A.J. Green Out to Be the GOAT: 'That's What I Strive for Every Day'

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterAugust 14, 2018

Fans cheer behind Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Brandon Tate (19) after he scores a touchdown in the first half of a NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)

CINCINNATI — He relishes every millisecond of practice because practice has the unique ability to carve the fat out of pro football. The only noises are the grunts of linemen, the shouting of coaches, the whistling of receivers cutting in and out of breaks and, this day, one fan screaming, "I'm 6'11" and ready to sign!"

Sorry, man. You are not needed.

Not when A.J. Green is putting on a clinic like this.

His No. 18 jersey tucked underneath the bottom of his shoulder pads, exposing a drenched gray shirt, Green makes everything look so easy. His feet prance. His arms karate-chop. His wingspan is scary. Poor rookie Darius Phillips stands zero chance as Green cradles an over-the-shoulder touchdown in the corner of the end zone. Moments later, William Jackson eats dust five-plus yards in Green's shadow as Andy Dalton rainbows a bomb 50-plus yards into Green's bread basket. He's comically open.

Two plays later, Green boxes out a corner on a stop route. Easy does it.

Thirty minutes later, he snatches a deep cross—Dalton's bullet sticks to his hands like a bug on a windshield—and Green turns on the jets. Nobody touches him.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

All day, Green displays zero emotion.

That is, until the Bengals break practice and his eyes immediately dart to the hospitality tent. To his family. That's where "Eazy," his son who turns two in September, is waiting for him. Their eyes meet, and Eazy shoots onto the field and into Dad's arms.

Such is the camp life Green prefers. He arrived via a GMC 2500, not a helicopter (like Antonio Brown). He is happily under contract, not holding out (like Julio Jones did initially). He's never had a sip of alcohol in his life, isn't into jewelry, and do not count on Green to ever orchestrate a party boat for teammates the week of a playoff game (like Odell Beckham Jr.).

"No! Nah, nah, nah," he shoots down. "That's not me!"

Yet once all the fat's carved out—once you erase Instagram selfies, funky haircuts, commercials and Twitter emoji—one thing becomes true in Green's mind.

That he's right there with those guys. With AB, Julio, Odell, anybody.

That when Green retires, he can be in a class of his own.

Canton? Please.


Green makes it clear right here, right now: The goal is to go down as the best wide receiver of all time.

"That's what motivates me," he says. "A lot of people don't put me as the best—top five or whatever. I'm striving to be the best ever. If I play the years I want to play, and I keep the streak I'm on now, there's no doubt that I'll be one of the best."

He's so sure because he knows he has something those other receivers don't. That his perspective on the game and on life is unmatched. He cherishes every second of every day like no one else can.

"Cherish everything," Green says. "Nothing is guaranteed in this league. I try to play every play like it's my last."

Because he knows how quickly this could all disappear. Knows it because when he was four years old, his older brother died in a car accident. Knows it because in high school, the man most responsible for Green's playing football died while fighting a fire.

Now, he has a son of his own. And now, going into his eighth year in the NFL, he can feel urgency rising like never before. He still has zero playoff wins. He still has Andy Dalton (not exactly Eli Manning or Big Ben Roethlisberger or Matt Ryan) throwing him the ball. He just turned 30.

The clock is ticking. To be the best ever, he knows he'll need to lean on his foundation.

He can picture his night in Canton now.

By then, there will be no debate. His name will be perched atop the record books, and the Bengals will have won a Super Bowl. He'll stand at the lectern, look to the stars and point to his brother and his mentor. And at that precise moment, everyone will have no choice but to refer to Green as the greatest wideout ever. Ahead of Randy Moss. Ahead of Jerry Rice.

That's what he envisions, anyway. That's what he's working for.

Green is pressed again on it, and he doesn't blink.

"Yeah, I want to be the best. It's hard to beat Jerry. It's hard to beat one of my idols, Randy Moss. But that's what I strive for every day."

The best? He repeats, "That's what I strive for every day."

Don't believe it's possible? Keep listening to him tell his story and lay out his plans.

He has no clue why he's alive and his brother is dead.

A.J. was four. Avionce was nine. It was April 17, 1993.

The two were on their way to a school carnival down Highway 61 in South Carolina with Aunt Valerie at the wheel, "Avi" in the front seat and Green sitting alongside two cousins in the back. As Green recalls—and this trauma is forever stitched in his memory—something fell off the back of a truck in front of their vehicle, and his aunt lost control. She swerved and hit a tree.

The damage was catastrophic. Inside, the two cousins broke their legs. His aunt was hit hard, instantly paralyzed from the waist down. Avi was in a seatbelt, yet he was unresponsive.

