Sports: Greene found there’s life after football

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — July is too hot for football, but there was a time when Greensboro’s annual East-West All-Star football game demanded headlines from every newspaper in the state.

Long-time Salisbury resident James Greene can tell you all about football in the blazing summer heat. Greene was in uniform for the 1979 East-West Game. He remembers July 1979 as well he remembers July 2023.

When you line up against someone like Kelvin Bryant, well, you never forget it.

Greene wasn’t invited to play in the 1978 Shrine Bowl following his senior season as a powerhouse defensive end and tight end at West Montgomery High. That was one of those small-school snubs that still happens today.

Not making the Shrine Bowl cut deep, but Greene did get an East-West invite, and that game was nearly as prestigious as the Shrine Bowl in the 1970s. Many of the same athletes who had teamed up to represent North Carolina in the Shrine Bowl against South Carolina, went at it each other on opposite sides in the East-West. There were major bragging rights at stake.

The ACC-bound guys, even the biggest names, didn’t have to report to their college programs as early as they do now, so they suited up for the East-West action, eager to test their mettle against the best from all corners of the state.

N.C. State recruits like Greene and Richmond’s Perry Williams, a future NFL defensive back, were present when the all-stars gathered in Greensboro.

So were the UNC recruits, players such as Bryant, the human tornado from Tarboro, and South Rowan back Greg Poole.

Bryant, who would star at UNC and would score 15 touchdowns in one three-game stretch for the Tar Heels, wasn’t just a talented football player, he was the state’s fastest track man. Still, his presence on the East squad inspired no fear in the West locker room. It only fueled anticipation. West head coach Bob Boswell, from A.L. Brown, and his assistants had put quite a defense together. Greene was one of the centerpieces of that defense.

“Guys were looking forward to the challenge of playing against Bryant,” Greene said. “Who was going to get the first hit on him? I remember we punted to them. Bryant returned the punt. I got that first lick in.”

Just how monumental a player Greene was in his high school days at West Montgomery High in Mount Gilead is well-documented. He’s still spoken of in awe in Montgomery communities such as Biscoe, Troy, Candor and Wadeville. Quick, strong and coordinated, Greene may have been as good an athlete as West Montgomery has ever put on a football field.

“During the school year it was football, then you did basketball, then it was track and field,” Greene said. “The summer was for weights and workouts. I lived three miles from the school, but I would jog to West Montgomery in the summer to lift weights. Three miles was no big deal when you had the opportunity to get bigger and stronger.”

Greene played for James Garmon, the most revered coach in West Montgomery football history.

Garmon guided the Warriors’ football program for 22 seasons — to 187 wins, 50 losses and 5 ties.

In an interview after his retirement, Garmon told the Montgomery Herald that Greene and Greene’s teammate Greg Gooch were the best defensive players he ever coached. They were a mighty duo. In their junior and senior seasons opponents had a tough time getting on the scoreboard against the West Montgomery Warriors, much less beating them. School records for fewest points allowed were set that still stand.

Greene and Gooch were a devastating tandem on both sides of the ball.

“Gooch played tackle on offense and I played tight end next to him,” Greene said. “We ran the ball 90 percent of the time and we would cross block. We could make it a miserable Friday night for the opposing defense and we had fast backs who get outside. Gooch and I hit people hard enough that after a while they weren’t looking for the ball anymore. They were looking to see where we were.”

Rival East Montgomery got special attention from Greene.

“In those days, you came out of your mother’s womb hating East Montgomery,” Greene said with some passion.

While West Montgomery didn’t throw often, the Warriors did try the aerial game some after Garmon realized what a weapon Greene could be as a tight end. Garmon was initially skeptical that Greene had hands good enough to be trusted as a receiver, but Greene was determined to prove himself and set school receiving records. He made eight touchdown catches as a senior tight end, dragging overmatched defensive backs into end zones like a runaway train.

“James Garmon was an old-school coach who didn’t like to hear you talk about what you were going to do — he wanted to see you do it on Fridays,” Greene said. “We only two coaches and they kept things simple. We had two defenses — base and goal-line — but we were very well-prepared for every game. We had all learned proper tackling technique — wrap up and drive — from a tackling machine we called ‘The Red Devil.'”

