By Justine Buerkle
Brandon Green does not walk with a cane or sit on a rocking chair on the front porch. His dark hair shows no signs of graying or falling out.
He cannot tell stories of an era when football players wore leather helmets and games were only broadcast on the radio. He is only 23 years old, after all. But to many of his Golden Gopher teammates, Green is known as "Grandpa."
The fifth-year senior is the oldest wide receiver on the roster, and those young whippersnappers will not let him forget it. They waste no opportunities to make him feel old.
"Every chance we get," sophomore Marcus Jones said.
After the adversity he has faced, he may even feel old without any reminding. In his time in Minnesota, Green has battled back from a major injury and stayed on board during a coaching change.
It was not so long ago that Green was just like those who now call him Grandpa. He arrived in Minneapolis from Chicago, young, speedy, and brimming with hopes for a triumphant college football career. Green came to the Gophers after a prolific senior season Robeson High School. Rated by Rivals as the No. 1 prospect in Illinois, he knew he would have an opportunity to play for the Gophers right away.
Unlike most of his current teammates, Grandpa Green can remember playing at the Metrodome. Green saw his first action during the second game of the 2008 season, and gained more playing time as the year progressed. He racked up 100 receiving yards in his first career start and went on to start five of the Gophers' last six games that year.
The Gophers moved to TCF Bank Stadium for Green's sophomore season. He was again a five-game starter, and he finished the year as No. 4 on the team's receiving leaders list. Things looked interesting heading into the 2010 season. Two of the three Gophers ahead of Green on that list--Eric Decker and Nick Tow-Arnett--graduated in 2009, opening up even more of an opportunity for Green in his junior season.
Unfortunately, it would not turn out to be so easy. After appearing in just two games in 2010, Green suffered a ligament tear in his knee. He underwent surgery and was relegated to the sidelines for the rest of the year.
"It was hard, because I couldn't be out there and make plays for my teammates," Green said. "It was hard not being able to run and do the stuff that I wanted to do, and just sitting there watching. It was painful."
Green went to work strengthening the muscles around his knee, usually going through treatment twice a day. He received a medical hardship waiver, allowing him an extra year of eligibility.
"It felt great," he said. "I had another opportunity to come back the next year and help my team win and make plays and raise my stock."
He returned to the field for all 12 of the Gophers' games the following year. In addition to being his post-surgery debut, the Gophers' 2011 opener was also his first game playing for new head coach Jerry Kill and his staff. A new playbook and a loss of speed caused by his injury added challenges for Green in his junior season. Despite starting for most of the season, Green's numbers declined from where they were his first two seasons.
Green felt optimistic entering this season. He had an additional year of recovery under his belt, and he did not have to learn a new offense again. Green hit another snag, though, when his knee started acting up during fall camp. He had to go through yet another round of treatment, and had limited playing time early in the fall.
Green may have lost a step, but he is by no means old and rickety. His knee was finally healthy enough for him to see extensive action in the Gophers' game at Wisconsin. He took advantage of the opportunity, hauling in his first three passes of the year. The first was a 16-yard touchdown from true freshman Philip Nelson.
"The coaches told me to be ready any time," he said. "Once I got in, it was just all about making plays. He made the right call, and I made a play for him. It felt good to be back out there. I've had limited plays the whole season this year, so it felt good to back out there just to make plays with my teammates."
The young quarterback appreciated the fact that his first college touchdown went to the wily veteran.
"It was really special," Nelson said. "He's a great player. It is really unfortunate with his injuries, but being a senior, he's pretty savvy out there and he can really settle in gaps. That's probably one of his biggest attributes. He's smart enough to not run through gaps. He can sit in there and catch the ball and make a play."
Whether or not he has always been healthy enough to play, Green is still able to help his team by offering pointers to the rest of the receiving corps.
"Brandon's a good mentor because he's been here awhile, so he's definitely more knowledgeable on different ways to run routes or how a corner's playing you," Jones said. "All around, especially young guys like myself, he helps us get better every day."
Beyond technical aspects of football, Green's teammates can learn from his intangible qualities. Jones said that watching Green fight through injuries has taught him a lesson in perseverance. Green has earned praise from fellow senior MarQueis Gray, who called him a role model.
"When I was in the training room, he was in there right along with me," Gray said. "His injury was more serious than what I've had so far. He's a great guy for the younger guys to look up to. He's very positive, especially the way he's working hard to come back from injuries. Those guys look up to him a ton."
As a fifth-year player who has faced adversity, Green is naturally looked to as a leader. By his teammates' accounts, he has fulfilled that responsibility admirably.
"I just lead by example," he said. "That's all that matters. I always had to be a leader in high school, so it really didn't faze me."
The nickname is another story. At this stage in his life, Green is not quite ready to be called "Grandpa."
"I don't go for it, but that's what they call me now," he said. "So I've just got to go with it."
Along with the nickname come ribbings during practice or film sessions. If Green's knee buckles when he makes a cut, or if he moves a little slower than others, he can be sure he will catch an earful--"anything to get him mad," Jones said. But as a grandpa cannot stay mad at his grandchildren, Green knows his counterparts' jibes are all in fun.
"BG is funny," Jones said. "He's a funny dude. He's nice. He tries to be mean, tries to come off like a tough guy persona. But he's as sweet as a teddy bear. It doesn't get any better than BG."
Green reciprocates the affection. While he shares his football knowledge with his younger teammates, he also gets to enjoy their company.
"They keep you energized, keep telling jokes and stuff like that," he said. "It's pretty funny."
Though he does not particularly like his nickname, Green sees no need to be ornery about it. In fact, despite his distaste for it, there are times when it truly seems to fit. In summing up his mindset for his senior season, Green offered some words of grandfatherly advice that anyone can follow.
"Take it seriously, because you never know," he said. "Play every play like it's your last play, because you never know when you'll get your last one. Just go out there and give it your all."