Green repeatedly tried to wake him up, but he couldn't. With a fractured neck and internal chest injuries, his brother died right there on the side of the road.

Green? He didn't sustain one cut, one bruise, one blemish.

To this day, his mind's blown.

"I can't explain it," he says. "Everything I do is for him. I'm here for a reason. I'm trying to live it out."

Green remembers everything, right down to what his mother was wearing in the hospital. That might seem impossible—after all, he was four at the time—but this is the kind of mental scar that cuts deep. That defines you. Seeing the life exit his brother's body has directed the rest of Green's life.

"He's shining over me," Green says. "He's watching everything I do."

And he isn't the only one.

Keeping his mind and body occupied became a coping mechanism in the years after the accident. First, it was juggling, but as he kept growing and growing, he naturally gravitated to football and basketball. There was only one problem: He couldn't keep his grades up. Reading was a struggle. Green repeated two grades, and students in opponents' gyms let him know with "A.J. can't read!" chants.

That's where Louis Mulkey stepped in. A local firefighter who also coached basketball at Summerville High School, Mulkey pushed Green harder than he had ever been pushed before. Tough love was constant.

"So what if you caught a ball?" he'd tell Green. "You're supposed to catch it."

He made Green go to summer school. He took Green on his first recruiting visit. He'd get off a firefighting shift "half-asleep," Green says, and then drive him four-plus hours to Georgia's Nike camp.

Green would not be in the NFL today if Mulkey was not in his life.

"He was the guy who motivated me, really, like nobody else could've," Green says. "I'm here because of him. He showed me the meaning of hard work. He pushed me like no other. Always in my face. Always telling me, 'You need to do this, you need to do that.'"

Then came June 18, 2007.

News broke that a massive fire was ravaging a furniture store in Charleston, South Carolina. Instantly, Green knew he had lost another loved one. He knew Mulkey would be the one rushing deeper and deeper into the flames, because Mulkey would literally die for any one of his players at this school.

In all, nine firefighters died. Mulkey was 34 years old.

Green called Mulkey's phone several times after the fire just to hear his voice on the greeting. That winter, the Summerville basketball team kept Mulkey's firefighter hat on the bench each game. They won the state title, of course, and Green's life officially became an extension of both lost loved ones. In Green's eyes, that's the least he can do.

Beyond that, he learned life can end at any moment for any reason, so every second must be appreciated.

Moments after Green relives the worst moments of his life, his wife asks if he wants to set Eazy down. He does. But after waddling a few steps toward Mom, Eazy puckers his lower lip and does a 180 toward Dad.

Dad picks him up, tosses him over a shoulder and squeezes him even tighter than before.

Photo by Tyler Dunne

His profession is organically combustible. At any other position in any other sport, you can take charge when you choose to take charge. Yet there's the NFL wide receiver juking and cutting and demanding the damn ball, only for the damn ball to be thrown elsewhere.

So kicker nets are attacked. Quarterbacks go deaf. Hatchets are never buried. In turn, it's only natural for wide receivers to remedy such helplessness with self-promotion.

It's understandable, even brilliant in 2018. Broadcast yourself enough, and your greatness will gradually slip into the subconscious of millions. Flamboyancy and controversy sell.

Beckham and Dez Bryant engage in feuds with Josh Norman? Hello, Samsung. AB's celebrations are drawing flags? Hey, Pepsi. Not getting the respect you feel you rightfully deserve? Post a shirtless photo of yourself (Michael Thomas got more than 30,000 likes) or a photo of yourself snarling with a snarling emoji in the tagline (Brandin Cooks got more than 31,000 likes). If you're in dire need of public gratification, have your buddy photograph you lifting up your shirt while you stare down at your abs (more than 940,000 likes surely made Beckham feel warm and fuzzy during his contract talks with the Giants).

That's how countless receivers deal.

That's a life Green could never imagine for himself.

Mention it all, and he laughs, because quintessential A.J. Green is a country boy who grew up on a driveway that's "a couple" of miles long and bears his last name. His summers were spent ripping through ATV trails on a Yamaha and a Polaris RZR and fishing for hours on end. Green is in the process of buying his own pond. He loves engaging in tactical shooting outside with his buddy Nate, a professional BMW test driver and motorcycle racer. He plays pool. He battles Dalton in pingpong and three-point shooting contests. He'll join teammates at the bar to celebrate wins, but he never drinks.

Green is frugal. He still hasn't splurged since signing his four-year, $60 million contract extension in 2015, although he admits he may buy a Porsche soon.

