiate level, but they never got the breaks that he did.
“He was lucky to get seen by the recruiter. He was lucky to come to Iowa and they picked the right position for him to play, when he came in as a quarterback. He kind of bounced around and became a linebacker and gained some weight.
“He is forever indebted to coach (Kirk) Ferentz and (strength) coach (Chris) Doyle and all the people on the Iowa staff. They made him what he is.
“He knows that. He’ll never take all the credit for getting where he is.”
A farm boy gets his big break
Greenway played four sports in high school — proving his athletic ability by winning four events at the state track meet; he’s still the state record-holder in the triple jump — but he knew that gaining attention would be difficult in a town of less than 500.
Kansas State was the first DivisionI school to send Greenway a recruiting letter, but its interest cooled. Nebraska and coach Frank Solich said he could walk on without a scholarship. One program, though, kept seeing glimpses of rare ability that could be shaped and steered toward greatness. Maybe, someday, even NFL-great.
What would Greenway be doing if Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan and the Hawkeyes had lost interest in the small-town star?
“I’d be farming if it wasn’t for the University of Iowa,” said Greenway, without a second of hesitation. “Which isn’t a bad thing, either. But they really helped me realize my dreams.”
Greenway turned in a game-shifting performance in week three against the San Francisco 49ers with 13 tackles and two sacks. He’s recorded six games this season with 10 or more tackles.
“You see a guy put everything into it like he does — and it’s inspiring,” said teammate Christian Ballard, another former Hawkeye. “He’s a typical Iowa guy, who goes out and gets the work done.”
Greenway is asked to explain how a big hit feels in the NFL — like the kind he uncorked for a sack of San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith earlier this season.
“It’s definitely an adrenaline rush. Some endorphins kick in,” Greenway said. “It’s definitely a good feeling. It’s pretty cool.”
Greenway deftly balances a lunch-pail approach and laughs as he navigates his NFL road. The man keeps a 55-pound ball of athletic tape in his locker called Bridget that took more than three years to assemble. He’s also the player labeled by many teammates as the team’s hardest worker.
Ballard said lessons learned from Greenway arrive without a sound.
“Be seen, not heard,” he said. “Do your work. Practice hard. Don’t be late for meetings. Approach everything like that.”
Allen, the All-Pro defensive end, speaks with admiration in his eyes about the man who inhabits the locker next to his.
“He works his butt off,” Allen said. “He leads by his style of play, and he’s one of those guys you can always count on. He’s one of our core guys.”
As Greenway has grown into his comfort zone with his team and league, his contributions have become big in other ways. When Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder struggled earlier this season, a teammate on the other side of the ball buoyed his confidence.
“He came over and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, the defense has your back,’” Ponder said. “That’s a huge thing for a guy to get behind you like that.”
Head coach Leslie Frazier said Greenway has become essential to the Vikings in ways that transcend downed ball-carriers.
“When I tapped him as one of our guys to be on our leadership council, I sensed some reluctance early on, a couple years ago,” Frazier said. “But he’s grown so much in that area. He’s helped our football team, he’s helped our locker room, he’s helped what we do in practice. (He) is one of the reasons our team is off to a pretty good start.”
Finding ways to stay grounded
The millions of dollars that successful NFL careers bring can test even the most rock-solid of Midwestern sensibilities.
The Greenways seem more grounded than most, though — even in ways some football players might refuse to admit. Greenway fights his vices (Dr.Pepper, for one) and succumbs to the same bad TV as millions of others.
“I have to watch all the (Real) Housewives of Wherever,” Greenway said, with an odd mix of embarrassment and pride. “That’s what my wife watches. You get into it, because you watch so much of it. The drama sucks you in.
“You know, we’re pretty practical. We haven’t strayed too far from our roots. We grew up very much middle class. We have great parents, both of us. We keep each other in check.”
Jenni still owns the same Jeep she drove in college, Greenway said, and they’ve turned into full-blown soccer parents.
Greenway sneaks a reference to Maddyn’s goal-scoring sprees in a YMCA league for 5- and 6-year-olds into a conversation — without even slightly being nudged in that direction.
