Believe it or not, the first three passes that former Westover and St. Thomas Aquinas star receiver Rashad Greene caught during his redshirt freshman year at Florida State all went for touchdowns. It was just that kind of season for the Albany native, who left his hometown after his sophomore year to live with his grandmother in Fort Lauderdale and play for St. Thomas, a national prep football powerhouse that competes for state and national titles every season. The decision to gain more exposure certainly paid off as Greene earned a scholarship to FSU, where he led the Seminoles in receiving this past season, despite missing four games due to injury. (Photo courtesy of The Tallahasse Democrat)

Believe it or not, the first three passes that former Westover and St. Thomas Aquinas star receiver Rashad Greene caught during his redshirt freshman year at Florida State all went for touchdowns. It was just that kind of season for the Albany native, who left his hometown after his sophomore year to live with his grandmother in Fort Lauderdale and play for St. Thomas, a national prep football powerhouse that competes for state and national titles every season. The decision to gain more exposure certainly paid off as Greene earned a scholarship to FSU, where he led the Seminoles in receiving this past season, despite missing four games due to injury. (Photo courtesy of The Tallahasse Democrat)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. --- During media day for the Champs Sports Bowl, Rashad Greene had an epiphany: He realized just how important he was to the future of the Florida State football program.

“I was standing there talking to my receivers coach (Lawrence Dawsey) when a group of former Florida State (star receivers) walked by, and coach Dawsey called out to them and said, ‘Hey guys ... come here, I want you to meet someone,’ ” Greene recalled, admitting he was slightly nervous as the group walked over. “He said, ‘This is Rashad, he’s a redshirt freshman wide receiver — and he’s special.’ “

Greene paused and searched for the words to explain what the moment meant to him. Then he tried: “I mean ... it was the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten — and the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me.”

Don’t worry, young Mr. Greene — after one of the most talked-about rookie seasons in Seminoles history, there will be plenty more where that came from.

“It was a pretty good year, yeah,” said Greene, an Albany native, during an interview with The Herald in early January just a week removed from the Champs Sports Bowl against Notre Dame, which ended in an 18-14 Florida State win, thanks in large part to Greene’s latest monster game, which earned him the MVP. “I really didn’t think I’d get as much playing as I ended up getting, so I honestly didn’t think (my first year) would go as well as it did.”

No one could’ve imagined the kind of impact this quiet, humble 18-year-old freshman would have.

Instead, he turned heads, raised eyebrows and opened

eyes as wide as the Mississippi all across Tallahassee the very

first time he touched the ball while wearing the garnet and gold — to the tune of a 28-yard touchdown catch against Charleston Southern in FSU’s opening game of the season.

And it didn’t stop there.

Greene, who unbelievably caught three TD passes on his first three career receptions, not only finished the 2011 season as the Seminoles’ leading receiver with a team-high 596 yards and seven touchdown catches — averaging a staggering 15.7 yards every time he touched the ball — but he was also Florida State’s all-purpose yards leader (706) thanks to his contributions on special teams.

Of course, here’s the most amazing part: He did all that in just nine games.

“I think a lot about how much more I could’ve helped our team had I not gotten hurt,” lamented Greene of the ankle injury he suffered in the Week 5 loss to Wake Forest — a game he played in pain, yet still finished as the Seminoles’ leading receiver with 12 catches for 163 yards and one score, marking the first of four times he would shine as FSU’s leading receiver. “But I didn’t let it get me down. I tried to stay focused, because I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason.”

Like the fact he even signed with Florida State? With tempting offers from Miami, LSU and Texas Tech out of high school?

“Yeah, just like that,” Greene replied. “I really didn’t think I was gonna end up at Florida State. But I had a great relationship with coach Dawsey, and (head coach) Jimbo (Fisher) is such a good guy; he really sold me on the program. Looking back now, this is where I was meant to be.

“And I’m very happy with my decision.”

As is all of Seminole Nation.


'LEAVING ALBANY WAS THE HARDEST THING I'VE EVER HAD TO DO'

Lewis Smith will never forget the first time he laid eyes on Greene.

The former assistant football coach for Westover High School, which Greene attended up until his sophomore season, remembers it like it was yesterday.