Above all, he says he's a husband, a father and a player who can still hear Mulkey's "You're supposed to catch the ball" echo in his ear.

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 18:  A.J. Green #18 of the Cincinnati Bengals warms up prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on September 18, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

His offseason training is the stuff of legend in the Bengals locker room. Players have heard tales second- and thirdhand but must settle with the end result. The spectacle.

Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd calls Green's game "flawless," adding, "He does everything almost perfect." Dalton says Green "has the best ball skills I've ever seen—he can do everything you want as a receiver." And Green himself knows precisely why he's different than every other receiver: "I'm a 6'4" guy who can run every route. I can get in and out of breaks like a 5'10" guy."

Quintessential A.J. Green is everything that leads to this spectacle, the Rocky montage that isn't spewed on Snapchat.  

His trainer, his Mickey, details everything, and it's just as painful as it sounds. Curtis Winters, old-school as it gets, starts by putting Green through a 45-minute ab workout—400 reps through four different movements. Then, Green will do at least 20 sprints up a 50-yard hill that jets straight up. Winters, who's been at this for 37 years, injected this into his training after meeting with hill-training godfather Walter Payton.

Then, it's off to lift weights, where Green pushes himself as hard as possible to match Chiefs pass-rusher Justin Houston, even though Houston is 50 pounds heavier. At the bench press, Green refuses to go lower than 315 because, as Winters says, "He's going to keep driving until he matches. Whatever we have on the bar, we have to get it."

Then, to cap it all off, Green will catch 150 balls at the Jugs machine. Or push pickup trucks. Or something else Winters thinks up that would break most men.

One day's work will last four-and-a-half hours in all.

No wonder so many NFLers quit Winters after one day. It isn't for everyone. And yet there's Green, forcing Winters to find new ways to put him through hell.

"Is it possible that one day, someone could break him? I don't know," Winters says. "I've trained some of the very best. I haven't been able to do it. He's trying to put his team in a position to win, and that's how he thinks during workouts: If I quit during a workout, then that means I'll quit on the field. And I'm not going to quit. You'll have to drag me out of here and kill me. I'm not going to quit."

Up close, looking into Green's eyes, Winters sees someone training with a purpose—a need to make those two lost lives mean something.

A video of Beckham pulling an SUV leaked this offseason, and the public went bananas. Green did take one video of himself shadowboxing this offseason, but instead of spamming it to millions, he texted the clip to Bengals receivers.

"The difference between A.J. and Odell, A.J. ain't no fame type of guy," Boyd says. "I see O pulling a truck. That's something great to promote. Something to put on social media. A.J. wouldn't do that. He doesn't feel like he needs to showcase his work to show the world that he's working. If you're working, you're working. You're going to see it when he steps on the field."

"He wants to do his work and doesn't care if anybody sees it or not," Dalton adds.

Which all sounds lovely. Magical. Work your tail off, and everything will go exactly according to plan.

Except that hasn't been the case for Green seven years into his NFL career.

The reality is the Bengals haven't won a single playoff game since Green came into the league in 2011. The reality is Green did break.

Last season, he lost his mind against Jalen Ramsey, grabbing the Jags corner around the neck, dragging him to the ground and throwing multiple punches. His teammates point to this as proof of the rage bubbling beneath the surface. Get personal with Green, they say, and he'll check you.

As tight end Tyler Eifert warns, "You don't want to wake up the dog in him."

Maybe that's true. But that isn't why Green went ballistic. No, Green claims Ramsey didn't say anything to trigger him. Rather, Green was pissed off at himself and needed to vent. He was having a bad game in a bad season and snapped.

Green says his route running was "sloppy" last year. He was even—cover your ears, Curtis—"fatigued" in 2017.

"Not making the plays I need to make," Green says. "It was my toughest season in general."

This summer, Green put himself through the most hellish of hells possible. Winters doesn't care if Green caught 20 touchdowns during the previous season; he's pushing him to the brink regardless. But this summer, he noticed Green was on a mission.

In addition, Green reached out to another future Hall of Famer, Larry Fitzgerald.

Fitz's advice: Be true to the game and, most of all, "be true to yourself."

And that's a player who refuses to loosen any screws.

Green has every reason to go off like he did against Ramsey, verbally, on his own team. Hot-and-cold QB. Eternal lame-duck head coach. Small market. Green should be in a glass case of emotion, wailing, putting Beckham's antics to shame. Frustration should lead to outbursts, outbursts should lead to malcontent and malcontent should lead to Green finding those self-serving ways to get by.

