EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Chad Greenway’s career could have been over before it started.
He was an eager rookie in 2006, a first-round draft pick from tiny Mt. Vernon, S.D., who was finally realizing his dream of playing for the Minnesota Vikings. Amped up for his first play, Greenway tore up his knee on the opening kickoff of the Vikings preseason opener.
The rehab would keep him out for his entire rookie season, and there were days when Greenway wondered if he’d ever make it all the way back.
“You always have a little bit of doubt creep in,” Greenway said this week. “For one thing I had never played in the NFL when I had the injury. So you never really know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what kind of player you’re going to be. You don’t have the chance to go prove yourself before you got injured. But I think I took the approach that I can’t do anything about it. You’ve just got to fight back as hard as you can.”
He’s been scratching and clawing for five years now, and the work ethic borne on the family farm in rural South Dakota has officially made Greenway one of the top linebackers in the league, a bright spot in what has been a disappointing season for the Vikings (4-7).
Greenway has 108 tackles, ranking him third in the NFL and tops in the NFC, ahead of such well-known tackling demons as San Francisco’s Patrick Willis, Baltimore’s Ray Lewis and Washington’s London Fletcher as he chases his first Pro Bowl appearance.
“He’s having a Pro Bowl season,” said Vikings interim head coach Leslie Frazier, who has been Greenway’s defensive coordinator the last three seasons. “I hope he gets the attention that he deserves. He’s having a great season.”
Attention has never been high on Greenway’s list of priorities. He grew up working 18-hour days on that farm, long, exhausting summer days that actually made him yearn for the school year to come. He starred on the nine-man football team and, upon graduating with 28 classmates from Mt. Vernon, went on to a superb career at Iowa.
The Vikings drafted him 17th overall in 2006, and from that point forward, Greenway set a goal of consistent improvement from one year to the next — a practical approach from practical workhorse.
Over the last five years, Greenway has made Minnesota his home, settling here with his wife and two young children about a five-hour drive from where he grew up.
Just how much longer this will be home is up for discussion. Greenway is in the final year of his rookie contract and will be coveted on the free agent market. He and his family hope he stays in purple, but no long-term extension has been worked out yet.
“There’s going to be emotions involved,” he said. “Everyone likes to say it’s strictly a business decision but you have to come down to what’s best for you, what’s best for your family and what’s best for your future and weigh your options. We have five games left here to see what happens with the team and just move forward from there.”
When he went down as a rookie, Greenway leaned on his hardworking roots, throwing himself into the arduous rehab process. Along the way, he has earned the respect of veteran teammates who have watched him grow up before their eyes.
“He was drafted here in my first year so I’ve seen him evolve and grow up a little bit,” guard Steve Hutchinson said. “You see a guy as a guy gets older, naturally gets stronger, the game becomes more second nature and you can see the game slowing down for him each year. He’s one of the better linebackers in the league at his position. He’s always around the ball, he’s always making plays and he works really hard.”
The injury aside, this gradual progression to the top of the league was Greenway’s plan from the start.
“I think I envisioned it going this way, to consistently get better and better and better,” Greenway said. “The goal is to be the best player you can be. I think I envision myself as being up there with linebackers in the NFL.”
Few will argue with that. Certainly not Chan Gailey, whose Buffalo Bills face Greenway’s Vikings on Sunday.
“He really becomes a pain, is what he does, because he’s making a ton of plays,” Gailey said. “He’s in the line, he’s out of the line, he’s dancing around back there. You don’t know where he’s going to be next. He’s just making a ton of plays right now and just creates headaches for you.”
Enough headaches to get him to his first Pro Bowl? The increased use of the 3-4 scheme has made pass-rushing linebackers like Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware and Green Bay’s Clay Matthews en vogue. Greenway plays in a traditional 4-3 defensive scheme, which limits his opportunities for sacks, the magical statistic that makes Pro Bowl voters swoon.
“Oh it would be unbelievable,” Greenway said. “To be able to consider yourself as one of the better players in the NFL and get invited to the Pro Bowl would be huge. Something you always work for, but you can’t weigh your career on Pro Bowls because positions are different.”
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