Greene and Gooch were leaders. They set the pace. They went at each other in practice every day at game speed. They pounded each other. They elevated their teammates.

Friday nights were a joy for Greene.

“We’d walk from the gym where we dressed through the pine trees and down into the stadium single file, without a whisper, in complete silence,” Greene said. “It was a walk of total intimidation. By the time we got to the field, a lot of teams already knew they were beat.”

West Montgomery was respected by all and went 20-3 in Greene’s last two seasons. The Warriors won Central Tarheel Conference championships, achieved statewide ranking in 2A and always trounced East Montgomery in their season-finale rivalry game.

But the Warriors never lasted long in the playoffs.

“We’d run into teams in the playoffs like Charlotte Catholic that were a little more savvy than we were, teams that could do a few more things than we could,” Greene said.

Greene also shined as an all-conference basketball player, but his biggest accolades came in football. He was West Montgomery’s Most Outstanding Senior and Most Outstanding Athlete.

Greene stood out academically and athletically at a young age. There wasn’t much doubt he was going places.

“I remember when I was in seventh grade we took a field trip to Raleigh and our teacher said we might see (N.C. State basketball star) David Thompson up there,” Greene said.  “And then he said we’d be watching James Greene play football for N.C. State one day. People thinking that highly of me, that meant a lot. I didn’t want to let anyone down.”

New Duke football coach Red Wilson spoke at West Montgomery’s senior sports banquet. He would like to have recruited Gooch and Greene, but there never was any doubt Greene would wear the red of the N.C. State Wolfpack.

Jordan Lumber was Montgomery’s chief employer, and the Jordans were N.C. State people. Greene believes they made phone calls to the N.C. State coaches to tell them about the local phenom, and Wolfpack head coach Bo Rein recruited him. Even after powerhouse programs like Clemson made scholarship offers, Greene was a lock for the Wolfpack and never wavered.

“It was always N.C. State for me,” Greene said. “I knew some players up there and I couldn’t wait to be part of that program. When I was in high school, Lawrence Taylor was the big star at UNC. My goal was to be N.C. State’s Lawrence Taylor.”

Months after he hung up his cleats at West Montgomery, Greene played in that East-West All-Star Game on July 26, 1979, in front of 7,746 fans at Grimsley’s Jamieson Stadium.

It was a headknocker. Greene and his West teammates kept Bryant out of the end zone all night, but the East scored a touchdown on a first-half pass and kicked two field goals to lead 13-0. South Rowan graduate Poole, who would become an outstanding defensive back at UNC, scored on a 2-yard touchdown for the West and A.L. Brown’s Gary Barringer kicked the PAT to pull the West within 13-7 at the half.

The only scoring in the second half came on two safeties by the West. The East star held on to win 13-11 when the West missed a last-second field goal. The West team moved the ball well, but was plagued by turnovers.

Bryant was as tough as advertised, but so were the guys tackling him. Bryant carried 15 times for 88 yards and had to earn all 88.

When college began, N.C. State proved to be a bigger adjustment than Greene had imagined, but he learned the ropes as part of the freshman team.

“I was ready physically, but not mentally and emotionally to do what I needed to do to play,” Greene said.

He settled in. By his sophomore year, he was scooting up the Wolfpack’s depth chart. After he performed admirably in the Spring Game he seemed certain to play a major role for the Wolfpack as a junior, but he suffered troubling symptoms shortly after that Spring Game.

Light-headedness and dizziness were a totally new experience for a young athlete who had considered himself invincible. Suddenly, the world was spinning upside down for Greene. Doctors discovered bleeding inside his skull.

It was a bruise on the brain that was causing the bleeding

“They told me I’d gotten hit in the head too much in spring practice,” Greene said. “They told me I had a contusion.”

Greene was in dire shape for weeks, in a fight just to survive. He spent 22 days in two hospitals. He spent 11 days in intensive care.

Rein had recruited Greene, but Rein had been hired by LSU and had left the Wolfpack following the 1979 season. Then Rein died in an aircraft accident before ever coaching a game for the Tigers.

Monte Kiffin had followed Rein as head coach of the Wolfpack. Kiffin visited Greene in the hospital.

