John Howell was at the Naval Academy for several months before he ever heard Gee Gee Greene utter more than a few words. In the weight room at Ricketts Hall, on the practice fields and even when the football team was eating its meals, Greene said little to his fellow freshman or anyone else.
"I remember when we came over for Plebe Summer [before freshman year], we sat down to get food. Gee Gee would just sit there and keep to himself, or he would just sit with Tra'ves [Bush]," Howell, now a senior, said of Greene. "It was like, 'OK, cool, see you later Gee Gee.'"
Greene didn't have to say much his first three years at Navy as demonstrative teammates such as quarterback Ricky Dobbs and defensive end Jabaree Tuani took more of the leadership role for the Midshipmen.
But Howell and others, including Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, noticed a change in Greene last spring. He would pull young players aside to give them encouragement or teach them some of the nuances of the reads in Navy's triple-option offense. He would also get in their facemask to get his point across.
This summer, as the Midshipmen prepared for Saturday's 2012 opener against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, Greene told sophomore guard Jake Zuzek that he had to pay better attention to the snap count. Zuzek snapped at Greene, who went right back at the promising lineman and told him to show some respect.
"In the past I probably wouldn't have said anything to him, but being my senior year, I've played a lot and I've seen us lose games with false starts or other little things," Greene said a couple of days later. "Coach [Niumatalolo] says it's a game of inches. I feel like it was my job to set the standard and put him in his place, telling him, 'We need you and you can't be doing that.'"
Navy has needed Greene — right from the start. In his first game at the academy, Greene returned kickoffs against highly ranked Ohio State on the road, starting a string of 40 straight games that has yet to end.
Given the revolving nature of a position that is typically the deepest on Navy's roster, Greene's streak of 26 straight starts is a testament to both his talent and his toughness. He has put up remarkable numbers for a player who hasn't been given that many touches.
Greene has never gained more than 100 yards rushing in a game — he had a career-high 92 against East Carolina last year — and has never had more than nine attempts in a game. But he has gained 7 yards per carry, the fifth-best in school history.
"I would always like more touches. I'm always wanting the ball, but just the way our offense is designed, you have to know you're not going to get the ball every time," said Greene, who has also proved to be an effective receiver.
Greene's selflessness is typical of Navy slotbacks in the triple option, and his abilities have not gone unappreciated. He is on the early season list for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation's top running back.
"Gee Gee has been a great football player for us," Niumatalolo said. "He's done everything we've asked of him — block, catch the ball, run with the ball. He's like a coach on the field, helping the younger guys. He's probably as good an A-back as we've had here."
Said slotbacks coach Danny O'Rourke: "The thing that makes him really good is that he doesn't have any glaring weaknesses. He's not necessarily the best at everything, [but] he doesn't have anything where he's deficient. … He's good at a lot of different things."
O'Rourke said Greene is the best all-around slotback Navy has had since Reggie Campbell in terms of running and catching. O'Rourke said Greene's versatility has allowed offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper to use Greene as a decoy to set up others for big plays.
"I think he wants the ball like any competitor, but there were times last year where we were trying to set up a route, and we said, 'You're not going to be the pass-catcher, but you're going to be the guy selling the run fake,'" O'Rourke said.
The one thing that Greene has also been good at — though you'd hardly notice because of his demeanor — has been leadership.
It goes back to the setting in which he was raised, and how he was forced to play a role that typically isn't thrust on a 10-year-old. Growing up as the fourth oldest of eight children in a single-parent home in Columbia, S.C., Greene watched as his only older male sibling was incarcerated.
"I was sort of the man of the house," Greene recalled.
By the time Greene reached Richland Northeast High for his sophomore year, longtime coach Jay Frye said his former star was "mature beyond his years" and that Greene set a good example for both the younger and older players in the classroom as well as on the field.