"The first time I ever interacted with him when he was a freshman, there was something about him that stuck out. He made me feel comfortable, because here was this young guy that all the other kids — sophomores, juniors, seniors, you name it — seemed to follow. I'd never seen anything like that," Smith recalled. "But as I started watching him, I soon began to understand why: He was the best athlete on the field, no matter what sport he played. He was the best in football, the best in basketball and the best on the track. And you want to know what else? He had the best attitude of maybe any kid I've ever coached in all of my 30 years.

"He knew he had all the talent in the world, but he didn't act arrogant or better than anyone or expect a break. In fact, he didn't ever say a whole lot. Yet, the kids just gravitated to him; they followed his lead. And that's because he just showed up every day early, determined to work hard, motivated to get better — and to make everyone else around him better. Honestly, he was a coach's dream."

But that dream of claiming a kid like Greene, who was destined for stardom, as a Westover alum forever and ever would turn into a private nightmare of sorts for the school's athletic department when word began to spread in the spring of 2008 that Greene was thinking of leaving the program. After leading the football team to the playoffs as a freshman — and just its fourth winning season in 40 years — as well as multiple individual state track titles and the Class AAA State Championship game as a starter on the basketball team as a sophomore, opportunity began knocking at Greene's door.

And it was hard to turn it away.

"My father (Gregory) is originally from Fort Lauderdale, my grandmother still lived there and we started talking about moving down there and playing for (national football powerhouse) St. Thomas (Aquinas)," Greene said. "It would just be a sacrifice — one I had to make to get to where I wanted to go. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, but it was also the hardest."

Greene, who was born and raised in Albany, had forged friendships from elementary, to middle and high school that tugged at his heart as he pondered what to do. After all, Gregory — a longtime worker at the local Miller Brewing Plant — and Greene's mother, Cassandra, a social worker, had dug their roots in Albany. Plus, he had three brothers who wouldn't be going with him.

Greene said the dilemma kept him awake at nights.

Should he stay in a part of Georgia often known for being overlooked by football recruiters who camped out in the northern end of the Peach State, fawning over its plethora of talent? Or should he take his talents to a part of the Sunshine State known for churning out the best of the best and take a shot at playing for a program like St. Thomas that not only has produced countless Division I football stars year after year, but competed each season for state, national titles and made regular appearances on ESPN?

Ultimately, he knew the chance of that type of exposure was something he couldn't turn down.

"Leaving Albany was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Greene said with a sigh.

And for Smith and his fellow coaches at Westover, it was bittersweet to watch unfold.

"When I heard about it, we were nearing the end of track season and having a great year with Rashad leading us — winning almost all the major meets," Smith said. "On one hand, thinking about Rashad leaving was like having our head cut off. It was like, 'Where did our leader go?' But on the other hand, he was so likeable and he’d already done so much for us in just two years, you couldn't help but feel good for the child.

"Yes, it was a major blow to us, but we all understood what he was trying to do and where he was trying to go with football, so to me, I was cool with it. I told him before he left, 'Go do your thing, young man. Go make Albany proud. I'll catch you on TV.' "

When Greene left Albany, the most notoriety he'd received on the football field was being just the second sophomore in history named to The Herald's annual "Dynamite Dozen" — the sports staff's preseason selection of the Top 12 football players in Southwest Georgia. But by the end of his junior season at St. Thomas, he was all over the map.

He was quickly labeled a four-star receiver by all the major scouting services, ranking as high as the No. 10 receiver in the nation by Scout.com. He recorded 31 catches for 510 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior, helping lead St. Thomas Aquinas to the Class 5A state title, then turned around his senior year and posted even bigger numbers: 43 receptions for 943 yards and 13 touchdowns. He led St. Thomas to a second straight state title in his final season, and was the star of the state championship game with six receptions for 148 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-sealing 74-yard catch late in the fourth quarter.

St. Thomas would even go on to win the mythical national championship during Greene's senior season — a feat he called "unbelievable."

"St. Thomas gave me everything a football player could've wanted. Being on ESPN, traveling out of state for games, playing for a state and national title," Greene said. "It was an unbelievable experience, and I felt grateful to be a part of it."

Fisher, meanwhile, had his eye on bringing the 6-foot, 175-pound prized recruit to Tallahassee.

