Once the World's Fastest Man, Charlie Greene Gets a Kidney Transplant
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The powerful legs that carried Charlie Greene to six individual NCAA championships at Nebraska, four world sprint records, plus Olympic gold and bronze medals at Mexico City, can barely make it out of his car now, let alone shuffle across the street to NU's Athletic Training Table.
But every week, he's still there as a Life Skills volunteer, entertaining and inspiring Husker football and volleyball players, as well as track and field athletes - and anyone else who cares to join him - for a friendly lunch and a philosophical discussion for dessert.
Diabetes and kidney failure may have cost Greene the bounce in his step, but his mind and ability to communicate appear in peak form. Ask Husker student-athletes who know Greene, and they will tell you how much they appreciate his wit and wisdom, his energy and enthusiasm, and perhaps most of all, his courage and competitiveness.
Greene, you see, is a 65-year-old poster "child" for the power of positive thinking, even though 17 months ago, he was physically drained, emotionally exhausted and fighting for his life. He went into the hospital to fix a disc in his neck and came out of surgery with complications that forced him onto a ventilator for a month.
Word spread fast in the Nebraska Athletic Department. Once the world's fastest man, Charlie Greene was now in the Madonna Rehabilitation Center, battling not only kidney problems that require four hours of dialysis three days a week, but also some post-surgery depression, which could be even more dangerous than the need for a kidney transplant.
First Tendency Was to Retreat, Not Share
Even though Greene is a man of faith, a year-and-a-half ago put him at a crossroads. Just the thought of preparing to move around every day in a wheelchair was a big blow to a strong ego. Deep in his mind, he knew he would work his way back, but he just isn't the type to put a struggling comeback on public display.
In tough times, pride is privately and purposely protected. Isolation, though, especially for someone as talkative as Charlie, can move the daily progress meter in the wrong direction.
Reports of Charlie's personal trials were circulating, and friends and longtime followers could not believe that one of Nebraska's most famous athletes in any sport - a former Army major and one-time Special Olympics executive in Washington, D.C. - was down and out in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The same confident, world-class sprinter who joked that he wore sunglasses during competition so he could protect his eyes when he came back into the atmosphere, never imagined dark days like the ones he was facing in a rehabilitation center.
Keith Zimmer, Nebraska's Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills, knew Charlie could use some encouragement, so he set the stage for what he hoped would be an emotional rescue.
Shortly before Thanksgiving 2008, Zimmer asked Nebraska's red-hot volleyball team if it wanted to stop by and say hi to Charlie at Madonna.
"I don't know any volleyball players," Greene told Zimmer when he called to see if it was okay.
"But they know who you are," Zimmer said.
Student-Athletes Helped Greene's Comeback
The Husker women, led by inspirational leader Amanda Gates, came to Madonna, saw a proud man in desperate need and began to help him conquer classic symptoms that were eating a big chunk of a proven champion's trademark cheer.
Shortly thereafter, several key members of the football team, led by inspirational leader Roy Helu, also visited Charlie, fell in love with his stories and kept coming back to hear more.
Suddenly, Charlie Greene was relevant again. He became an integral part of both teams' amazing finishes down the stretch. When the volleyball team came back from a 2-0 deficit to qualify for the National Semifinals, Greene was ready to throw away his wheelchair and part the Red Sea.
"They came close to beating Penn State and winning the national championship, but as far as I'm concerned, those women were national champions," Greene said. "The gumption and the strength of personality it took to come that far back and beat Washington in my hometown (Seattle) were just too much to get back less than a week later. You can't find that kind of emotional edge back-to-back. It's like trying to capture lightning in a bottle - very difficult."
Watching Nebraska use a 57-yard field goal to hijack Colorado and the Huskers press supposedly the greatest volleyball team of all time in the NCAA semifinals - and personally knowing many of the players in both instances - gave Greene a new lease on life and more reasons to get back on track.
"Charlie Greene has been a source of inspiration to our student-athletes," Zimmer said. "There's chemistry there. Our student-athletes admire what he's achieved and what he's gone through. I think both of those teams would say Charlie played a role in their success. He enjoyed the opportunity he had to influence them and the way they look at life and competition."
Life Skills Consultant, Special Olympics Liaison
Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne saw enough in Greene to ask him if he would help Zimmer as a weekly consultant in Life Skills. Greene also is serving as a liaison between the Athletic Department and the Special Olympics when Lincoln hosts the 2010 USA National Games in July.
Green has evolved from wheel chair to cane to walking, and his feet are now planted firmly back on ground. His mind is sharp, his faith is strong and his energy is high (just ask him how he sat through every second of Nebraska's football win at Missouri in a downpour, "using my fingers as windshield wipers to watch my favorite team win with guts and leave town with class - just like it was when Tom Osborne was coach.")
