Every NFL running back needs to be able to run with the football.
Those running backs who are especially valuable to their teams contribute in multiple ways besides just gaining rushing yards; they also block, catch passes, and play on special teams.
Ernie Green was one such versatile running back for the Cleveland Browns.
During his seven years with Cleveland from 1962 to 1968, Green helped the Browns by rushing, blocking, for future Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, receiving, and returning kicks and punts.
Green earned two Pro Bowl invitations and contributed to Cleveland winning four division titles and the 1964 NFL championship.
— Downtown Browns (@DowntownBrowns_) July 24, 2020
We take a look at the life of Ernie Green – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Ernest ”Ernie” Green was born in Columbus, Georgia on October 15, 1938.
Columbus is in western Georgia, on the border with Alabama.
While Green was growing up there, Columbus had a population of approximately 50,000 to 100,000 people.
A key incident in Green’s life occurred when he was in the fifth grade.
“I had a fifth grade teacher who was very strict. Everyone was afraid of her. I didn’t want to end up in her class, but I did.”
Green’s fifth grade teacher had a policy of having the best students in the class sit in the front rows.
Early in the school year, Green excelled and was put in the front of the class; however, when Green slacked off, the teacher moved him to the back of the class.
The teacher told Green, “I guess you can’t take praise”.
The comment affected Green for the rest of his life.
“I never forgot those words. I never took anything for granted after that. My father [a truck driver] always said I could handle everything if I kept my mouth shut and did my work. . . . My mother wouldn’t let us be bitter. She said if you’re angry all the time, that’s what will hold you back.”
Green attended Spencer High School in Columbus, graduating in 1958.
At Spencer High School, Green excelled on the football team, helping the team win 24 games in his four years there.
He was also president of his senior class and a member of the National Honor Society.
If Green was in high school today, he would have attracted recruiters from schools throughout the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
However, Green was African American, and in the late 1950’s, segregation precluded any interest by SEC schools in Green.
“If I wanted to stay in Georgia, the only schools I could have attended were the black schools – Clark College, Morehouse, Morris Brown – those schools. Most people assumed I was going to Tuskegee Institute or Florida A&M. But Louisville had recruited a black running back out of Birmingham named Andy Walker, and he played well for them. He was about to graduate, and the Louisville coach called Walker’s high school coach. That man mentioned my name.”
Fortunately for Green, Louisville sent him a Greyhound bus ticket, and Green headed to Louisville, Kentucky to attend college.
Green arrived at the Louisville bus station with little fanfare.
There was no one from the college to meet him.
Having previously rarely left the area away from Columbus, Georgia, Green felt scared and alone.
“I wanted to just get back on the bus and go home. . . . I look at that as sort of a test. If I had turned back, I wonder if I’d have ever ended up in the NFL.”
Instead, Green found the name of Louisville head coach Frank Camp, and Green called him.
Camp sent an assistant coach to the bus station to pick up Green.
Green recalled his early experience on the football practice field at Louisville:
“They had no film of me and had never scouted me. They wanted to try me out. They had a back named Lenny Lyles, who was one of the fastest men in the world in the 200 [meters] at that time. Lyles was drafted by the Baltimore Colts that year. They had me run against Lenny. I beat him out of the blocks, but he caught me down the stretch. I ran some drills for them, caught some passes. It wasn’t much.”
It was enough for Louisville, who told Green, “We’ll give you a scholarship, room, board, books, and $15 a month laundry money.”
Green accepted the offer.
“It was the best deal I had. My mother didn’t want me to leave home, but she knew that I had to leave. She knew that Louisville was integrated, that there were more opportunities there. She pushed me to take it.”
At times, Green faced a difficult environment at Louisville.
“I’ve been called names. It wasn’t a pretty picture. I had to deal with those things on the field. Had I not been schooled on those kinds of things, I probably would have handled them differently.”
Green overcame his adversities at Louisville to have an outstanding career for the Cardinals.
He was a “letterwinner” at Louisville from 1958 to 1961.
He rushed for 1,586 yards at Louisville.
In 1959, Green led Louisville rushing for 510 yards on 114 rushing attempts.
Green also led the Cardinals in 1960, rushing for 441 yards on 77 rushing attempts.
While Green was there, Louisville’s football team (playing as an independent) compiled records of 4-4 in 1958, 6-4 in 1959, 7-2 in 1960, and 6-3 in 1961.