"We knew Rashad had potential to be an impact freshman, that’s why we recruited him," Fisher said in an interview with The Herald last week. "He’s very dynamic and very polished for a young freshman. I knew from his background playing at a program like St. Thomas Aquinas that he would have a chance to make that impact.”

Back in Albany, Smith and his fellow Westover coaches kept tabs on Greene from the first pass he caught at St. Thomas to the day he signed his national letter-of-intent.

"We sure hated to lose him, but we were awfully proud of him (when he signed with (FSU)," Smith said. "When he left, deep down, we knew he was going to be exactly where he is now."


'THE FIRST THREE TIMES HE EVER TOUCHED THE BALL, HE SCORED TOUCHDOWNS'

Greene said although coming to Florida State — which sits just 90 miles Southeast of Albany — made his friends and family happy, geography had little to do his decision.

"My family and friends were glad I was going to be so close, but that really didn't play any part in why I decided to come here," he said. "I wanted to go where was best for me, and between Jimbo and coach Dawsey, they really made me feel like I would fit into the program."

From almost the moment he stepped foot on campus, the easy-going Greene — who was unproven and relatively unknown — said he was welcomed in as a member of the Seminoles' family.

"This is probably the closest team I've ever been a part of," said Greene, who is roommates with freshman offensive lineman and former St. Thomas teammate Bobby Hart. "I really became good friends with everyone pretty fast. This team is a family, and we're bonded together. There's no problems between anyone."

Just like at Westover when he burst onto the scene as a freshman, Fisher said members of the team took to Greene almost immediately.

And it was easy to see why.

"Rashad is a very intelligent young man. I think he is very smart and not only book smart and able to learn, but I think he is also very instinctive on the field," Fisher said. "He has a lot of natural football instincts which allowed him to not only learn the assignments but then apply them on the field."

Greene said while some of the veterans seemed surprised he was getting so many reps during summer practice, he felt he quickly earned their respect by demonstrating he could help the team — and right away, at that.

"Well, I think it was kind of a surprise to most of the older guys that I came in and got to play so much, but they also saw I was picking up the plays and learning (the offense) real fast," he said. "Soon, I think everyone was excited that I was (coming along as quickly as I was) and helping out the team. 'Cause it's all about the team."

There never seemed to be any serious conversation by Fisher to redshirt Greene. And the decision paid off after the flashes of brilliance Greene showed them during his first three games.

"It was relatively early on he started to make an impact. The first three times he ever touched the ball he scored touchdowns. He did (the same things) in practice, but we wanted to see him carry it into games," Fisher said. "The first two games we saw a guy that we had to get more involved."

Greene said he had some "anxiety" during his first game, especially when quarterback EJ Manuel called a play he knew could end with the ball in his arms.

"When I got up to the line, I was anxious, a little nervous. I definitely had some anxiety," Greene said with a laugh. "You always wonder how your first game is going to go — or when you might get that chance to make that first catch — and I knew on that (particular) play, I had the chance to get the ball. And when I caught it, then I saw I had a chance to score, and I did."

Greene finished with only one catch against Charleston Southern for 28 yards, but he made it count. And by the next game against Louisiana-Monroe, Greene was beaming on the offense's radar. Granted, he had only two catches in the 62-10 win, but they both went for scores. And his 98 yards receiving that day led the team.

When asked why he thought he was able to have so much success so early, Greene didn’t hesitate.

"I think it was my ability to run good routes, get open, read defenses and find the holes," he said. "The way our offense works, there is no one guy the quarterback is looking for on any given play. I just happened to be the guy who got open. It was a great feeling to be the team's leading receiver in just the second game."

The trend continued the following week when No. 1-ranked Oklahoma came to town for the college football season's first Top 5 showdown. Greene was once again the leading receiver — this time with three catches for 70 yards — and he snagged the Seminoles' only touchdown of the game from backup QB Clint Trickett in the fourth quarter that got Florida State to within four points of pulling off the upset.

But as Seminole fans know all too well, Oklahoma prevailed, 23-13, to send FSU to the first of three straight losses and seemingly put what looked to be a once-promising season into a sudden tailspin. The next week, FSU lost to Clemson, 35-30, then fell to Wake Forest by the same score after that.