Charlie Greene has been the featured speaker over the last several months for the "Your Degree First" group, headed by Husker football player Anthony Blue. He also gave his own version of "The Last Lecture" for the Nebraska Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
His message is fundamentally strong and delivered with extraordinary conviction: Being on a Nebraska athletic scholarship is a privilege, not a right, and your short time at Nebraska will be the best time of your life. So take full advantage of your support system. Make your degree your No. 1 goal. Go to class every day and study every night. Do what your coaches ask you to do and expect you to do. Never break a promise. Always keep a commitment. Do all of that, and you will achieve the Nebraska version of the triple crown - success in athletics, success in academics and success in life.
Saturday afternoon, the Relay Club, Nebraska's track and field booster club, honored Charlie with its annual Spirit Award at the Frank Sevigne Invitational. The award is based on consistent financial and personal support of Nebraska track and field. Greene also was honored Saturday night at the largest banquet in club history - 350 at the Cornhusker Hotel. Even though Greene was the award recipient, he doled out recognition himself, presenting a book on leadership to Betsy Miller, a former NU captain in both track and field and cross country.
Miller, who once presided over NU's Mortar Board and the NU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at the same time, is another Husker who helped rejuvenate Greene. With encouragement from her and many others, Charlie Greene's batteries have been recharged, and much of his turnaround can be traced to an Athletic Department that has reached out to one its most loyal supporters and welcomed him into its inner circle.
It's Role Reversal for Greene and the Public
Now, it's time to elevate what is very much at the heart of Charlie Greene's life - the need for a new kidney. He's been on an official waiting list for a year.
Meeting and getting involved with Nebraska student-athletes "has been good therapy for Charlie, but he has diabetes, and he needs a kidney transplant," Osborne said. "Dialysis has been quite a burden for Charlie, and long term, he needs that kidney. We hope a match is found, sooner rather than later."
"It's a reverse role right now," Helu said. "Charlie has given so much to the public, and now he's reaching out to a public that can help him. He's a prideful man. It takes a lot of courage on his part to be in need."
"Charlie is awesome," said Eric Hagg, a Nebraska Blackshirt. "If I could donate a kidney, I would. In fact, I'm going to check into it."
Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, a former Husker who won the 2008 Olympic bronze medal in the 100-meter hurdles, said she can't think of anyone more deserving to receive a new kidney. "Charlie is a great role model for all of us," she said, "and he gives so much back to the community."
Greene appreciates the universal support. He said it encourages him every day as he waits for the right match. He is now fully confident that reaching out to Nebraska fans - those he said are closest to his heart and his psyche - is the only way he would run the biggest race of his life.
This time, though, there is much more at stake when he tries to beat the clock.
"Everybody dies," he said. "I'm just not ready to die now."
Editor's note: Hit the play button above and hear Osborne and others, including NU Head Track and Field Coach Gary Pepin, describe their support of Charlie Greene. Then hit the button below and tell us anything you think is important about Charlie Greene.
Voices from Husker Nation
My name is Mel Pender. I have just read the heart-breaking news about my 1968 teammate, Charlie Greene, and his heath problems. Charlie is the nicest man that I have known. We have known each other over 30 years. If I was physically able, I would be glad to give my longlife friend one of my kidneys. I want to commend you for what NU has done for Charlie. You have brought life back into him. He has given back to the youth and serving our country, and now it is time for us to give back to him. May God bless him, and I will keep him in my prayers. Dr. Mel Pender, 1968 Olympian, Gold Medalist, Atlanta, Georgia
The first time I saw Charlie Greene was in 1966. I was a high school senior, and he was a Nebraska University freshman running in New York City against Bob Hayes at Madison Square Garden. Before the big race, Charlie predicted that Bob "The Bullet" Hayes would have to break the world's record in order to beat Charlie. Charlie almost beat "The World's Fastest Human", forcing Hayes to break the world's indoor record for the 60-yard dash just as Charlie Greene had predicted. From 1966 to 1969, I was a half-miler on the Nebraska track team with Charlie. Charlie has been my hero as a world-class athlete, and he has been my role-model as a successful student and post-graduate. When your hero and role model not only models for you, but actually cheers you on, that is true inspiration that you can succeed with. Thank you and all the best to you Charlie "Peeps" Greene. You're still the best. God bless you as you overcome new challenges as true a champion. Much love, appreciation, and gratitude, from "Big Mike" Randall, Class of 1970 (NU Alumni Achievement Award 2000), New York City, New York.
