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Dennis Green leaves immense impact on NFL community

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To understand former NFL head coach Dennis Green, you first need to know he ran the scout teams when he was leading the Minnesota Vikings in the 1990s. He'd gather up his cards filled with offensive formations and defensive schemes, assemble the less-talented players on his roster, and practice plays to help prepare his starters for game day. Green could've dumped that duty on a low-level staffer, as most coaches typically do. Instead, as NFL Network analyst and former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick said, "That was Denny's way of touching every player on the team."

There are many words to describe Green as people grieve over his death on Friday. The most essential, after hearing about that scout team strategy, should be "impact." It's easy to classify Green as a talented coach who never managed to win a Super Bowl. It's much harder to understand that his legacy went far beyond something that could be measured simply by his career record of 113-94.

Green joined the Minnesota Vikings in 1992 as the second African-American head coach in NFL history. He then spent 13 seasons helping players mature, preparing his assistants for their own opportunities and paving the way for more black men to reach heights similar to his own.

"Coach Green was an innovator, but he was a player's coach," said Randall Cunningham, who played quarterback for Green in Minnesota from 1997 to '99. "Much like how (former NFL head coach) Buddy Ryan got his players motivated, Coach Green did it in a way by making us go to bible study, by sitting down and talking to us like Buddy Ryan did, hugging us and really looking us in the eye and showing us how we were supposed to be as athletes and people. He built our morals, our character, our integrity."

Green was more than just a player's coach. Limiting him to that description would suggest he only knew how to motivate his talent and earn their trust. One of Green's greatest gifts was his ability to understand his players -- what they feared, how they lived, where they came from. Some of this likely came from Green's own life experiences as a standout running back at the University of Iowa in the 1960s, as he was a player who had to learn first-hand how to succeed in a world where people too quickly judged blacks by their skin color.

Like a lot of African-American men who came of age in the '60s, Green had to decide how he would handle race as he moved into coaching. His decision became more obvious the higher he climbed: He would become known for his unrelenting nature, his genuine passion for people, his uncompromising determination to stay true to himself. Art Shell may have been the first African-American NFL head coach -- when Al Davis hired him to coach the Oakland Raiders in 1989 -- but Green was the first black man in that position to conduct himself so boldly. As Green said when he was first introduced in Minnesota, there was definitely "a new sheriff in town."

That didn't mean to suggest Green was all swagger. He possessed a brilliant mind for the game, an innate sense for evaluating talent and a feel for what every player needed to succeed.

"Denny really tapped into the individual," said Billick, who served as Minnesota's offensive coordinator from 1994 to '98, before working as the Baltimore Ravens head coach to 1999 to 2007. "He knew the guys, but he also really cared for them. He also did a great job of not letting people make excuses around him. If he heard a black assistant say that [the assistant] couldn't get an opportunity because of his skin color, Denny would tell him to not let that be an excuse (and to keep trying). He could connect with people."

That ability meant Green treated men like men -- no micro-managing coaches or overwhelming players with endless preparation. He operated that way when he became the first African-American head coach in Big Ten history (at Northwestern from 1981 to '85), when he was leading Stanford from 1989 to '91 and again during an NFL career spent between Minnesota and Arizona. Green led by pulling people together, making them believe that nothing else mattered more than the men who were following him. It's what allowed him to connect with high-maintenance players -- including stars like Cris Carter and Randy Moss -- and it nearly helped him pull off one of the most impressive seasons in NFL history.

Green likely will never be recognized for the coach he was because of the heartbreaking end to Minnesota's 1998 campaign. That team went 15-1, set a then-NFL record for points scored in a single season and had a chance to become one of the best squads ever. That was before the Atlanta Falcons upset them in the NFC Championship Game. The most vivid memory of Green from then on was his post-game rant after his Cardinals blew a 20-point lead to the Chicago Bears in a 2006 Monday night loss.

The sad part of Green's career is that he's too well-known for his scowls, his grimacing, his outbursts in front of the media (and people in Minnesota will tell you that his feuds with local reporters there could be epic). Too often the public didn't see the man who would do anything for his players and pushed them to do more for the community when they could. Green doesn't even get enough credit for the coaches he mentored. It should be noted that he had a former offensive coordinator (Billick) and a former defensive coordinator (Tony Dungy) who both went on to win Super Bowls as head coaches.

Said Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, who played for Green in Minnesota from 1992 to '95: "He was a real trailblazer and his impact on the game continues to live through the many successful coaches that he mentored. One of his phrases, or 'Denny-isms' as we call them, is 'We're going to plan our work and work our plan.' I still use that 'Denny-ism' today. Coach Green is going to be missed dearly by everyone that was lucky enough to know him."

That should be something that people all around the NFL should be feeling today. Green was one of the best coaches of his generation and an even more important figure in the evolution of black head coaches. He certainly had his faults and his setbacks, which is true of anybody who works in this industry. But he also left most of the teams he coached in much better shape than when he first arrived.

This is why a Lombardi Trophy isn't the best way to always define a coach's legacy. Sometimes, a man's impact has more to do with things we never see or moments that never get discussed outside the team. In fact, it's ironic today to think that Green once seriously considered becoming a high school teacher after he graduated cum laude from Iowa with a degree in finance. That's because he died at age 67 with the knowledge of something far bigger than football -- that he'd affected as many lives as a head coach possibly can.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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