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NFL Running Back Ahman Green Talks Similarities Between Sports and Esports

Ahman Green is a man of many, many talents. Not only is he an infamous running back who played in the NFL for twelve years (mostly for the Green Bay Packers), he’s also an actor, a philanthropist, a podcast and radio host, a seasoned streamer, an esports coach… and that’s just the surface of his resume.

I had the chance to sit down with Green and learn his story, and I couldn’t be happier.

Ahman Green
NFL Running Back Ahman Green Talks Similarities Between Sports and Esports 6

Green was born in Nebraska, but while he was still small, his family moved to Los Angeles. He spent the first quarter of his life going back and forth between the two locales – he has three siblings, the youngest of which is fifteen years older than him – and he was grateful for his experience in LA.

“Seeing different people and experiencing things at a young age, that helped me as a kid growing up,” Green reflected. “Because I knew how to act. I knew how to talk to people. I knew how to be aware of certain things… I had a friend almost from every continent on the planet. All because of living in Los Angeles.”

Green loves to jump on the phone and offer a “guidebook” to help struggling friends understand their first time in Los Angeles. “The way people act, or talk, or – you’re on the beach and you see some guy just talking to a wall. It’s like, that’s normal. Or you see things you can’t explain to you like, ‘… Okay…  Are we… safe right now?’” Green laughs.

Green has always had a deep love for both sports and gaming. But he credits his parents with making sure he did get out into the real world to play. As long as he did his chores and schoolwork first, he could play for a few hours before Green’s mom would knock on his door, ordering, “Get your butt outside.” Green’s parents’ strict-but-fair policy was so effective, his present-day friends often call him for game-related parenting advice.

Green’s father was an IT guy, which helped foster Green’s curiosity about technology and gaming. Green’s first console was the ColecoVision (a console in the early 80s that magically had ROMs from both Nintendo and Sega), where he quickly learned to dominate in Donkey Kong and Zaxxon. Green then got the NES for Christmas, making him the first kid of his block to have one. He fondly rolled off his first Nintendo games: Gyromite (with R.O.B. the robot, presently of Smash fame,) Duck Hunt (“with the zapper, which was awesome,”) Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda (“I got the gold cartridge, I opened that thing, and I was like, ‘Ooooooh, this is so sweet!!’”)

Green was a model kid, largely because he knew that if he got in trouble, his video game and sports-playing privileges would be revoked. He “learned real quick” what not to do from his much-older siblings, who were always in trouble as children. “They would tell me stories of how they snuck out the house, and how they were having people over, having parties,” Green recalled. “I’m like, ‘What?’ Definitely don’t do that, because I will never see another gaming console – play football, baseball – in my life.”

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Image courtesy of Sporting News

(Being fifteen years younger than his next-oldest sibling also meant that Green had nine nieces and nephews by the time he was eight years old. “I learned how to change diapers at a young age, which I thought was cool,” he said.)

Still, no one’s perfect. Green recalled one incident when he was eight where, for no particular reason, he started peeling the rubber off of his father’s vice grips, “like a banana.” He peeled the grip off of three or four tools, put them back in the tool box, and wandered to his room. That one cost him two weeks of Nintendo. “He coulda just shot me!” Green exclaimed.

The other major incident came when Green was about 11 and had graduated to the Sega Genesis. He was playing John Madden Football when, after a questionable interception, he screamed, “The game’s cheatin’ me!”

Green continued, “So I throw the controller down, and break it, and one of the buttons comes out of the controller. My mom hears all this ruckus in the room, she opens the door… She looks like she sees the controller. She’s like, ‘Oh, well. You break it, you buy it.’ I’m like, ‘…Huh?’ ”

Fortunately, Green had figured out how to use his father’s tools by then and was able to fix the controller himself. But a lesson was certainly learned: no more rages. “Gamers today are raging, rage quitting and all this. No, that got alleviated at eleven,” Green said, resolutely.

“Once those two incidents happened,” Green continued, “I was like, ‘Oh, I get this. I’m gonna just stay out of trouble.’”

Of course, throughout his childhood, Green was also incredibly busy excelling at football. After getting recruited to the University of Nebraska and becoming a two-time NCAA National champion, he began his twelve-year career in the NFL. While Green played for five different teams, he’s most famous for being a part of the Green Bay Packers, where he played alongside other superstars like Brett Favre.

Instead of asking Green directly about the game, I went a more unconventional route. The ultra-hype culture of Packers fans and their cheesehead hats (“They went to having a cheese bra,” Green added) uniquely stands out among football teams. So I asked Green: what’s cheesehead culture like from the players’ perspective?

Green laughed. “This is definitely the best question anybody has asked me about being a Packer,” he replied.