Greene, however, said no one ever pressed the panic button.

"Well, honestly, after the Oklahoma game, after we lost, nothing really changed with the team. We kept practicing very hard, never got discouraged. No one got down on each other or pointed fingers," said Greene, who was FSU's second-leading receiver against Clemson (eight catches, 98 yards, 1 TD) and the leading receiver against Wake (12 catches, 163 yards, 1 TD). "We stayed the same after that first loss and the whole season (it was like that). We stayed focused and tried to be steady, take it game by game because we knew all those games — all those losses — we were right there; one play could've changed it. So we knew we were close."

But as FSU tried to move forward, the Seminoles learned they'd have to do it without Greene, who — despite putting on the performance of his life against Wake Forest — battled an ankle injury nearly the entire game. Rather than take a chance the next week against Duke with their brightest young star, the Seminoles decided to shut Greene down. He missed the next four games.

"As the schedule got more difficult we wanted to see if he would keep progressing, which he did. It is just unfortunate he got hurt when he did or he would have had an unbelievable freshman year," Fisher said of Greene, who was on pace to become just the school's eighth receiver to ever go over 1,000 yards before the injury.

Greene had barely missed a snap his entire high school career, and being on the sidelines just when he was hitting his stride was an all new obstacle.

"Yeah, it was hard going through that. But I just stayed focused and figured out ways to help my teammates out while being off the field," he said. "I didn't let it get me down at all. I just took it as the way it was and tried to get better every day and get back on the field as soon as possible."


'THE CATCH'

Florida State was 2-3 with Greene in the lineup and 4-0 in the four games without him. But don't think for a second the offense was better off, Fisher said. The freshman phenom was sorely missed.

“First of all, his understanding of football and knowing what he wants to do (makes him a matchup problem for opposing defenses). He is very confident in himself; he has inner confidence. He is a great route runner, he has great body quickness in understanding what he is doing, but he also has top-end speed and ability when the ball is in the air to adjust to it and make a burst even when he seems to be running full speed," the coach said. "Once the ball is near, he has that extra gear to be able to go and get it. He has natural hands.”

Those “natural hands,” however, took time to warm back up once Greene returned in Week 10 against Miami. He had just three catches for 19 yards in a 23-19 Seminoles win, then caught just four balls for 21 yards the following week during a stunning 14-13 loss to Virginia. Then in the season finale against Florida, Greene didn’t have a catch in the 21-7 win.

But while the injury appeared to slow Greene's progress, Fisher was convinced he'd found the team's next big playmaker, pointing to three moments in particular.

"One of the things I remember was in the second game he took a punt back for a touchdown that was called back, but the opportunity to see him in space, not just as a receiver, (impressed me). Then he took a jail-break screen and caught it and went about 70 yards. Those moments stand out to me," Fisher said. "The way he stepped up in the Wake Forest game, in a critical game, he had that big game but unfortunately got hurt. He had 12 catches and over 160 yards, and he showed that same resiliency and play-making ability in big-time moments in the bowl game. When we were down and struggling a little bit, he was the guy who stepped up and made some plays. He made two diving catches. Those things really stood out to me.”

One of those diving catches Greene made against Notre Dame quickly became known as "The Catch" across Florida State blogs and message boards. Of course, it wasn't NFC-title-game-big like Montana-to-Clark in the back of the end zone. But to Seminole fans, it felt like it was.

After falling behind 7-0 at halftime and its offense looking inept against the Irish, the Seminoles fell even further behind, 14-0, early in the third quarter before storming back. They finally got on the board when Dustin Hopkins made a 41-yard FG on the next FSU drive, then Bert Reed scored FSU's first TD on the first play of the fourth quarter on an 18-yard TD pass from Manuel to close the gap to 14-9 following a failed two-point conversion. After a Seminoles interception on the ensuing Notre Dame drive, Manuel hooked up with Greene from 15 yards out to give FSU its first lead of the game, 15-14, after another failed two-point conversion with 13 minutes left to play.

The Florida State defense then forced Notre Dame to punt, leaving the offense sorely in need of one final drive to all but put the game away.

That's when it happened.

