Tony Greene walked up to War Memorial Stadium for his first preseason game in 1971 and got stopped by a security guard who didn’t believe he was really a player.
Oh, he was a player, all right. Greene would go on to record the longest interception return – and second-most career interceptions – in Buffalo Bills history. But that day all the security guard could see was a 5-10, 165-pound impostor.
“I was just a scared rookie walking up to that gate,” Greene recalls by phone from his home in Atlanta. “He said, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to get dressed.’ He just shook his head and said, ‘Guys try this all the time. Go buy a ticket.’ ”
Greene found himself at a loss for what to do next. He’d signed as an undrafted free agent out of Maryland. How was he going to make the team if he couldn’t even get in the stadium?
“I was there for, like, five minutes, pleading with him,” Greene said. “And I told him, ‘Go get Tony Marchetti.’ He was the Bills equipment guy at the time. And Marchetti came walking out with his big voice and he said” – and here Greene shifts into a dead-on imitation of the late Marchetti’s gravel-voiced eloquence – “ ‘Oh, yeah, he’s on the team, let him in. He ain’t going to be here long anyway.’ ”
Greene lets out a long laugh at the long-ago memory. He would play all of his nine pro seasons in Buffalo. That surely qualifies as a long time in the NFL – which often stands for Not For Long.
“I had a really good time in Buffalo,” Greene says. “Just a country boy from Maryland going out there playing the game that I love.”
Greene turned 70 in August with little fanfare; he played golf and had some drinks with friends.
“Birthdays are just another day,” he says. “I mean, if you’ve had 70 of them, come on.”
His health is good, other than aching knees. “I know I can’t run a 40 anymore,” he says.
But Greene could run like the wind 50 years ago. He played football and ran track at the University of Maryland.
“I was a little disappointed I didn’t get drafted,” Greene says. “I knew I wasn’t going in the first or second round, or even on the first day. But back then they had, like, 16 or 17 rounds, so I thought someone would take me eventually. But, hey, 5-10 and 165, realistically maybe not.”
He was running in a track meet in Boston days after the draft. Then, when he got back to his hotel room, Greene found that he had phone messages with free agent offers from Washington, Dallas, Cleveland and Buffalo.
“There was a coach in Buffalo at the time, Ralph Hawkins, and I knew him from when he was coaching at Maryland,” Greene says. “Plus I looked at the Bills’ roster and they were going through some changes and I said to myself, ‘Well, maybe I can get a shot there.’ ”
Greene was a cornerback for his first three seasons. He remembers going up against the Bills’ receivers of that era in practice – J.D. Hill, Haven Moses, Ahmad Rashad, Marlin Briscoe and his close pal Bobby Chandler – and in games against the likes of Paul Warfield, Harold Carmichael, Charlie Joiner and Cliff Branch.
“Cornerbacks, in that era, we played a lot of bump-and-run, hitting receivers all the way down the field,” Greene says. “I got overpowered by some receivers who were bigger than I was. I mean, I did a decent job, but it was tough.”
The Bills shifted Greene to free safety in 1974, where he thrived — intercepting nine passes and getting named first-team All Pro. But the interception he remembers most from that season is one that didn’t count.
Greene pilfered a pass from Miami quarterback Bob Griese in the end zone and returned it 105 yards for a touchdown that wasn’t. Bills cornerback Robert James got called for holding on that play and Dolphins fullback Larry Csonka scored on the next one – a 14-point swing in what would be a seven-point loss.
That return would have been the longest in Bills history. Two years later, Greene took one back 101 yards for a TD in a 50-17 win against the Kansas City Chiefs at Rich Stadium — and it still stands as the longest interception return in Bills history.
Greene wound up with 37 career interceptions, behind only Butch Byrd’s 40 on the top tier of Bills’ all-time interception leaders. He is among the most popular Bills of his era. And he likes Bills fans as much as they liked him.
“They’re crazy,” he says. “They loved us. Too bad we couldn’t give them more wins. You know what that stadium is like – 20 degrees out there and they’re wearing no shirts, which I don’t really understand, but they do what they do. They were always very generous to us.”
Bills fans of a certain age remember this colorful truth: Greene looked good in blue and white.