The answer: it was insane. He reflected, “Watching the fans cheer us on, root us on, or wish we were dead after a loss… It was this crazy back and forth. It was like a battery. It was like a bad relationship, as a player.”

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

“I’ve met fans that it’s been passed down from generation to generation in the wills of a grandfather or grandmother,” Green continued. “I’ve heard families in divorces fight over Packers seats, season tickets. It’s that deep. It’s just as serious as God anywhere else in the world.” Green still gets men old enough to be his grandfather who cry when they meet him – ten years after he played for the Packers. 

However, the heavy emotions can also flip the other way. Semi-recently, Green – who still lives in the Green Bay area – went to a Packers vs. 49ers game with a 49ers beanie. “I grew up a 49ers fan,” Green explained, “When I got drafted, that was my childhood dream, to go there.” The 49ers beanie was also a way to commemorate his father, who had died the year before.

Of course, Ahman was also wearing a Packers shirt – but it was under his jacket. So all the Packers fans saw was his 49ers hat, and they freaked out. “Aren’t you a Packers fan?!” they yelled.

“I’m a 49ers fan, too!” Green replied, laughing as he recounted the story. “Chill out!”

Of course, when he was on the team, “We loved the support. But when we had a loss, we shake it off and we go to the next game. Fans, though, they didn’t let go. They’d be mad at me for fumbling the ball, or for Brett throwing an interception… They take it personally. We don’t take it personally as the players, and we’re actually playing the game!”

Green would try to help new players on the team prepare for all of this. New players expressed disbelief that so many fans would bother to come to practices and training camps, but it was even more intense than that. “‘Be ready, they’re gonna cheer when you make a big play in practice,’” Green warned them. “And they were like, ‘What?’… And sure enough, they were screaming and yelling in practice.”

“I got used to it,” Green added. “The first couple times were weird… Then it’s like, it’s just the fans.”

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Photo courtesy of the Sheboygan Press

Green has only one memory of a fully unpleasant fan interaction, which happened during his second season with the Packers, in 2001.

“I parked into our players’ parking lot… I’m walking in and the fans are right on the other side of the fence, and they’re cheering, ‘Good luck today!’… But then one guy, he was yelling and I could tell he was drunk, so I’ll give him that… He goes, ‘I own you!’

“I wasn’t turning around to say hello, but I was waving. He’s like, ‘Come over here! I own you! We own you!’

“I’m like – ” Green illustrated a look of incredulity. “I didn’t say anything, I just walked in the door.”

Once inside, Green shared the experience with his trainer (“We called him Flea, he kinda looked like Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”) Flea shook his head and explained that, back in the day, the Packers were owned by the city of Green Bay and by the families wealthy enough to sustain the team, since they were bankrupt.

Obviously, that’s not the case anymore. But Flea said some fans have trouble letting that go (this heckler was, as one might expect, an older man.) “But it still doesn’t sound right coming from a fan… It just felt weird,” Green said.

Once Green retired from football in 2011, the transition into his present esports career was “smooth, but took time.” Green competed in a couple of local tournaments in Madden and Halo. In 2016, he traveled to Chicago for a tournament at the Microsoft store, where “I got my butt kicked, but it was fun.” (Green is absolutely not a trash talker: “That’s just my upbringing… ‘You think you’re gonna win?,’ you’ll get your butt kicked!”)

Ahman Green 4 1
Photo courtesy of ESPN

Green realized that esports “needed leadership, and needed coaching and the development of the players and the athletes.” His “aha” moment came when he heard about a Halo player at the 2016 Aspen X Games who, after getting into an argument with his team, flipped teams during the tournament and proceeded to play against his own team. “And I’m sitting there like, ‘You can’t do that in football!’” Green exclaimed. “I can’t be mad at my head coach and Brett and say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go play for the Bears. And we’re playing y’all this week, by the way.’”

Green equated this period in esports to “the wild wild west” – “it’s still growing to where there’s structure, to where there’s understanding that this is a commitment, not just casual gaming.”

He quickly saw even further openings for cultivating sportsmanship. “If you get somewhere where you’re a casual gamer and you’re dealing with competitive people, either, one, you’re going to get a lot of toxicity shouting your way… Or you get somebody like myself and other players out there that I met in other games, where they actually say, ‘You know what, man, you need help. You wanna hang out? We can play.’”

Green himself isn’t shy about asking for tips, especially when he was first getting serious. His questions were often met with bewilderment. “They’re looking at me like, ‘You played an NFL for twelve years. Why are you asking me about this?’ I’m like, ‘I’m a gamer! I at least want to beat my friends up!’”

By the time Green had his “aha” moment, he was beginning to meet people in the industry, just by attending tournaments and Microsoft events. Green did exactly what we’re all told to do when we’re networking: exchange business cards, follow up, ask questions. 

