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Greene shares in his surprise success story

December, 11, 2008
12/11/08
12:05
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Shonn Greene is used to seeing the wide eyes and the dropped jaws as he recounts his amazing evolution from college football exile to national award candidate.

The story never gets old, even for the man telling it.

"I'm just as surprised as they are," Greene said. "You would think I wouldn't be. Everybody knows about it, so everybody's kind of surprised. It's a great journey."

 
 Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
 Shonn Greene is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award.

Greene's journey, which in a sense began inside a warehouse at McGregors Furniture last year, ends tonight in Orlando, Fla., at the College Football Awards Show (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). Though the Iowa junior running back didn't get an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, he's the favorite to win the Doak Walker Award tonight. Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Georgia's Knowshon Moreno are the other Doak Walker finalists.

As he waited at Chicago's O'Hare Airport for his flight to Orlando on Wednesday morning, Greene was asked if he ever envisioned himself in this situation a year ago.

"Absolutely not," he said. "It's a good feeling."

After academic issues forced him out of football last season, Greene returned this fall and produced one of the greatest seasons in Iowa football history. He eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 12 regular-season games, finished second nationally in rushing average (144.1 ypg) and broke Tavian Banks' single-season team rushing record with 1,729 yards.

Numbers like those merit a Heisman invite most seasons, but Iowa's slow start and a national spotlight consumed with quarterbacks kept Greene somewhat under the radar. He should get his due tonight as the nation's best running back.

"It would mean a lot," Greene said of the Doak Walker Award. "There are a lot of running backs this year doing well. Just to be up there with those guys will be an honor."

Greene admits the speed of the game initially caught him off guard after returning to the field this fall after a year away. He had trained hard in the summer with strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle but got fatigued following the Hawkeyes' first two games.

What came next shocked Greene. He continued to get stronger as the season progressed and elevated his production despite increased awareness from opposing defenses. Greene had his two top rushing games -- 217 yards, 4 touchdowns against Wisconsin and 211 yards, 2 touchdowns against Purdue -- in the second half of the year.

"Teams get onto you and set their defenses up to stop you, and it usually happens," said Greene, who was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and won the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football as the league's MVP. "Like usual, they were just loading the box up, having guys on the outside to try and contain inside. I was able to perform at a good level every week. That was the most surprising thing."

The 235-pound junior didn't get much national attention until November, but he earned celebrity status in Iowa City much earlier. Students organized a "Greene-Out" at Iowa's home game against Penn State, and Greene's teammates picked up on his newfound fame.

"They joke around like, 'Nobody touch Shonn. Oh my God, there's Shonn,'" Greene said. "They try to treat me like I'm somebody not human, like I'm an immortal guy or something."

Greene didn't look human at times this season, especially in a 22-17 win against Purdue. Boilermakers safety Frank Duong made the highlight shows for the wrong reasons, as Greene pulled a filthy spin move on him during one touchdown run and bowled over him on another.

Making defenders look bad is part of the deal.

"It's football," Greene said. "You've got to do what you've got to do."

The last line might apply to Greene's future. He has a year of eligibility left, but with an NFL-ready body and powerful rushing style, it won't be a surprise if he enters the draft early.

Iowa fans will have at least one more opportunity to see Greene, on Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina. The bowl also gives Greene a national platform to showcase his skills.

"Everybody watches bowl games," Greene said, "so I'm very excited for it."

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