Green also played baseball at Louisville.
In 1962, Green graduated from Louisville with honors in business and headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Green was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 14th round of the 1959 NFL draft.
He was the 196th overall pick.
The problem for Green was that Green Bay already had three outstanding running backs – future Pro Football Hall of Famers Paul Horning and Jim Taylor, and Elijah Pitts.
On the other hand, the Cleveland Browns were looking to add a running back to play with Jim Brown.
The Browns had traded their running back Bobby Mitchell to the Washington Redskins for the rights to Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ernie Davis, but Davis was ill and unable to play. Davis ultimately died of leukemia before playing in a regular season game for Cleveland.
On August 13, 1962, the Packers traded Green to the Browns for a seventh-round draft pick in the 1963 NFL draft.
“That trade changed my life.”
As a rookie for Cleveland in 1962, Green (at a height of six feet and two inches and a weight of 205 pounds) played in 13, and started four, regular season games.
On October 28, 1962, Green scored his first NFL regular season touchdown on an eight-yard pass from Browns quarterback Frank Ryan, in a 41-14 Cleveland win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Green also rushed for 42 yards on three rushing attempts.
For the 1962 regular season, Green rushed for 139 yards on 31 rushing attempts and caught 17 passes for 194 yards and the above-described one touchdown.
He also returned 13 kickoffs for 250 yards and five punts for 31 yards.
The Browns had a 7-6-1 record in 1962 and failed to make the playoffs.
Blanton Collier replaced Paul Brown as Cleveland’s head coach in 1963, and Green became more of a full-time starter at running back next to Jim Brown.
Green played in all 14, and started 12, regular season games in 1963.
On December 1, 1963, Green returned a punt for 55 yards, in a 24-10 Browns victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
He also rushed for 34 yards on nine rushing attempts.
The following week, on December 8, 1963, Green rushed for 90 yards on seven rushing attempts, including a 73-yard run (the longest run of his NFL regular season career), in a 38-10 Cleveland loss to the Detroit Lions.
He also returned three kickoffs for 81 yards.
In the 1963 regular season, Green rushed for 526 yards on 87 rushing attempts (6.0 average yards per rushing attempt), caught 28 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns, and returned 18 kickoffs for 394 yards and six punts for 79 yards.
Green led the NFL regular season in 1963 in “average yards per touch” (7.2, based on 831 yards from scrimmage on 115 combined rushes and pass receptions).
In addition, Green’s blocking contributed to Jim Brown leading the NFL regular season in 1963 in all of rushing yards (1,863), rushing touchdowns (12), and average yards per rushing attempt (6.4).
Green’s Cleveland teammate cornerback Bernie Parrish said about Green:
“Ernie had a tremendous career with us. . . . Ernie was a terrific back, and a helluva blocker, too. The poor guy never got his due.”
The Browns had a 10-4 record in 1963, but failed to make the playoffs.
Green started all 14 regular season games at running back in 1964.
In the opening game of the 1964 regular season, on September 13, 1964, Green scored his first NFL regular season rushing touchdown, on a one-yard run, as Cleveland defeated the Washington Redskins 27-13.
He rushed for 37 yards on 11 rushing attempts and caught two passes for 51 yards.
In the final game of the 1964 regular season, on December 12, 1964, Green also scored two touchdowns, on pass receptions of one yard and 25 yards from Frank Ryan, as Cleveland defeated the New York Giants 52-20.
In addition, Green rushed for 26 yards on eight rushing attempts.
Green rushed for 491 yards and six touchdowns on 109 rushing attempts, and caught 25 passes for 283 yards and four touchdowns, during the 1964 regular season.
As the basis for a “trivia” question for Browns fans, most would be surprised to know it was Green, and not Jim Brown, end Paul Warfield, or flanker Gary Collins, who led the Browns in regular season touchdowns in 1964 (with 10 total touchdowns).
Green’s blocking also helped Jim Brown lead the NFL regular season in 1964 in both rushing yards (1,446) and average yards per rushing attempt (5.2).
The Browns won the NFL East Division title in 1964 with a 10-3-1 record.
Cleveland advanced to the 1964 NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts on December 27, 1964.