“Maddyn scored 12 goals in a game on Saturday.”
“Did you say 12, as in 1-2?”
“Yeah, 12 … she does OK.”
“Which isn’t her record, by the way. It’s 14.”
“She doesn’t play like an NFL linebacker, does she?”
“Sometimes. That’s how I teach her to play.”
Anyone with the name Greenway — be it Chad, family table tennis champion and former DivisionI athlete Jenni, or goal-scorcher Maddyn — plays to win, whether in pursuit of a ball or Pretty Pretty Princess bracelet.
“I think back to my nine-man days back in high school, always wanting this type of thing to happen,” Greenway said. “As big of a dreamer as I can be, you still have to have perspective and realize how far away (this) really was.”
Far? Maybe. Far-fetched? Not for the best tackler in the NFL.
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller
**SIDEBAR: LIFE IN THE SUBURBS**
In a corner of the Minnesota Vikings locker room at the NFL team’s practice facility in Eden Prairie, a set of four lockers sits by itself, away from the hustle and shoulder pad bustle.
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams is on one end, followed by defensive ends Brian Robison and All-Pro Jared Allen — and in the most remote corner, former Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway.
“That group of four is the suburbs,” said Greenway, a Pro Bowl pick last season. “We don’t let any people in without a garage code.”
Allen, known for a personality as big as his play-making ability, paused when asked what’s interesting about being Greenway’s next-door work neighbor.
“Hmmm … interesting? Well, he has a nice collection of artifacts in there,” said Allen, peering at Greenway’s locker that includes — among many things — a rock that flattened one of his vehicle tires last season. “Actually, we have a vicious rivalry at Wii tennis (video game). That’s kind of our deal.
“I slaughter him. He’s more of a baseline player.”
— Bryce Miller
**SIDEBAR: GREENWAY ON …**
Non-Vikings NFL player he respects: “Aaron Rodgers is probably one of the first guys that comes to mind.”
Wife, Jenni, on family’s wish to finish career in Minnesota: “We love the values and people here. We don’t want to be on the coast or be down south. We fit here.”
Tackle machine: Greenway entered last weekend as the No.1 tackler in the NFL with 100 — but was caught during a bye week by New England’s Jerod Mayo, who now has 101. No player has more tackles the past two regular seasons than Greenway, at 254.
Committed fans: Greenway posed for an hour’s worth of pictures last week during the “Taste of the Vikings” charity event. One group, the LaClairs from Ankeny, left after a half day of school so James (13), Jeff (12) and Jacob (9) could land a quick photo with the former Hawkeye star. Father, Eric: “It’s awesome that they’re doing this. It was great to meet him — worth the trip.”
**SIDEBAR: VIKINGS DISCUSS IOWA’S STRUGGLES**
Minnesota Vikings players Chad Greenway and Christian Ballard said former coach Kirk Ferentz will rebuild a winner after Iowa ended short of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2000.
The Hawkeyes finished 4-8 after a 13-7 loss Friday to Nebraska.
“It’s hard to watch, it’s hard to see — because you want them to do well every year,” said Greenway, a first-round NFL draft pick at linebacker in 2006. “Kirk is, in my opinion, is better than anybody.
“As a player who’s been in that locker room — the coaches take a lot of heat. A lot of times, as a player, you realize you’ve got to go out there and make plays.
“Last year, we (Vikings) were 3-13 and the coach was under pressure. As a player, you’ve got to say, ‘They’re putting us out there to make plays to win games.’ Eventually, you have to go out there and get that done.”
Ballard, a second-year defensive lineman who has played in all 10 games for the 6-4 Vikings, supported the man in charge of the Hawkeyes, as well.
“Kirk Ferentz is a great coach,” Ballard said. “He’ll get it right. Every program goes through ups and downs. They’ll be good again.”
Greenway said Iowa’s past success under Ferentz — six bowl wins, and two Orange Bowl appearances — proves the wins will return.
“When you have a guy like Kirk at the helm, steady approach, consistent guy — you know who your coach is from week to week — it makes it real easy for players to succeed,” he said. “They could turn that thing around right away in a year.”
— Bryce Miller
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football