The determination that defined Chad Greenway’s NFL career can be traced to a high school football game in small-town South Dakota.
Playing free safety as a freshman with Stickney-Mount Vernon in 1997, Greenway broke his thumb against Geddes-Dakota Christian but decided to keep playing and not disclose the injury.
“You know how it is when you’re trying to impress older kids,” the Minnesota Vikings linebacker said in an interview with Argus Leader Media this week. “I didn’t even tell the coaches. I didn’t want them to take me out.”
Greenway played the rest of that season in a cast and later emerged as one of the most dominant players in state history, lifting Stickney-Mount Vernon to consecutive 9-man titles as a quarterback and defensive standout in 1999 and 2000.
What followed was major-college success at Iowa and a memorable 11-year NFL stint with the Vikings, who drafted Greenway 17th overall in 2006. He rose to fourth in franchise history with 1,101 career tackles, made two Pro Bowl appearances and earned a reputation for community involvement through his Lead the Way Foundation.
Though he’s holding off an official announcement, it appears likely that Greenway, who turns 34 on Jan. 12, played his final game in last Sunday’s 38-10 win over Chicago at U.S. Bank Stadium, with his wife and four daughters looking on as part of a large gathering of family and friends.
“I try to be one of the few self-aware athletes out there and know that I can’t make every play that I used to,” says Greenway, who started nine of 16 games after being a full-time starter most of his career. “I’m thankful for being able to live my dream. Every moment becomes more special because you wake up one day and all of a sudden you’re not doing what you’ve been doing for most of your life.”
He received hearty applause during pregame introductions and was later handed the game ball by Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, after which Greenway addressed the team in the manner of someone whose journey affords him wisdom to share.
“My goal was to soak up every moment, and that’s what I did,” said the Mount Vernon native, who plans to meet with Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman and discuss the future with his family before revealing a decision.
Greenway considered retirement last year before signing a one-year, $2.75 million contract in the hopes of chasing an elusive Super Bowl berth. Playing a lesser role in Zimmer’s defense, he finished with a career-low 41 tackles as Minnesota started 5-0 this season before fading to an 8-8 mark.
Still, he takes pride in being able to determine his own future. Though Greenway has suffered two career concussions, his body is not broken. He feels optimistic about the future.
He enjoys off-the-field hours with his recently expanded family and the work of his foundation, which led to his being named the Vikings’ Walter Payton Community Man of the Year three times, most recently in 2015.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a Viking for life, because it’s bigger than just being a linebacker and trying to make a tackle,” says Greenway, who has donated to Sanford Health’s children’s cancer program as well as sponsoring a new track in his hometown.
“It’s about striving to be somebody who is remembered, somebody who did more. Football literally brought me everything I have since leaving Mount Vernon, and I really wouldn’t change a thing.”
Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway is contemplating retirement after a 11-year NFL career. Wochit
Down on the farm
The fact that Greenway conducts a phone interview while gently tending to his 5-week old daughter, Carsyn, is evidence of shifting realities.
His wife, Jenni, was a distance runner at the University of Iowa who became friends with the football star from South Dakota and married him in 2006. Greenway describes her as “the CEO” of a family that also includes daughters Maddyn (9), Beckett (6) and Blakely (2).
The Greenway clan will travel this weekend to the cattle and hog farm where Chad grew up, about 10 miles west of Mitchell. His mother, Julie, buys all the grandkids a beef cow, and they’ll go to observe the calf sale in Mitchell and “get a little college money to boot,” according to Chad.
His older sisters, Kelly and Jenni, will also be at the farm with their kids, stirring memories of when Greenway played basketball on a makeshift gravel court in between moving hogs and cleaning barns, turning himself into a multi-sport star in football, basketball and track.
By the time he finished his high school football career with more than 5,000 combined rushing and passing yards, 310 tackles, 19 interceptions and an Argus Leader Elite 45 captain honor, he was known as much for his work ethic as his ability to make big plays.
“I don’t remember too many practices or games when he wasn’t working as hard, or harder, than anyone else on the team,” former football coach Myron Steffen recalled. “Sometimes you’ll get those athletes who find things come easy to them, and they coast. That wasn’t the case with Chad.”
Lee Bollock, who has known Greenway since kindergarten and remains a close friend, played on those Stickney-Mount Vernon teams and glimpsed a bright future when his friend sprouted to 6-foot-4 before his sophomore year.
“Once we started seeing guys like (Iowa football coach) Kirk Ferentz standing on the sideline at our practices, we figured out how good he really was,” says Bollock, now director of emergency services for Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls.
Even back then, Greenway’s impact transcended sports. As his emergence turned heads and made him a major Division I recruit, younger kids in the single-building school district followed their hero’s lead.
“The little kids couldn’t get enough of him,” recalled Julie during her son’s Mount Vernon career. “He helped things along in the cafeteria if there was food that the first-graders didn’t want to eat. If Chad ate it, they all would.”