"He worked extremely hard," Frye said. "He finished every play. In study hall, he wasn't there goofing off — he was studying his tail off. He really had high aspirations and a lot of goals. ... Not the most boisterous kid, but he always did the right things."
Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green, whose recruiting area includes South Carolina, said that Greene was torn about leaving his family and a state he had never ventured out of until he visited the academy for the first time.
"He was a guy who has deep roots in South Carolina and wanted to stay at home, but he had a maturity academically and for his future ... he saw the value of what the academy could do for him and how it could change his life and his whole family's life," Green said. "He's really become a leader for us."
While not elected a team captain in the spring, Greene became a de facto captain after fellow seniors Brye French and Bo Snelson were stripped this summer of their title by the academy for unspecified infractions.
Niumatalolo recognized Greene's leadership and recently named him a game captain for Saturday's much-anticipated Emerald Isle Classic. When the Midshipmen take the field Saturday at Aviva Stadium, Greene and Bush, the starting rover, will be leading them out.
"I feel like I have to be more of a leader whether I'm a captain or not," Greene said. "I've been here for awhile. I wish I would have been a captain, but at the same time, I think Bo and Brye were good candidates for the position. I think we still look at them as our captains. They still lead from the front and set the standards, but I am right behind them. I am next in line."
Greene had one of the few highlights in last year's 56-14 loss to the Fighting Irish in South Bend, Ind. He scored a second-quarter touchdown on a 9-yard pass from quarterback Trey Miller, a sophomore making his first start in place on an injured Kriss Proctor. It helped cut Notre Dame's early 14-0 lead in half and put the Midshipmen briefly back in the game.
"As far as last year, I don't look back and say, 'They beat us and I've got to play harder,'" Greene said. "I'm going to play hard regardless. I just look forward, I don't look back."
Yet Greene knows that his football career is winding down, and said that he appreciates it more now than he did when he first arrived in Annapolis. He also saw what happened last year when senior slotback Aaron Santiago lost six games with a broken arm.
"You really don't look at the opportunity you have, but once he got hurt, you could see how [down] he was," Greene said. "It really brought me back and told me you have to cherish it because you never know when it could be your last play."
NAVY AT A GLANCE
COACH: Ken Niumatalolo (5th season)
LAST SEASON: 5-7
RADIO: 1090 AM, 1430 AM, 99.9 FM
STADIUM: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
TICKETS: Season tickets are still available for regular seating ($180), adult on the grass in the north end zone ($100) and for children 12 and under in the north end zone ($60). Individual tickets are available for the five home games. The homecoming game tickets against Indiana on Oct. 20 are $40 for seats in the stadium, $20 and $12 for adults and children under 12 respectively. Tickets for the other four home games are $35, $20 and $12.
PARKING: Season-ticket holders are eligible to buy one season parking pass for each two tickets purchased. Parking passes are $100 for cars, $300 for buses and RVs. Single-game parking passes are available for $20 for cars, $60 for buses and RVs.
OFFENSE: Triple option
OUTLOOK: The Midshipmen are coming off their first losing season in a decade, and the first under Ken Niumatalolo in four years as coach. Junior quarterback Trey Miller is not the only new starter on the offense, with half the offensive line rebuilt and sophomore Noah Copeland getting a chance at fullback. Navy is typically deep at slotback, led by Gee Gee Greene and John Howell. While the Midshipmen typically don’t throw much, and sometimes not at all, they will be without their two leading receivers in senior Matt Aiken (knee injury) and Brandon Turner (suspended for the Notre Dame game for violating team rules earlier this week). Defensively, the Midshipmen should be much improved from last season. Despite the loss of Jabaree Tuani, the emergence of junior nose guard Barry Dabney should help the defensive line. The Midshipmen are deep at linebacker, and sophomore Obi Uzoma has reminded some of former star Ross Pospisil. The secondary gained a lot of experience last season. The biggest question going into preseason was at kicker, where freshman Nick Sloan recently won the job.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times