Bruins’ Back Gets the Green : College football: Former UCLA star tailback provided inspiration and challenge for Karim Abdul-Jabbar.
Whenever he has come to a major crossroads in his career, Karim Abdul-Jabbar has found Gaston Green in his path.
The first time was 1987. Abdul-Jabbar, then 13-year-old Sharmon Shah, was attending a UCLA camp for kids. Wide-eyed at being on the Westwood campus, Abdul-Jabbar’s excitement was heightened at the sight of a famous figure walking past.
Along with many of his fellow campers, Abdul-Jabbar surrounded the figure, joining them in a plea for autographs.
It was Green, coming off a season in which he had set a school record for rushing in a single season with 1,405 yards.
Abdul-Jabbar got his autograph that day and inspiration for his own career.
Fast forward to 1993. Abdul-Jabbar was in his second season as a Bruin, but, because of knee problems, his career seemed stalled in neutral.
Sitting in a study area on campus, Abdul-Jabbar looked up and there was Green, who would return to UCLA when his NFL schedule allowed in order to get his degree.
This time, Abdul-Jabbar approached Green for more than an autograph. They talked about Abdul-Jabbar’s prospects as a Bruin tailback.
“Just keep on doing what you’re doing,” Green said.
And that he did.
Fast forward again to last Saturday and there was Green again, directly in front of Abdul-Jabbar at a key moment in his life. Green was not there in person this time but as an entry in the UCLA record book.
It was the fourth quarter of the UCLA-Arizona State game at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. Abdul-Jabbar had gained 184 yards rushing. That gave him 1,396 for the season. Nine more and he would tie the Bruin record held by Green.
Abdul-Jabbar gained his nine yards on a run off right guard, two more on the next carry to break the mark and finished the day with 207 yards rushing and a season total of 1,419.
With two more games remaining and possibly a bowl game to follow, Abdul-Jabbar should leave Green’s mark a poor second.
But that’s OK with Green, now 29, out of football and into operating a music management firm and a clothing store in Compton.
“I’m excited about it,” said Green of Abdul-Jabbar’s record. “I’m excited for him.”
Green watched the record-breaking run on television but hopes to see Abdul-Jabbar in person before the season ends.
Having spent four years in college and five years in the NFL carrying a football, Green appreciates Abdul-Jabbar’s talent more than most.
“He’s great to watch,” Green said. “He has a lot of endurance. He seems to run even better in the second half. He takes care of his body. He’s maybe not as fast as I was, but he makes people miss and he breaks tackles. I wasn’t running over nobody the way he does. And he hits those holes real quick.
“He has everything he needs to be a great running back. He’s already there at the college level, and he can be that in the pros too.”
Some predicted a great pro career for Green as well after he finished with a school-record 3,731 yards by the time he left UCLA.
But John Robinson, then the coach of the Rams, was not, as it turned out, a believer. Although the Rams made Green their first pick in the 1988 draft, he wound up as a backup, carrying only 129 times in his three seasons in Anaheim. His detractors said that, at 5 feet 11 and 189 pounds, he wasn’t big enough or durable enough to excel in the NFL.
Green proved them wrong, for at least one season. Moving to the Denver Broncos in 1991, he rushed for 1,037 yards in his first season there, averaging 4.0 per carry. But his total dropped to 648 the next season, and then he was gone, getting a brief tryout with the Raiders before his career ended.
At least for now. Green won’t rule out a comeback.
His college coach, Terry Donahue, remains a believer.
“Gaston had magical legs,” Donahue said. “He would hit that crease and he was gone.
“He didn’t have as much durability as we would have liked, and that kept me from giving him the ball 35 to 40 times a game, week in and week out, like I can with Karim.”
How would Donahue compare Green and Abdul-Jabbar?
“Gaston was real strong in his legs and was faster than Karim,” Donahue said. “But Gaston was a little frail up in the chest area. He wasn’t put together up there like Karim. Gaston had a lot of long runs while Karim has struggled to do that.
“I’m not saying one was better than the other. They were both marvelous.”
What kind of a season would the Bruins have if Green and Abdul-Jabbar had played together?
“Whooo, they would make a lot of big plays,” Donahue said, “but I’ll tell you one thing. I’d have to run them in the option because neither one would want to block for the other.”