Life after loss
Greenway’s own hero, a man whose advice he would have leaned on as he faces his future, is gone. His father, Alan, passed away at age 56 in 2014 after a bout with leukemia.
Most agree that Chad got his toughness from Alan, a farmer and rural mail carrier who watched with pride as his son sparked the town to football glory and rose to national prominence at Iowa, overcoming a knee injury to become a coveted NFL prospect.
When Chad was drafted by the Vikings in 2006, Alan was among the revelers in Mount Vernon, where his son spoke in the high school gym and told any Green Bay fans in attendance that they would “have to get rid of that Packer crap” and cheer for Minnesota.
Now, as another career landmark approaches and Chad’s parenting knowledge stems from experience, the absence of his father looms large.
“I miss him for all those decisions and conversations,” says Greenway. “There are moments like this when you really need someone to give you the simple truth, and Dad was excellent at that. He would never push you into a decision that you didn’t want to make, but he would help you find your way.”
Ever since Chad’s rookie NFL season was wiped out by a knee injury in the first quarter of the 2006 preseason opener at the Metrodome, his performance has been steady. He led the Vikings in tackles for six straight seasons from 2007-2013, including a career-high of 154 in 2011 that included 13 tackles for loss.
His speed and range were hallmarks of his Big Ten stint and prime NFL years. He could run and cover and knew what to do with the ball if he got it. But Zimmer’s arrival in 2014 and the emergence of younger, faster linebackers such as Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks altered Greenway’s role and led to fewer chances to shine.
“When Zim came in, I tried to change my game and become the type of player he wanted me to be, and then your body starts to make up its own mind about what it’s going to do,” says Greenway, who played fewer third-down situations because of the need to cover athletic tight ends. “When you look at guys like (Barr and Kendricks), it becomes harder to go out and make a difference, because I’m clearly not those guys right now. I tried to embrace it, but that plays a role in whether you have that hunger to come back.”
There are definite disappointments for a team captain whose Super Bowl dreams were crushed by an agonizing NFC Championship loss to New Orleans that ended the 2009 season, not to mention the Blair Walsh-fueled playoff heartbreak against Seattle last season.
The latter setback impacted Greenway’s decision to return to action in 2016, but the veteran says he’s “in a different place” this time around. One thing is for certain: If he’s done playing with the Vikings, there will be no suiting up for another team.
“There’s no reason I would ever jump ship,” Greenway says. “If I’m going to play next year, it’s only going to be in purple, unless we’re talking about flag football in a church league.”
Facing the future
Greenway admits to running onto the field a little more slowly during player introductions last Sunday in Minneapolis, allowing the moment to sink in.
The prospect of a final game was tough not only for him but for family and friends who have been part of an incredible ride since he dazzled crowds at the DakotaDome more than 15 years ago.
“For any of us to see it come to an end is difficult,” says Bollock, who said Greenway kept his emotions in check after the game. “Chad just continually mentioned that he was grateful to have the opportunity to play 15 years past when most people get a chance to.”
When the lifelong friends returned to Greenway’s house in Wayzata after the game, that theme of good fortune continued. Bollock pointed out a signed guitar from country superstar Garth Brooks that Greenway had acquired a few years back.
“I told him, 'Did you ever think that Garth Brooks would just send you a guitar?’ and that sort of took us back to where it all started,” Bollock said. “It’s sort of amazing when your wildest dreams come true.”
For Greenway, though, letting go might be easier than most. He joyfully embraces a frenzied family life, coaching his daughters’ youth sports teams, volunteering at their school and changing diapers when called upon.
He could make smooth transitions into business, broadcasting or even politics, given that his great-grandfather, Franklin “Red” Lyon, was a South Dakota state legislator and his grandmother, Laska Schoenfelder, served three terms as public utilities commissioner.
The Lead the Way Foundation also keeps Chad and Jenni busy, including a “Chad’s Locker” program that eases hospital stays for children and their families by providing access to notebook computers, movies and video game systems, with Sanford Children’s Hospital added to the list in 2015.
“It’s not a death sentence,” Greenway says of NFL retirement. “When people talk about avoiding fallout and depression when football is done with you, a lot of it has to do with how your personal life is doing and finding purpose away from the game. Physically I’m in a good place and I’m fortunate to have done what I wanted to do since I was a kid while appreciating everything that came from it.”
Regardless of what comes next, Greenway has the satisfaction of knowing that he did things his way. He chased his dream, remembered where he came from, stayed with one organization, forged a family and made things better around him. Just like his small town taught him.
“I don’t know if it could have gone any better,” says Mount Vernon activities director and boys basketball coach Eric Denning, who remains a mentor and close friend. “Chad pursued things that meant a lot to him and worked hard to make a positive impact. He’s brought us a whole lot of pride."
Argus Leader Media city columnist Stu Whitney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @stuwhitney