Indulge thine ego by shooting a commercial with Ramsey in a boxing ring or something. Get pissed, he's told. Get wild.

Green only shakes his head.

"I'm comfortable where I'm at," he says. "I'm a football player. Those guys who do all that stuff—that's who they are. That's not who I am. I've never been the type of guy to be somebody I'm not. At the end of the day, I don't care about all that stuff.

"I'm happy with who I am."

So, Green is certain of two things. One, he will play seven more seasons. Minimum.

Two, he'll be himself. Because, hey, he's content. He loves this life. His in-season home in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, seven minutes from Paul Brown Stadium, feels like back home. He doesn't yearn for a big market or a chance to bask in the spotlight. Green has never even been to the ESPYs. And whereas Jones made it clear he's unhappy with the five-year, $71.2 million extension he signed in 2015, Green assures he's perfectly fine with the extension he inked 13 days later.

He's content. But content shouldn't be confused with complacent, because urgency in Cincinnati has risen to an all-time high.

To fulfill the destiny he sees for himself, to be the greatest, Green must win. Now. It's past time for Cincy to finally take that next step, with Dalton dropping dimes, Green embarrassing cornerbacks and the likes of Boyd, John Ross and Joe Mixon taking turns teasing fans packing the bleachers. It's a minor miracle Dalton and Green haven't been at each other's throats. Even college roommates who are the best of friends get sick of each other.

To be sure, they have butted heads behind the scenes.

"He's not a guy who's always like, 'Throw me the ball! Throw me the ball! Throw me the ball!'" Dalton says. "But there are times when we feel like we need something, and he gets like that, which I appreciate. It shows his passion that he wants to help this team win.

"For the most part, we get along. We get competitive when we do other things."

Adds Green, "I'm sure he gets frustrated with me sometimes not doing something right, and I get frustrated at him, but we just talk about it. ... We can't be mad at each other every day."

Who knows. One more 7-9 dud of a season could change that, could make Green toss his helmet into the Ohio River. For now, Dalton believes Green can be the best wide receiver ever. He adds that it isn't only his job to get him there, but that the two of them can go down in history together.

"Our goal is to be one of the best duos to ever do it," Dalton says. "If we keep going at this thing, we have a shot at it."

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 30:  A.J. Green #18 and Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals take the field for the start of the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium on December 30, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by John Grieshop/Gett
John Grieshop/Getty Images

And Green sees no reason why this team can't contend for a Super Bowl. To him, it's as talented as the 2015 group that started 8-0.

He loathes bluster. He means what he says. So when the S- and B-words slip out of his mouth outside the locker room, veteran defensive tackle Geno Atkins leans in to listen.

Nobody's talking about the Bengals, but Green's expectations are high. For the team, for himself.

So high, Green spent the previous day researching Jerry Rice's stats. Even though he considers Randy Moss the best receiver ever, he knows Rice is the consensus GOAT. So he studied those stats and...wow. Green could not believe Rice strung together 11 straight 1,000-yard seasons. Of course, Rice had Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing him the ball. Told that this isn't exactly a fair fight, Green doesn't take the bait. He dubs it "an honor" to play with Dalton and smiles a genuine smile because, honestly, all of the factors that should piss him off do not.

His perspective is too clear. His lofty aspirations, to everyone, too real.

From Eifert: "The pace he's on is ridiculous. If he keeps that up for how many more years, it's realistic [he could be in the conversation for best receiver ever]."

To receiver Alex Erickson: "He's working just like a rookie. He never takes reps off. The way he works—that's what separates him. He's there, you know? But he's trying to be the best to ever do it."

Back to Eifert: "When your best player comes to work every day and doesn't complain, doesn't have a bad attitude, a lot of guys follow that."

To Boyd: "I don't think he's even reached his full potential, and he's still in his prime. He's getting better by the years."

Back to Erickson: "He'll for sure be first-ballot when it's all said and done. He's never satisfied. He wants more."

Back to Boyd: "Those tragedies in his life pretty much made him who he was."

That's forever his fuel. He thinks of Avi and Mulkey daily. In the dim bowels of Paul Brown Stadium, Green's eyes widen.

He still cannot believe he escaped that crash without one cut.

"Not one," he says.

Green wishes they were here, in person, to see the man he's become. To see his wife, his son.

So he can't settle for anything less than being the best ever to do it. They're why he'll drive his truck to practice tomorrow, tuck his jersey underneath his pads and work until it's soaked in sweat again. They're why he'll relentlessly chase immortality.

To Green, there is no other option.

"I've been through a lot," he says, "so anything I go through on the field is nothing."


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.