Trailblazer and 'father figure,' Dennis Green gets place in Vikings' Ring of Honor
MINNEAPOLIS — Marie Green had one request when she prepared to head to the Twin Cities for the induction of her late husband into the Vikings' Ring of Honor.
"I told the Vikings I will need a nice healthy box of tissues," she said. "Save a box of Kleenex for me."
Dennis Green died of a heart attack in 2016 at age 67. At halftime of the game against the Buffalo Bills at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 23, the Vikings will honor their former head coach with the highest tribute that the team bestows.
"I'm not going to lie," said Marie Green, who was married to Green for 20 years and lives in San Diego. "It's going to be emotional."
Marie Green will speak to the crowd along with the Wilf ownership group and Brian Billick, Green's offensive coordinator before becoming a Super Bowl-winning head coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
Several members of Green's family will attend, including the two children Green had with Marie and two from a previous marriage. During Legends Weekend, the Vikings will welcome back about 80 former players and coaches, including about 25 from Green's 1992-2001 tenure.
"He was a coach who cared a lot about his players, not just on the field but off the field," said Hall of Fame defensive lineman John Randle, who played for the Vikings from 1990-2000. "He was concerned about your personal life. He was a coach that players could talk to. And he really opened up a lot of doors as a black coach."
Following Art Shell, who coached the Los Angeles Raiders from 1989-94, Green was the second African-American coach in modern NFL history, and had been a trailblazer before he arrived in Minnesota. He was the Big Ten's first black coach at Northwestern (1981-85), and the Pac-10's first when he coached Stanford (1989-91).
"I think that Dennis crushed barriers," said Marie, a St. Paul native. "Dennis' opinion was that it was hard to believe someone hadn't done it before, but if he had to be the first, he was going to be the first to pave the way."
With the Vikings, Green went 97-62 and took them to the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons. His best year was 1998, when Minnesota went 15-1, the best regular-season record in team history, and set a then-NFL record with 556 points scored.
But the season ended in bitter disappointment. Favored by 11 points, the Vikings lost to Atlanta in overtime, 30-27, in the NFC championship game. Eight years later, Green's former defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy, became the first black coach to win a Super Bowl with the Colts.
Marie Green said her husband never really got over the loss to the Falcons. Still, there was one moment on that bleak Jan. 17, 1999, day he treasured.
"That evening, Dennis didn't speak at all, and that's when you worry, is when Denny gets quiet," she said. "Then we got a call from the White House that night and President Clinton was calling to talk to Dennis, and that was the first time I saw him smile all evening. And he had a nice talk with the president, and that was kind of a nice way to end such a challenging day."
Green was a member of a 1998 panel Clinton put together on equality in sports and the two became friends. The Greens were invited in 1999 to spend the night in the White House, and went to a dinner for the president of Ghana.
Green made it back to the NFC championship game with the Vikings in 2000, but they were crushed by the New York Giants, 41-0. When the Vikings were 5-10 in 2001, Green's only losing season in Minnesota, his contract was bought out.
That season began with tackle Korey Stringer collapsing and dying of complications from heat stroke during a training camp practice in Mankato.
"Denny was very close to Big K, and that was very tough on him," said former Vikings punter Mitch Berger. "It was just an awful year. But I think it was absolute garbage that Denny wasn't there anymore after that season. I think he should have been the coach for a lot longer."
Guard David Dixon said he also owes his career to Green. Dixon had been a ninth-round pick by New England in the 1992 draft and had never played in a regular-season game when he arrived in Minnesota two years later.
"I have all the praise in the world when it comes to Coach Green," said Dixon, who played with the Vikings from 1994-2004. "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have the life I have now. My offensive line coach didn't even want me, but (Green) saw something in me.
"I remember when he left (in 2001), I said to Coach Green, 'You gave me everything in life. You gave me an opportunity.' "
Berger, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, said he decided to leave the Vikings after the 2001 season and join the St. Louis Rams because Green wasn't coming back. Green took two years off before he coached the Arizona Cardinals from 2004-06, his final NFL job.
That stint didn't work out too well — the Cardinals went just 16-32 — but his first draft pick in 2004 was wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a Minneapolis native who had been a Vikings ball boy and is now bound for the Hall of Fame.
Fitzgerald became the second star receiver Green pushed his team to draft. In 1998, he was the impetus behind Minnesota selecting Randy Moss with the No. 21 pick in the first round.
Moss was named to the Vikings Ring of Honor last year, and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in July. Vikings CEO Kevin Warren said it only was natural that Green would follow Moss into the Ring of Honor.
Green attended the Vikings' 50-season anniversary celebration in the Twin Cities in December 2010. His widow said he always had a soft spot in his heart for the team. When he died, there was an outpouring of support from many who knew him.
Like Marie, Warren expects Sunday's ceremony to be an emotional experience.
"There will some tears of sadness, but there also will be some tears of joy," Warren said. "His name will go up in U.S. Bank Stadium and be there forever."