With 9:30 to play and FSU facing a third-and-six from its own 38, Manuel stepped up into the pocket and lofted a long pass down the right sideline that knifed through the tense air in St. Petersburg. On the receiving end was Greene, who was being draped by an Irish DB. Greene, however, made a seemingly impossible catch when he turned his big body around and made a one-handed grab with his right arm as he fell to the ground and slid toward the out-of-bounds line.

ESPN's announcers went nuts — “Hasn’t he made more big plays than anyone else?!?” one of them exclaimed — while FSU's fans went even nuttier. And after a brief review, Greene was awarded a 42-yard reception that went down as the play of the game.

"It had to be probably the most amazing catch I've ever made in my life," Greene said. "I just tried to stay focused on the ball and come up with a big play. I felt like (the officials) were going to give me the catch because I grabbed the ball before I went out of bounds. I was pretty sure I caught it."

Not only did "The Catch" extend the Seminoles' crucial drive, but Hopkins would later kick a 29-yard FG to push the margin to 18-14 that all but sealed the win the way FSU's defense was playing. And as a result of Greene's performance — five receptions for 99 yards — he was named the Champs Sports Bowl MVP.

"I didn't see it coming. I really don't try to predict how I'm going to play (or envision) the kind of game I'll have beforehand. I just let the game come to me, and whenever I have an opportunity to make a big play, I just try to step up and capitalize on it," Greene said. "(The MVP award was nice), but I don't really focus on individual things because it's all about the team.

"I'd rather win a game and have zero catches then lose a game and have 100 catches."


'I THINK HE WILL BE ONE OF THE BEST ONES I'VE EVER COACHED'

After finishing the season 9-4 and returning most of their key players on offense and defense, many believe the Seminoles will once again start the season ranked in the Top 10, possibly even the Top 5.

Greene is one of them.

"The future is really bright, but we have to take matters into our hands and work to have a bright future. It's not going to be given to us," he said. "We know we have to stick together as a family. We have a chance to have a great season.

"Everyone was real happy with the win against Notre Dame because it's always good to end a season on a winning note. And I would call our season a success, even though it didn't go down exactly as everyone wanted it to — but it was a success. We bonded together, we accomplished (many of the) things we set out to accomplish, and it can only get better. And I believe there's big things coming for Florida State."

Greene doesn't think there needs to be any changes to the sometimes-maligned offensive scheme of Florida State, which struggled to put points on the board at times last year.

"I don't really think anything needs to be changed. We had a great game plan on how we shifted our offense," Greene said. "We just need to be more consistent, execute a little more, and just be a little more detail-oriented. That's the only thing (we lacked at times last season) — paying attention to detail. We'll do a better job of that next year."

Of course, as good a job as Greene did on the field this past season, the nursing major is doing even better in the classroom in Tallahassee. He's currently sporting a 3.9 GPA — one of the highest on the team — and hopes to one day work as an anesthesiologist.

That is, once he's done making his mark on the NFL. Although, that's still a ways off, Greene admits.

"I'm not really thinking about the NFL right now. In the future, if I have the opportunity, of course I would love to play professional football," he said. "But right now I'm not even focused on that. I'm just focused on school, my team and getting better."

Smith, meanwhile, can't wait to watch.

"Everything he's been doing since he's gone, all his old coaches and I keep tabs on him every week, what kind of game he had, what his stats were," Smith said. "I know, personally, every game I watched of his this year, I was tired after the game because I felt like I'm still coaching him, helping him make catches — like I was with him on every play.

"We're all still very attached to Rashad. A kid that special you never forget."

Fisher, for one, agrees with Dawsey's and Smith's assessment that Greene is "special."

As for just how special? Well, Fisher said, that remains to be seen.

But so far, so good.

“I think it is way too early to say where he ranks (all-time among all the players I've coached). I have been blessed to have some great ones, but I think he can be one of the great ones if he will continue to progress and not worry about numbers or anything else; if he keeps learning to be a better football player," Fisher said. "He is such a team guy. Such a smart guy. I think he will be one of the best ones I ever coached but it is still early to say that. He still has a lot of growing to do and a lot of potential to fulfill, but if his work ethic stays the same and his attitude stays the same, there is no reason he won’t reach those goals.”