FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Shonn Greene still thinks about the days when he was lifting couches instead of carrying footballs.
“It wasn’t fun,” the New York Jets rookie running back said. “It was a humbling experience.”
Greene’s football career was halted in 2007 when he was ruled academically ineligible at the University of Iowa. He paid for courses at a community college to get his grades up by working at a furniture store.
“It’s crazy,” Greene said with a smile. “Back then, I never would’ve thought all this would come out of it. I stayed dedicated, worked hard and this is what it’s all about.”
Greene has become a significant part of the Jets’ top-ranked running game, rushing for 135 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in New York’s 24-14 win at Cincinnati last Saturday.
The stocky third-round pick has been a big Greene Machine lately, rushing for 292 yards on 50 attempts in his past three games. He has also been splitting carries with Thomas Jones, who finished third in the NFL with 1,402 yards rushing.
“Shonn’s a guy who has really stepped in and played well and it gives us a dangerous 1-2 punch with him and T.J.,” fullback Tony Richardson said. “The way Shonn has run in the last few weeks shows you what he can do and what we can do as a team.”
The Jets will likely need Greene to continue chewing up yardage in their playoff game against the Chargers at San Diego on Sunday.
“Shonn has done a good job of watching the games all season, of watching T.J. and learning from T.J. and seeing what he does,” center Nick Mangold said. “It’s obviously worked to his benefit and to ours as a team.”
Greene believes all the heavy lifting at McGregor’s Furniture in Coralville, Iowa, helped contribute to his current success.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m here right now,” he said. “I’m trying to take that as a learning tool, that whole situation.”
He worked in the warehouse until Christmas 2007 before heading home to Sicklerville, N.J. He improved his grades, re-enrolled at Iowa and had a record-breaking season as the Hawkeyes’ starting running back. Greene rushed for 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2008, the only FBS back to get 100 yards rushing in all 13 games. He was the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year and won the Doak Walker Award as the country’s top running back.
A few months later, the Jets traded up in the draft to grab Greene. He finished the regular season with 540 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 108 carries.
“I wasn’t expecting to play as much this season,” Greene said. “I just wanted to learn the offense and do what I could do.”
Greene got his big opportunity when Leon Washington broke his right leg in Oakland on Oct. 25. The rookie stepped in and ran for 144 yards and two scores.
“I’m very impressed from the standpoint that a lot of rookies hit that wall at some point in the year, but as the year went on, he got better and better,” Washington said.
Greene’s rookie season hasn’t been without a few stumbles. He overcame a nagging rib cage injury from the preseason, as well as an ankle injury from training camp.
“You just have to be humble and wait your turn as a rookie, but the injuries were definitely frustrating,” he said. “Just trying to get over that, it was a long, lingering thing.”
Greene has also been securing the football better lately after losing three fumbles.
“He’s been carrying the ball all his life,” coach Rex Ryan said. “He’s better about having the mentality that ‘I’m going to run a safety over’ than he is about holding on to the ball. When we had the old, typical, ‘Don’t fumble,’ that was when he was fumbling. Now it’s like, ‘Just run the dude over and you’ll be all right.’ That’s how he’s protecting the football now.”
The 5-foot-11, 226-pound Greene is also flashing some speed, as he did on his 39-yard touchdown run against the Bengals last Saturday.
“I think a lot of people underestimate my speed, but that’s all right,” he said. “It’s all good.”
On that run, Greene took the ball from Mark Sanchez, scooted past a would-be tackler and kept going — completely untouched.
“I’ve never seen daylight like that since I’ve been in the NFL, which is not very long,” he said. “So, as soon as I saw that, I took off and I couldn’t wait to get to the end zone.”
Greene, one of the quietest players in the locker room, celebrated by simply placing the ball at the corner of the end zone. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery realized immediately that Greene had just left his first playoff touchdown ball on the field, so he retrieved it for the equipment staff.
“I’ve got it now,” Greene said, smiling. “It’s cool.”