His Former Players Still Respect Green

Dennis Green was often criticized for taking chances when drafting players, but three players he took a chance on are still making plays for the Vikings … or making them again in Brad Johnson's case. See what the players and Green had to say about that and his return to the Metrodome on Sunday.

For the first time since he resigned as Vikings head coach with one game to go in the 2001 season, the "high road" is leading Dennis Green back to the Metrodome for a game that matters.

The high road is often long and winding. After leading the Vikings to a 101-70 record over 10 seasons that included a pair of trips to the NFC Championship, Green spent the next two seasons as an NFL analyst for ESPN. He took over the reins in Arizona two seasons ago and enters the Dome Sunday with his job security very much in doubt.

For the third consecutive season it appears Green's Cardinals will be one of the league's worst teams and, in turn, first decision-makers on draft day.

But even though Green left Minnesota with a popularity rating lower than the president's he is still admired by a few players who remain in the Vikings locker room from Denny's regime.

"I always had a lot of respect for Coach Green," said Jim Kleinsasser, whom Green drafted in 1999. "We had some good years when he was here. I know he's going through some tough times down in Arizona; not much different than what we're going through up here."

Kleinsasser said he is forever in debt to Green, who gave an unknown from the Dakotas an opportunity to play big-time football.

"I was not that well known coming out of North Dakota," Kleinsasser said. "Taking me in the second round was a huge compliment to me and he believed in me and stuck with me through a rough few first games of my rookie season so I have all the respect in the world for him."

Center Matt Birk was another small-college player Green drafted. Birk, from Harvard, was a late-round pick who became a Pro Bowl regular thanks, in part, to Green.

"I am extremely grateful that Coach Green gave me a chance and the opportunity," Birk said. "He saw something in me and believed in me, but this game is about two teams that need to get a win."

This week, as the Cardinals and Vikings prepared to do battle against each other, much of the talk in the media focused on the past. But even Green, who has experience in steering the conversation in a preferred direction, admitted he admires the NFL in Minnesota.

"All of the communities get behind their teams, but I think they have a little bit stronger bond in Minnesota than other places," Green said. "They are very supportive and love their Minnesota Vikings."

But, again, players and coaches insist, Sunday is about teams who need a win, not a coach returning to his past.

"I think the fans are interested in winning," Green said when asked how he thought he'd be received on Sunday in the Metrodome. "The Vikings have lost four straight games. They could have won three of those four games. I don't think they are worrying about who is coming in."

Like Kleinsasser and Birk, quarterback Brad Johnson is another player who says he owes Green. Green hadn't been a head coach long when he drafted Johnson out of Florida State. Johnson didn't make his first start for five years.

"They took a chance on me," Johnson said. "I think Denny's greatness was always the vision of players, bringing the guys along. Just his vision on players growing and becoming better players, and his vision also on coaches.

"You think from Tony Dungy, Brian Billick, Tyrone Willingham … to even Jack Del Rio becoming head coach and Mike Tice. He put his stamp on a lot of his (assistants).

"He won a bunch of games here. He probably didn't get the credit that you really want, or that you deserve. But unless you win the whole thing, you are never going to get it. He won a lot of football games here and people should have been pleased with him as a head coach here."

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