The game was played to a scoreless tie in the first half. Green, who started the game, recalled the situation at halftime:
“We go into the dressing room . . . and said to each other, ‘We can beat these guys’ . . . We went back in the second half and had our way.”
Green rushed for 29 yards on 10 rushing attempts, as the Browns shut out the Colts 27-0. It was Cleveland’s first NFL championship in nine years.
Green played in and started 13 regular season games in 1965.
On November 14, 1965, Green caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Frank Ryan, in a 34-21 Cleveland win over the New York Giants.
Singular Games: Check out these stats from the #Browns' 34-21 win over the #Giants in November 1965: Jim Brown had 156 rushing yards. Backfield mate Ernie Green had 160 *receiving* yards. Green had 222 yards from scrimmage, Brown 192. Nearly 2 200-yard YFS backs in the same game! pic.twitter.com/t17SYfBuef
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) July 20, 2020
Green caught seven passes for 160 yards, including a 69-yard pass reception (the longest reception of his NFL regular season career), and rushed for 62 yards on 11 rushing attempts.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) December 6, 2020
For the 1965 regular season, Green rushed for 436 yards and two touchdowns on 111 rushing attempts and caught 25 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns.
In addition, Green’s blocking contributed to Jim Brown (who retired after the 1965 season) leading the NFL regular season in 1965 in rushing yards (1,544) and rushing touchdowns (17).
With an 11-3 record, Cleveland again won the NFL East Division title in 1965.
The Browns met the Green Bay Packers in the 1965 NFL championship game on January 2, 1966.
Green started the game and rushed for five yards on three rushing attempts.
Cleveland lost to Green Bay 23-12.
In 1966, Green started all 14 regular season games.
On September 11, 1966, in the opening game of the 1966 regular season, Green scored on a one-yard touchdown run, as Cleveland defeated the Washington Redskins 38-14.
He rushed for 88 yards on 11 rushing attempts and caught three passes for five yards.
In a 41-10 Cleveland win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 8, 1966, Green rushed for 103 yards on 16 rushing attempts and caught two passes for 27 yards.
On October 30, 1966, Green caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Frank Ryan, as the Browns defeated the Atlanta Falcons 49-17.
Green caught three passes for 49 yards and rushed for 74 yards on 10 rushing attempts.
In the 1966 regular season, Green rushed for 750 yards and three touchdowns on 144 rushing attempts (5.2 average yards per rushing attempt) and caught 45 passes for 445 yards and six touchdowns.
In 1966, Green received his first Pro Bowl invitation.
Green’s Cleveland teammate quarterback Jim Ninowski said about Green:
“Ernie was a complete football player. But he always caught the brunt of everything. I mean, those defensive ends would go blasting in there – guys outweighing Ernie by fifty pounds – and he’d block them. Blanton Collier loved Ernie because he was so fundamentally sound, and he’d keep Ernie after practice to work with and demonstrate techniques for other players. He worked for the longest time, blocking . . . defensive ends after practice. Blanton did that to teach the defensive ends how to get around that kind of blocker. But in the process, they were beating the hell out of poor Ernie. Let’s face it, there had to be times when Ernie knew he was getting crapped on, but he hung in there. I have as much respect for Ernie Green as anyone on that team.”
Leroy Kelly, helped by Green’s blocking, led the NFL regular season in 1966 in rushing touchdowns (15) and average yards per rushing attempt (5.5).
Cleveland had a 9-5 record, but missed the playoffs, in 1966.
Green played in 13, and started 12, regular season games in 1967.
Green scored on a 27-yard touchdown run, in a 34-14 Cleveland win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 5, 1967.
He rushed for 83 yards on 12 rushing attempts and caught four passes for 25 yards.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) August 18, 2019
For the 1967 regular season, Green rushed for 710 yards and four touchdowns on 145 rushing attempts and caught 39 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns.
Green received his second consecutive Pro Bowl invitation in 1967.
In addition, Green’s blocking contributed to Leroy Kelly leading the NFL regular season in 1967 in all of rushing yards (1,205), rushing touchdowns (11), and average yards per rushing attempt (5.1).
Green described his relationship with Leroy Kelly, as follows:
“Even though Leroy was our primary runner, I felt more a part of the offense after Jim [Brown] left. Leroy was my roommate. We were very close, and he’s a hard worker. Leroy is just a good man.”
Cleveland won the NFL Century Division title in 1967, with a 9-5 record.
