If you happened to be driving through Granite City’s Wilson Park in the late 1970s, you might have seen a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.
It was the blond guy doing backflips off a picnic table.
That would have been Kevin Greene, who later starred as an NFL defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers among other teams. Greene finished his career ranked third all time with 160 quarterback sacks, but began his march to Canton, Ohio, at Granite City South High School.
“He’d stand on top of the picnic table and do a flip, kind of like Ozzie (Smith) did on Opening Day,” recalled Bob Firtos, Greene’s longtime friend and former basketball teammate. “One time some dude was driving around the park and got out of his car and said ‘Hey, that was so cool.”’
Firtos, now a firefighter and paramedic with the Lemay (Mo.) Fire Protection District, still lives in Granite City. And when Greene strides to the podium on Saturday in Canton to make his Hall of Fame speech, Firtos and former Granite City football coach Jerry McKechan will be among the proudest people in the crowd.
“I’m probably going to cry,” said Firtos, who isn’t exactly the crying type. “It’s going to overcome me, but it’s a good feeling. It’s an honor to see a guy that put so much work into it and finally is getting recognized.”
He’d stand on top of the picnic table and do a flip, kind of like Ozzie (Smith) did on Opening Day. One time some dude was driving around the park and got out of his car and said ‘Hey, that was so cool.’
Bob Firtos on Kevin Greene
Greene moved from Germany when his father in the military was stationed at the Granite City Army Depot.
Firtos recalled Greene taking some heat when the new kid showed up in town.
“Here was this outgoing fellow wearing black Pumas with this orange stripe,” Firtos said. “He’s in Granite City, a steel mill town back in the 1970s, and everybody was making fun of this guy. But I thought he was pretty cool.”
The pair became friends during tryouts for the freshman basketball team.
“Me and him were on the fourth team and we wound up sitting the bench almost the whole entire season,” Firtos recalled. “That’s how we became best friends.”
Eventually they began doing more and more together. Greene would eat at Fritos’ house, where Firtos mother might be cooking mostaccioli or another tasty dish.
Late in that first season together, Greene made it into a game when another player fouled out.
“They put Kevin in when they had a like a minute left. He took a shot from the free throw line and it went in, then everybody cheered,” Firtos said. “That was great.”
They were living their sports dream, but doing it a bit outside the traditional path.
Before games, they’d listen to classic rock on the stereo in Firtos’ room. Three of their favorites were Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero,” Styx’s “Superstars,” and REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me to Fly.”
“We had a bond,” Firtos said. “We liked the same things, we loved sports and just stayed with it. We’d go in my room and jam to REO Speedwagon’s ‘Time for me to Fly,’ because we could jump.
“We truly marched to the beat of our own drum. It was very positive and progressive and we got better and better.”
We had a bond. We liked the same things, we loved sports and just stayed with it. We’d go in my room and jam to REO Speedwdagon’s ‘Time for me to Fly,’ because we could jump. We truly marched to the beat of our own drum.
Bob Firtos on his friendship with Kevin Greene
Firtos recalled how he and Greene would devise various training techniques, many times working out in Wilson Park. Other times they would lift weights or play basketball against older players at the Army Depot.
“We got real serious,” Firtos said. “We had a routine and it was regimented. Even when he finally made the Rams and was playing pro football, he’d come to Granite and hang with me for about a month.
“We’d work out and lift weights and do drills at Wilson Park. We didn’t have video games and all that stuff, that was our fun.”
Both became basketball starters during their senior year, the 1979-80 season. While Granite City South players wore suits to games, Greene and Firtos went a little further by showing up with sharp three-piece ensembles that sometimes included fedoras.
Rival Madison was extremely good in basketball in those days, winning state titles in 1977 and 1981 and finishing fourth in 1980.
Firtos recalled Greene scoring 25 points in the first half of one game against Madison and finishing with 32 points overall.
“He was two-hand dunking from one step away in high school at 6-foot-2,” Firtos said of Greene. “He could sky and was one of the hardest-hitting dudes in football, but his sport was basketball.”
As it turns out, Greene stuck to football. After a stint in the Army ROTC and National Guard, Green made Auburn’s team as a walk-on and worked so hard he became the team’s Defense Player of the Year as a senior.
Greene says once he reached the NFL, he became more of a student of the game. All that homework paid off.
“I figured out how to pass rush by studying and being a student of the game,” he said. “Understanding angles. Understanding leverage. Understanding the speed of the game. I really figured out how to pass rush. I figured out how to put a guy at offensive tackle that was three or four inches taller than me and outweighed me 80 to 100 pounds, I figured out how to put him in a position of failure.”
Firtos and Greene are together again this week in Canton, Ohio, living large. They got a personal tour of the Hall of Fame and run into VIPs around every corner.
It reminds Firtos of the days where he would go to Greene’s NFL games in Los Angeles or Pittsburgh and other stops along the way. He got to visit the locker room and would marvel at many of the people and things he got to witness.
It was that way again in May when Greene and Firtos took in a Styx concert in Florida and Greene introduced Firtos to Styx guitar player James “JY” Young.
Big Styx fans back in the day, they were both meeting one of their own heroes. Firtos said they spent the next day singing Styx songs, “but we’re not too good of singers.”
Greene is among the best to ever play his position in the NFL. He will be immortalized on Saturday.
“I was too skinny to play football, but I hung with him all the way,” Firtos said. “He always said there was no goal that could not be achieved if you give it everything you had. He totally got it. That attitude was burned into our soul at the age of 13 and it never ended.”