A giant of the earth: Vikings’ Greenway returns home to S.D., gets in touch with roots
MOUNT VERNON, S.D. — It is barely 62 degrees and raining sideways on this unlikely first day of July, a howling 22-mph northwest wind making the onetime alfalfa field of football dreams feel like November tundra.
Hometown idol Chad Greenway is in small-town heaven, planted in a three-point stance, mesh blue T-shirt soaked and clinging to his torso like cellophane, his face beaming a toothy smile that has a back story of its own.
“On the cones! On the cones!” the Minnesota Vikings linebacker yells to a pair of grade-schoolers racing to win an agility drill which means everything to each at this very moment.
“Dig! Dig! Ah, good one!” Greenway yells to the winner, a fist-pumping runt no bigger than the Vikings linebacker was 20-some years ago.
When this two-time NFL Pro Bowler returns to host the biggest Greenway Football Clinic yet, Mount Vernon — population 462 — comes to him, bringing along a sweeping brood of southeastern South Dakotans.
Greenway and his wife, Jennifer Capista, met at the University of Iowa, where he was an All-America linebacker and she ran track and field. They live in Wayzata, Minn., with their daughters, Maddyn and Beckett. Jennifer is pregnant and expecting another girl.
Greenway, 31, is perfectly content being a suburban dad and lone male of the household. Still, even with the fulfillment and security professional football has provided, one senses Greenway will never entirely lose the dirt under his fingernails — that he, in fact, longs for those 5 a.m. wake-up calls and daily chores like mending fences, cutting hay, grinding feed and opening the hoop barn for bulls to start the calving season.
“I wanted to be in the NFL. I wanted this life,” he said. “But you also realize what you’re giving up and what you’re missing. This is really what I’m made of. It’s great to come back. It’s so quiet. Kind of takes you back to your childhood and all the things you wanted to become.”
More than 250 third-through-12th graders and their parents attended Greenway’s three-hour, freewheeling clinic at the only school in town, where the local star once was a two-way dynamo on an 80-yard field.
But Greenway is home now for reasons beyond his annual camp, helping his parents, Alan and Julie, work the family farm. Alan Greenway, 55, was diagnosed with leukemia on May 10, 2012, and his health has demanded more commitment from all of the Greenways.
Alan can herd cattle on his four-wheeler, but much of the labor required to farm 2,000 acres has been delegated to Julie and one of Chad’s two older sisters, Kelly.
“My mom, growing up, could do anything my dad could do,” Greenway said. “Now that I have daughters, especially, what a great example for my kids. To see her working, and the passion she has for it, going through the tough times with my dad’s illness, and see her push through and persevere and make it work somehow.”
That work ethic has served Julie’s son well.
One of 29 seniors in Mount Vernon’s Class of 2001, Greenway uprooted for Iowa and became a two-time All-American whose 416 career tackles rank fifth in Hawkeyes history. And while Greenway has in some ways become a Minnesotan, his roots here are deep and can be conspicuously seen and felt.
During his camp, participants wear T-shirts from past practices, others purple Greenway No. 52 jerseys. Their parents are swathed in Vikings hoodies and blankets to buffer the unseasonable chill. When Superintendent Patrick Mikkonen, who oversees a prekindergarten-through-12th-grade enrollment of 244 students, takes a visitor on a tour of the grounds, it includes the “Chad Greenway Family Press Box.”
Melissa Mebius, mayor of nearby Wessington Springs, is at camp to thank Greenway, who teamed his Lead The Way Foundation with a local radio station and raised $27,500 to help rebuild a daycare center and replace youth sports equipment destroyed two weeks earlier when a tornado ravaged her town.
Alan and Julie Greenway are there, too, mingling around the concession stand while former coaches and classmates prepare the grill for post-practice burgers and brats, and Katelyn Grehl, the state’s reigning dairy princess, hands out pints of chocolate milk to refresh winded football campers.
“For us here in South Dakota, this is what we’re made of,” Greenway says hours later, sitting in the garage of his parents’ farmhouse. “For me to make it to the NFL, the chances were pretty remote. To have an opportunity like this when I was a kid would have been unbelievable.
