Receiver failed to live up to his high expectations
If the Canadian Football Hall of Fame were to acknowledge athletes whose dubious distinction is that, for one reason or another, they failed to live up to their considerable potential, Sammy Greene would be a lock. I know it. You know it. He knows it. “I should’ve been one of the great ones,’’ he says, and he’s right.
Greene was a product of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, a middle-round draft choice of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, and a CFL receiver whose entire career, alas, came down to one spectacular but shortlived season with the B.C. Lions in 1983 and a squandered second chance with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1984.
Sudden Sam, as we called him in those days, had good hands, quick feet and an addiction to alcohol and drugs. Looking back on it now, Greene describes himself as “a loser,” a professional athlete with “a quitter’s mentality, because quitting becomes easy and natural after a while,” and a league-wide reputation as somebody who was unstable, unpredictable, unreliable: a dude with a bad attitude.
“People were never quite sure what I was going to do,” Greene said in a telephone interview earlier this month, and unfortunately he wasn’t referring strictly to defensive backs on the other side of the line of scrimmage. He was talking about his own general managers, coaches and teammates as well, the people who held his football future in their tenuous grasp and could spike it on a whim at a moment’s notice.
You could never be sure what Greene was going to say, either. Upon his release by the Roughriders, he made a comment about an atomic bomb being dropped on Regina and causing damage in the amount of something less than a dollar.
Greene flat denies it now and he wonders aloud if, perhaps, he was quoted out of context, a helpless victim of some unscrupulous, opportunistic ink-stained wretch who would write (practically) anything to sell newspapers. “Or, maybe I was frustrated, maybe I was angry,” he says. “You could’ve attributed any statement to me, because I was a flaky athlete and I said some crazy things.”
It could be that he simply doesn’t remember. It is not outside the realm of possibility that he was drunk or stoned, or both.
“I had a problem with drugs and alcohol,” Greene says with no hesitation. “I found myself needing something other than football. Whenever I crashed, that was the thing I went back to: the drugs and the alcohol. Painkillers. Cocaine. You name it. Anything I could get. Go down to the nearest bar. You’d find me somewhere.
“I never hit rock bottom,” he says. “Something or someone always came to rescue me. I’ve been resurrected so many times . . . I always found people who were not like me.
“Those days are behind me now. I’ve cleaned myself up,” he says. “But it’s been rough, and it’s always going to be with me. I still fight the demons. I still hear the same old question. ’Sam, what happened to you?’ Drugs and alcohol.”
Greene is 47 years old. He shares a residence with a male friend in Bellingham, Wash., and earns his keep doing security work at a small casino in a shopping mall. His attention focused on a television monitor, he observes human behaviour through the eyes of a strategically placed surveillance camera, “watching people steal,” he says.
Once a week, Greene returns to B.C. to visit his children. He has two sons by his second wife. They are 12 years old and eight. They live in Coquitlam, and all they know about their father’s professional football career, and his fight with drugs and alcohol, are the things they have been told.
“I’m glad they didn’t see that. It would’ve hurt them,” Greene says. “As long as they didn’t see it . . . But hearing is half-believing.”
There was a time in the 1990s when Sudden Sam answered to Reverend Sam and while he is not ordained, he has done ministry work for the Pentecostal church, offering whatever assistance he could to “people you step over” in the streets of downtown Vancouver and later in Bellingham.
“I found the Lord. It turned my life around and I wanted to give something back to Him,” Greene says. “I could reach out to these people. I could talk to them. It was quite an experience, and there were times when I thought, ’Sam, this could easily have been you.’ ’’
By his own count, Greene had at least a cup of coffee with a dozen different teams in the NFL, CFL and USFL. Two decades have passed, and while he has fond memories of a 113-yard kickoff return for the Lions, and an 80-yard in-your-face touchdown reception against B.C. as a Roughrider, there are also nights when he lies awake, unable to sleep, haunted by the ghost of what might have been and tormented by the spirit of great expectations unfulfilled.
“The people up there they know my name and what I’m capable of, but I never delivered. I self-destructed. They’ve all gone on to better things, but they didn’t take me with them,” Greene says. “I built B.C. Place. I was the one who opened up the stadium with a whole new attitude.
“When I went to Saskatchewan,” he says, “I wanted to do the same thing for the Roughriders. I wanted to resurrect that franchise, too. But they didn’t give me a chance to mature. I wish they’d given me more time. There should have been more patience on both sides. They wanted something to happen real fast and I wasn’t able to give it ’em like that. I don’t blame ’em. The game of football is a business. When I came to Saskatchewan, everybody was on the bubble. Time was running out. We were in the fourth quarter.
“Of all the teams, Saskatchewan was my favourite,” he says. “I loved Saskatchewan. The fans in Saskatchewan are great. They’re always there for you. They welcomed me with open arms and I disapponted them. I disappointed myself. I never got back the greatness I had in B.C. I just never got it back. I gave up on myself for some reason. I’m very sorry about that. I’d like to apologize to the fans in Saskatchewan.”
Sammy Greene takes a break during a Roughriders practice in 1984.