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Tim Green now sacking illiteracy instead of quarterbacks

Young Tim Green always had a nose for the football and his nose in a book. So it wasn’t surprising to those who knew him back in the day that he eventually would realize his boyhood dreams of becoming a National Football League player and a best-selling author.

That he was destined for greatness was especially evident during his time at Syracuse University in the early 1980s, when he earned first-team All-America honors in football and was co-valedictorian of his class. While playing for the Atlanta Falcons, Green somehow found the time and energy to go to law school, where he graduated with honors, and is now a practicing attorney. Along the way, this Renaissance man also cultivated a successful broadcasting career that saw him work as a football analyst for FOX sports, co-host the news show, “A Current Affair,” and become a regular contributor to National Public Radio and ABC’s “Evening News.”

Now, 23 years after sacking his last quarterback, the former defensive end is tackling an even bigger challenge: convincing young people to read.

Author of more than 30 books, including 14 New York Times bestsellers, Green began writing sports-themed novels for elementary- to middle-school-aged children roughly a decade ago. That led to numerous requests from teachers and principals for him to speak at their schools. The fact he had played in the NFL for eight seasons gave him instant credibility among the students, and he used that credibility to drive home the importance of reading, education and kindness.

Through the years, Green has visited more than 1,000 schools nationwide. He will bring his “Reading is weightlifting for the brain” message, as well as a trunk full of books, to Gananda Middle School in Walworth on Tuesday morning.

“It’s like everything in my life was pushing me in this direction and I couldn’t be happier that it has,’’ said Green, who uses his speaking fees to donate books to kids and schools that can’t afford them. “This has become my passion, my mission in life. I haven’t discovered a cure for cancer or found a solution for peace in the Middle East, but in some small way, I’d like to think I’m helping make the world a better place.”

Famed abolitionist/editor Frederick Douglass said “once you learn to read, you will forever be free.”

Those words resonate with Green. The 52-year-old can trace his lifelong love of the written word back to the Hardy Boys mystery series he began devouring as a third-grader.

“The first book that hooked me was about a lighthouse mystery,’’ Green said. “It was a pretty good-sized book for a middle-school novel, about 220 pages long, but I couldn’t put it down. It was filled with cliff-hangers. It was a real page-turner. And it whetted my appetite to want to read more of the books in the series. Eventually, I branched off to other authors and genres.’’

The ability of books to transport him to places he’d never imagined visiting and into the minds of characters he never knew existed was magical. The fact his words are now doing the same for others blows his mind.

“I can’t adequately express the joy and satisfaction I get from hearing kids say about my books what I felt about those Hardy Boys books,’’ he said.

Green’s initiative has received rave reviews at every school he’s visited. Following a recent presentation at Orion Junior High in Ogden, Utah, librarian Amy Hall called Green “a national treasure” and added that “each and every student in America should have the opportunity to hear his message and learn from him.’’

Green’s pithy phrase “reading is weightlifting for the brain” hits home with young people, creating a visual that the brain, like muscles, must be used, lest it atrophy. “I think it’s analogous because if you want to be a great football player, or great at any sport really, you need to lift weights, and if you want to be the best student you can be, you need to be a good reader,’’ he said. “Students who read not only perform better academically, but also become more compassionate people because reading is the exercise of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and becoming different characters in different places.”

Like the Hardy Boys stories of his youth, Green’s books are filled with suspense. His 17th and latest novel published by Harper Collins is titled “Home Run,” and deals with a boy who has a chance to help out his divorced mom and sister if he wins a home run derby that will enable them to move from their cramped apartment into a house.

One of the cool things about Green’s series is that he uses his Facebook page to solicit names of people to be characters in his book. Tyler Hutt, a member of the Victor football team who died of a pulmonary embolism in 2015, and Courtney Wagner, a former Canandaigua basketball player who died last year of brain cancer, are two names Green’s Facebook followers nominated and he decided to use.

“I love it because it’s a great way to honor those kids, as well as some adults, and for their families to see the outpouring of support from their communities,’’ he said. “It helps people like Tyler and Courtney live on through these stories.”

Green’s first book, “The Darker Side of the Game,” was a candid, behind-the-scenes look at his pro football experiences. The game exacted a heavy toll on him, resulting in a damaged elbow that has limited the use of one of his hands and has required several surgeries. Green also suffered at least 10 concussions, though he says he hasn’t suffered any cognitive damage.

“So far, so good,’’ he said. “I have the mental issues that any normal fiftysomething would have. I’m still writing two books a year, so that’s how I console myself.”

Of the many things he has achieved, none will have a greater impact on more people than his literacy initiative. By sharing the wonders of reading with young, impressionable minds, he hopes the written word will strengthen their brains the way weights strengthen muscles. Green hopes books transport them to places they’ve never been before, put them in the shoes of others, make them smarter and kinder, and help them dream big, the way he always has.

Best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

3/4/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.

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