And it worked. For example, Green had enrolled in an NFL broadcasting boot camp shortly after he retired, and he became more passionate about using those skills as a shoutcaster. Larry Ridley, a shoutcaster and sports broadcaster, invited Green to come shoutcast with him anytime. “I took full advantage of all those invitations,” Green said.

Green is incredibly grateful for the warmth with which the gaming community and industry received him. “They’ve all been outstanding and awesome,” he reflected.

Green started flying around the country, meeting up with his new peers. Of course, one of these events was E3, which Green had been going to as a retired footballer anyway. Hank Baskett, a fellow footballer-turned-gamer, joined up with him at 2017’s E3 and introduced a starstruck Green to people from EA and Microsoft. 

“They were all impressed [that I stream and shoutcast], and to me it was like, why wouldn’t I be doing that – I’m a gamer,” Green said. “At that time, I’m like, if you play video games and you don’t stream, that means you’re just getting into it, and somebody hasn’t told you about it. That’s what happened to me. I didn’t know about Twitch until that time… I’m like, ‘What? I can have my own TV show? Oh, it’s about to go down!

Green passionately started accruing all the materials needed to stream and began educating himself. “I found Saturdays and Sundays, when I think I’m gonna game, I’m down here for four hours just messing with my computer to plug everything in. My wife’s like, ‘What are you doing? Are you gaming?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m learning how to plug audio.’”

Green’s wife was a bit confused about Green’s new passion for streaming at first. So he invited her to come down and watch him stream one day. She did – sitting on the couch next to him, shouting passionately at the Bears game playing on the opposite side of the room… and forgetting that she was on camera during a livestream.

“Just like Packers fans, Bears fans are passionate, too. And she’s one of them. She was cussing and fussing… And the chat is going crazy. They like, ‘Who is that?’ And I’m like, ‘That’s my wife.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, man, she is hilarious. Bring her back!’”

Eventually, Green’s wife figured out she was on camera and repudiated the idea of coming back on. Green begged her, “No, you got to! You’re a fan favorite!”

Meanwhile, Green was volunteering as a coach at a local high school’s esports club. Green immediately recognized the kids were incredibly talented – his job was just to teach them how to be a team. “They know Overwatch, but I know how to build a team. And I know how team players work.” That small tweak elevated the team to winning the state championship. “Coaching is not doing a whole lot sometimes,” Green advised. “I’ll just tell y’all this lesson: make sure you guys communicate.”

Green’s other major lesson as a coach is “teaching esports players how to lose, because ‘losing is just as good as winning.’ You’re gonna learn so much [more] by watching a game film of you losing a game than a game film where you’re winning… You’re gonna learn more about what not to do, and then use it in the next game.”

As of February 2020, Green is the Head Coach of esports at Lakeland University in Plymouth, Wisconsin. As such, he’s helped shift parents’ attitudes by emphasizing that esports is now a viable career, a business.

“The attitude is changing because [the parents] actually hear good stories. Because before, you were taking the stereotypes, the guy or the person sitting in the basement, out of shape just raging out on a controller,” said Green. “But now they’re seeing the professional leagues, where I can tell a parent… if [their kid is] a good Fortnight player, they can potentially make a living… When I describe to them the similarities between traditional sports and esports, then they’re like, ‘Oh, okay, this is really no different.’”

“When I started recruiting,” Green added, “it was just as I was being recruited, when I was in high school.”

Green is looking forward not only to continuing his coaching, but finding new paths for his charity, the Ahman Green Foundation, which he began in 2001. The Foundation started out with aiding youth development, and then, inspired by the experiences of family and friends, shifted towards raising money to help families with cancer-stricken loved ones pay medical bills or buy essentials.

Both sports and gaming have been central to the Foundation’s events – Green told me about a 2005 event which was golf during the day, Halo at night. In 2016, he hosted a Madden tournament that raised $7000 for the Alzheimer’s Association.

But Green is using the break supplied by COVID to brainstorm a new avenue for the Foundation. “Being in video games has really got my mind turning about what I’ve been seeing at different events… a digital divide, where there are certain cultures and families in certain areas and parts of the United States that don’t have PCs. And kids may not experience a PC till they get to college.”

Green has witnessed it firsthand. One of his students, a gifted Call of Duty player, had only played on Playstation. The student was skeptical about PCs at first, but was quickly blown away by the difference, saying he “missed out.” “You didn’t miss out,” Green replied, “it’s just the circumstances of where he grew up.”

“The wheels are turning,” Green summarized. After knowing everything he’s accomplished, that somehow didn’t surprise me.

I warmly thank Green for sharing his story and his time. To check out his Twitter, Instagram, and Twitch, click here, here, and here.

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