“To see the look on the kid’s faces when they come to the clinic, it’s cool. It’s more than just a short clinic; it’s an experience. So it was fun.”
Trevor Tovsland, 12, concurs. The incoming seventh-grader lives in Mitchell, the commercial hub of 15,000 people 10 miles east on Interstate 90. His parents enrolled him at Mount Vernon for its football pedigree and intimate schooling of one classroom for all grades.
“Chad proves that just because you’re from a rural city, it doesn’t mean you can’t make it,” Trevor said. “He grew up here. He’s done so much. He has helped everybody. He’s famous. He’s just awesome.”
That explains Greenway’s joy.
Alan Greenway has details on his son’s gleaming choppers, mangled during his sophomore year in high school and rebuilt after the Vikings drafted him 17th overall in 2006 out of Iowa.
“He was chasing a girl in the dark and there were no lights in the yard and he ran into a clothesline of wire, (which) caught those two and took ‘em plum out,” dad recounted.
“They found them and threw them in milk. We went to the dentist right away. I was there with him. They shoved them back in, had to glue them. But they were kind of messed up and they died. He looked like a jack-o-lantern.”
Please, go on.
“We did the best we could, but when he got his first contract, he got a little work done. They’re his teeth, but he got them straightened up.”
‘In it together’
When the NFL star returns to give back, Mount Vernon and his hometown way of life reciprocate. On this day, the cows are out to pasture, and the hog barn is vacant after Greenway’s parents sold them off.
Their unmistakable smell remains potent. So does the absolute stillness where a child could lose himself for hours during the day and listen to coyotes howling miles away at night.
“It’s your own little town out here,” Greenway said. “No rules.”
Greenway’s exemplary work ethic with the Vikings is a byproduct of living off the land, where children are bred to work with no favors asked and none given.
“The best thing about being a farmer, for my dad, was he never had a boss,” Greenway said. “He never had anybody to say what you had to do today. Reaping what you sow is getting out of bed and doing it yourself.
“It’s really up to me how good I want to be, whether that’s being a family guy or being a football player.”
Greenway has bought up surrounding cropland for himself and invested with his parents in more acreage they farm for him.
“Really, we’re kind of in it together, which is pretty fun,” he said.
Shared satisfaction and self-determination, though, do not mitigate farming’s inherent risks — drought, starving livestock, fluctuating grain prices. Right now, the crisis is Alan Greenway’s health.
Doctors aggressively treated his leukemia into remission, but not before a fungus punctured his weakened immune system and invaded his sinuses.
The fungus quickly spread to his brain. By mid-June 2012, Greenway was flown from a Sioux Falls, S.D., hospital to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., with a dire prognosis.
“They gave me two weeks to live and sent me home,” he said. “I guess I got two years.”
Doctors speculated the dust-borne fungus had settled benignly in his sinuses after years of farm work.
“For some reason, it reversed and every month it got better,” said Alan Greenway. “It’s amazing.”
He has had two stem-cell transplants in an effort to boost his body’s white-blood-cell count and ability to fight infections.
There are good days and bad.
“It’s kind of sucked,” he said in an Upper Midwest accent that so resembles his son’s, it would be impossible to distinguish the two in a dark room.
“Six weeks ago was better than it is right now. Physical labor, I can’t really do any of that. My wife, she’s the one that’s keeping everything together.”
Undeterred, Alan Greenway plows forward.
“I look ahead. Just bought a new tractor last week,” he said. “That’s just the way I am.”
His treatment and outpatient care at Mayo have made it more convenient for Greenway to see him regularly, dashing from Wayzata and Winter Park to Rochester whenever he can. Greenway says he is closer to his father today than he has ever been.
“He’s always been the guy I’ve looked up to as a hero, the guy I’ve wanted to be and never want to let down in my life,” Greenway said. “He just continues to prove to me over and over again what makes him so special, just with his fight and his want-to, his zest for life, his love for my mom.
“Those are all the things that I want as a husband and a person. It’s pretty cool to see that come from such a great example as your dad.”
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