The Browns advanced to play the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional round playoff game on December 24, 1967.
Green started the game and rushed for 49 yards on 10 rushing attempts and caught three passes for 18 yards.
However, Cleveland lost to the Cowboys 52-14.
In a 1968 preseason game, Green injured his knee and missed two months.
As a result, he only played in eight, and started seven, regular season games in 1968.
In a 45-24 Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 17, 1968, Green caught two touchdown passes, one for 62 yards and one for 11 yards, from Cleveland quarterback Bill Nelsen. Green caught five passes for 84 yards and rushed for 16 yards on nine rushing attempts.
Green rushed for 152 yards on 41 rushing attempts, and caught 16 passes for 142 yards and the above-described two touchdowns, in the 1968 regular season.
With his blocking, Green also contributed to Leroy Kelly leading the NFL regular season in 1968 in both rushing yards (1,239) and rushing touchdowns (16).
The Browns, with a 10-4 record, again won the NFL Century Division title in 1968.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) August 18, 2019
Cleveland then played the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional round playoff game on December 21, 1968.
Green (who did not start the game) rushed for five yards on three rushing attempts, including a two-yard touchdown run; it proved to be Green’s last NFL touchdown.
Cleveland defeated Dallas 31-20.
The following week, on December 29, 1968, the Browns met the Baltimore Colts in the 1968 NFL championship game.
Green (who again did not start the game) rushed for two yards on one rushing attempt.
Baltimore shutout Cleveland 34-0.
After the 1968 season, Green had surgery to repair torn cartilage in his knee.
After the surgery, Green was advised to retire, which he did on July 1, 1969.
The Years After the NFL
Green married Della.
They had four sons.
After his retirement as an NFL player, Green initially was hired by the Browns to coach their running backs.
He then worked from 1970 to 1974 as Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Case Western Reserve University and from 1974 to 1981 as Executive Director and Vice President of IMG’s Team Sports Division.
Green then formed his own company in Ohio, Ernie Green Industries, which manufactured components for the automotive industry.
The business was successful and expanded to 11 plants in six states, Canada, China, and the Dominican Republic.
It also made parts for medical, consumer, energy, and industrial devices.
In 2005, Green was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Ernie Green played as the fullback with Cleveland Browns. He discovered a lump in his chest in 2005 and has now been cancer free since 2006. pic.twitter.com/Kbue9dIpOh
— Glorylox (@GLORYLOXHAIR) October 16, 2017
After having a mastectomy, Green became part of The Male Breast Cancer Coalition, which educated men about male breast cancer disease.
Green was named the Outstanding Philanthropist of Ohio by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in 2010.
With his wife, Green has been active with such charitable organizations as the American Red Cross, the Dayton Boys and Girls Club, and the Dayton Urban League.
— Larry Hansgen (@larryhansgen) September 17, 2017
In 1980, Green was inducted into the Louisville Athletics Hall of Fame.
Green was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program in 2012.
In 2018, Green became the first former Spencer High School football player to have his jersey number retired.
In examining Green’s NFL career, two different roles can be assessed.
First, in the role of “sidekick” to Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, Green was successful.
In Green’s seven NFL seasons, his blocking contributed to Brown or Kelly leading the NFL in rushing yards five seasons, rushing touchdowns five seasons, and average yards per rushing attempt four seasons.
Second, in the role of individual running back (a role for which Green generally is far less recognized than his “sidekick” role), Green was also successful.
In Browns career regular season rushing statistics, Green ranks ninth in rushing yards (3,204), 16th in rushing touchdowns (15), and, among players with at least 100 rushing attempts, tied for 11th in average yards per rushing attempt (4.8).
In Browns career regular season receiving statistics, Green ranks 25th in pass receptions (195), tied for 13th in pass reception touchdowns (20), and 30th in pass reception yards (2,036) If only players who principally played running back are considered, Green then ranks seventh in pass receptions, tied for first (with Jim Brown) in pass reception touchdowns, and sixth in pass reception yards.
With an attitude bolstered by his fifth grade and early Louisville experiences, Green’s successes, both as a “sidekick” and as an individual performer, helped the Browns win four division titles and their last NFL championship in 1964.
While Browns fans should appreciate the Hall of Fame abilities of Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, they also should recognize one of the most versatile running backs in Cleveland Browns history – Ernie Green.