“Coach Kiffin told me I couldn’t play football anymore, and that’s the very last thing a young athlete wants to hear,” Greene said. “Then my mother told me the same thing. She had come to see me every day in the hospital and was worried sick about me.”

Football had been who Greene was, it had been his identity, so to suddenly have the sport ripped away was a terrible blow.

But he refused to feel sorry for himself. He made a decision while lying in a hospital bed to focus on academics. He vowed to graduate from N.C. State.

It was the turning point in his life. When he arrived at N.C. State, football was his only focus and he’d gradually slipped away from the spiritual side of things and had prioritized football over the books.

Raised in a church-going home, he got back on track spiritually and academically after his hospital stay.

“I was the oldest of six children, the first to go to college in my family,” Greene said. “I knew I needed to set the right example.”

Physically, he had lost quite a bit from the injury. He had to re-learn some basic motor skills.

“I’d lost some of that coordination I had and was never quite the same,” Greene said. “Just walking up a flight of steps was a challenge for a while.”

N.C. State kept Greene on scholarship, even though his playing days were over. He continued to live with his football teammates and they remained some of his best friends. He excelled in the classroom and became a leader in different aspects of life beyond the football field.

Greene had started at N.C. State with his sights set on a forestry degree, but he graduated in 1984 with a degree in sociology and a minor in criminology.

He was hired as a probation and parole officer in Rowan County, one of the first Black men to hold that position, not long after he earned his diploma.

“It was a job that gave me a chance to put some structure back into the lives of people who needed it,” Greene said.

He helped people who needed a second chance to get their lives back in order. He cared. He helped some of his parolees find jobs. Nearly 40 years later, he is still friends with some of those folks.

Greene had a desire to give something back when he was off duty, and his athletic background and experiences made him an ideal youth coach.

He found a niche coaching girls basketball. Greene preached defense and teamwork and his teams listened and were successful. Greene’s 15U Salisbury-Rowan Lady Pack team made waves at the state level.

Greene’s first part-time coaching challenge in a school setting was with the South Rowan jayvee boys basketball team. That went well, with Greene making a positive impact on those youngsters on and off the court.

In May 1996, Greene was hired by principal Dr. Alan King as South Rowan’s girls varsity basketball coach and was placed in charge of dropout prevention at South.

There were some outstanding seasons competing at the 4A level with the Winston-Salem schools, as Greene’s presence at South brought about a reunion of several members of his Lady Pack AAU squad, including his daughter, Latoya Ramsey.

After the talent dropped off at South, the wins were scarcer, but Greene’s dedication was constant. Everyone who played for him or coached with him benefited from the experience.

His South girls teams won 84 games in six seasons. The 1998-99 team won 22 games and the Central Piedmont Conference championship.

Greene’s message was sound — discipline, hard work, family — and he proved to be an asset to South in the halls, on the basketball court and on the football field where he was an assistant coach.

Greene left South in 2002, mostly to spend more time with his wife and young son.

Forty-four summers have passed since Greene tackled Kelvin Bryant, and he is in his 60s now, but he still looks like he could make a few tackles next Friday.

Coach Garmon died in 2013, but Greene still carries the memories of those long-ago Friday nights near his heart.

Greene shakes his head at the merger of West Montgomery and East Montgomery into Montgomery Central, a new school in Troy that opened in 2021. That county rivalry that kept a fire burning in Montgomery athletics is gone now. Greene wonders if the Montgomery Central Timberwolves can ever be as good as those West Montgomery Warriors, who walked in silence and single file out of the pine trees.

Greene works now in security at Salisbury’s West End Plaza and has transformed his office space into a throwback version of his N.C. State dorm room. He’s comfortable there and he still finds time each week to help someone find a job or find a meal or find resources that can improve their lives.

“I learned a lot of things along the way,” Greene said. “The most important thing I learned as an athlete is you need to have a plan. Have a plan for life when sports are over.”

This summer’s East-West All-Star Game was the last one that will be played in Greensboro as a summer showcase. It’s gotten too hard to find quality players who will commit to play in the heat, and the game is switching to December for the athletes in the Class of 2024.

Greene smiles when he hears that news, and the memories come flooding back one more time.

“July definitely is too hot for football,” he said.