What a man, What a man, What a man, What a mighty good man!!!!!! Beckie Tuttle, Lincoln, Nebraska
As an official in track and field over the past three-plus decades, I have had the opportunity to know, watch and officiate for a number of my boyhood heroes - Jim Ryan at the KU relays, Billy Mills at KU periodically and often Charlie Greene at Nebraska for a number of years. What a privilege to see young men and women under Charlie's teaching and mentoring. I've posted this article and video on my Facebook Page to share around the net with my fellow track officials. It's a great article about an important cause - transplants. Now one of our own is open to a hand from those he has rubbed shoulders with over decades of his Husker life. Thanks to all who participated in making this important information available to the Husker Nation. Mike Williams, North Bend, Nebraska
Outstanding article on Charlie Greene. You captured the true essence of the moment in this article. Thank you and everyone else who have helped Charlie Greene during his tribulation. Will Cummings, Des Moines, Iowa
Growing up in Nebraska's Panhandle in the 1960s, we all loved it when Bob Devaney moved from Wyoming and put Nebraska on the national football map, but we were just as excited following the storied career of Charlie Greene, who put Nebraska on the world map. We were absolutely fascinated by his ability to beat the best sprinters in the world on a consistent basis. Part of his appeal, of course, was a Cornhusker putting on sunglasses and leaving everyone in his rear-view mirror. I chuckled reading about why Charlie wore those sunglasses. He was a true champion then, and all of these decades later, he remains one the University of Nebraska's greatest athletic legends, regardless of sport. I still remember what a thrill it was just to watch Charlie work out in Mushroom Gardens. He was such a hero in the eyes of so many of us, and I'm ready to be part of that search to find a kidney match. I watched the video, and I am his blood type. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help one of my favorite Nebraska athletes of all time. Ri Edwards, Yuba City, California
I was a student at the UNL College of Journalism, taking former Nebraska SID Don Bryant's Sports Media Relations class, when one of our guest speakers was Charlie Greene. As a graduate of the class of '09, I am much too young to have remembered his days as the world's fastest man. However, the stories he told, and the passion he displayed truly showcased what type of person he was. I was impressed with how much he cared for the university that gave him a start, and how committed he was to giving back to his community. I saw him out and about and around Lincoln many times since the class, and I've always said hello, and he has always been so kind as to start up a conversation. I wish him nothing but the best, and hope that he is able to continue his life with the same vigor and enthusiasm as I will always remember him for. Garrett Wright, Bristol, Connecticut
What a trip down memory lane as I read of the plight of one of Nebraska's greatest athletes of all time, Charlie Greene. My late father, Jerry Mapes, who started his career as a "Lincoln Journal-Star" sports writer, instilled in me the love of competitive sports, specifically Nebraska sports. My mom and dad were the host family to two of Nebraska's all-time great track athletes, Lennox Burgher and Clifton Forbes, who competed in the late '60s after coming to Nebraska from their native Jamaica. It was through this association that I had the honor of meeting Charlie Greene. What a thrill for a 9-year-old boy with stars in his eyes. I still remember him bringing his Olympic gold medal from the 4x100 relay and the bronze medal he won in the 100-meter dash in Mexico City to our Lincoln home in early 1969. Having watched him compete in the old Mushroom Gardens, it was certainly a thrill to have the chance to meet him in person and to share a part of his success. He was larger than life with a big personality, and I knew even as a child that this was something I would remember for a lifetime! After more than 40 years, Charlie Greene is still one of the great Nebraska sports icons of all time, and I hope and pray that the proper kidney match can restore him to improved health! Bruce Mapes, Phoenix, Arizona
As an ex-Husker track coach with Frank Sevigne, I have bonded closely with Charlie Greene over the years. We have visited each other's homes, attended Husker sports events, and he was influential in my daughter attending NU. Life has thrown him some tough curves physically and mentally without a doubt, but he has rallied and endured. His mantra has always been "to give back". While campus ombudsman and beyond his message to student-athletes, he always stressed in a positive way how important it was to attend class, listen to your coaches, train hard and respect the law. Many with his laurels would be all about themselves, totally self-absorbed, but Charlie always asks how you're getting along and how he might help make your day better. This is what makes Charlie a great representative for Nebraska and the USA, and an even better friend - one I admire greatly. John Korky, NU Class of 1977, Long Valley, New Jersey
While I was a student at the Pharmacy College in the mid '60s, we had an intramural "flag football" game with a team from the ROTC College. They had one play only - to hike it to this kid who would take off running, and no one on our team was able to come close to catching him. After a very close loss (something like 63-0) I remember somebody asking someone on their team: "Hey, who was that kid that could run like hell?" The response was: "That's Charlie Green...I think he's on the track team." Later, when Charlie won the Gold Medal at the 1968 Olympics, it made me feel proud knowing that I had my butt kicked by one of the greatest athletes ever. Ron Anderson, R.Ph., North Bend, Nebraska