Today we will continue our look in to the players behind the retired jerseys of Memphis. Last week Daniel wrote a fantastic article on Bill Crumby. Today I plan to take you on a journey in to the past of Memphis and profile a special Memphian, Charles Greenhill.
Greatness on the field is normally what merits a jersey be retired. Players make an impact with a "wow" moment and their name is forever etched in to our memories. In the case of Charles Greenhill, the "wow" moments were short lived on the collegiate field. However, the life of Charles Greenhill earned him many honors, among which include a retired jersey at Memphis. Greenhill would play one season at Memphis but his impact and legacy in the city, and to the school, would lead to him being forever remembered.
Charles Greenhill was a Memphis phenom. Not so much a phenom during his Memphis playing days, but a phenom of the city. His life was one of legends. A home grown Memphian that in 1983 picked Memphis over powerhouses such as Alabama, LSU, and Tennessee, Greenhill was touted as the most talented player to come out of the city.
To truly understand his greatness we must begin where Greenhill grew up, in the Frayser area of Memphis. What was once a thriving part of town has since run down with many businesses uprooting and moving elsewhere. But in Greenhills day, Frayser was the place to be and Charles was king of the preps in the area.
Greenhill was the athlete who excelled in everything. He, at one point, competed in every sporting event he could. Greenhill went as far as to play golf for the golf team and shoot a 80. That 80 that he shot was also the first time he had picked up clubs. Greenhill naturally excelled at sports. But his favorite was football. He was gifted. He was special. He was meant to play football.
Imagine being so talented that schoolyard kids picking teams and select you first for their team. They select you for their team even though you are not present. They play a player short because they know that when you show up you will dominate the game. That was the life of Charles Greenhill. At the time of his recruitment there were many that claimed Greenhill was the best high schooler to come out of the city. He would be the Penny Hardaway of football before Penny would grace the basketball court. He was that transcendent.
Memphis Commercial Appeal writer John Varlas detailed the legacy of Greenhill. Varlas detailed Greenhills dominance on the field during his high school days. In the linked article, a story is told about a high school game between Frayser High and Byhalia (MS). The coach of Byhalia told Frayser coach Terry Ryan during pre-game handshakes "I'm going to try and run the score up on you if I can." At halftime Frayser led 40-0. This scoring was dominated by Greenhill. He had passed for a score, rushed for a score, caught a passing score, returned a kickoff for a score, and kicked a field goal. Coach Ryan went on to say that he let Charles rest for the remainder of the game.
Clearly Greenhill was gifted on the offensive side of the ball. At 6'2" 210 pounds however, Greenhill was as hard a hitting defender as you could find. He would, at times, tell his teammates to make sure and hold someone up and he would finish the play. He simply was tough as nails. So tough in fact that in the Varlas article, teammate and friend Nick Newman recounted, "one time we played Olive Branch and he got his ear partially torn off...they just taped it back up and he went back in....he kicked a field goal to win that game." Imagine the YouTube highlight reel Greenhill would have in modern times.
A tough, hard nosed reputation earned Greenhill looks from power schools. Ultimately, however, Charles chose Memphis. Charles promised his mom that he would take care of her. In his mind staying home was the best way to do so. Sylvia Greenhill-Watkins, Charles mother, didn't mind her son staying home. What mother would mind their baby staying close? She did make it clear, however, that Charles was the one in charge of where he would and wouldn't go. She didn't want to be the one making such decisions.
Charles would play one season for Memphis coach Rex Dockery. Memphis, clearly in rebuild mode, was coming off of two straight 1-10 seasons. Coach Dockery was changing the atmosphere of the football program at Memphis. Greenhill was going to be a integral part of the new faced Tigers.
Greenhill would play in all 11 games his freshman season. His stat line would include 10 kick or punt returns, 1 of which for touchdown. He also would 1 interception and make 20 total tackles. The Tigers would, by today's standards, be bowl eligible with a 6-4-1 record. Although the Tigers were not participants in any post season play they did end a 6 year winning season drought.
On December 12, 1983 Greenhills living legacy would be cut short. A plain en route to a Quarterback Club meeting would crash. On board the plain would be head coach Rex Dockery, offensive coordinator Chris Faros, Charles Greenhill, and Memphis booster Glen Jones. No survivors would be among the wreckage.
The news devastated a city, but also families. Understanding the potential of Greenhill is to understand that he had a future. He had pro written all over him. And to top it off, he seemed level headed enough to where he would not squander his opportunities away. This was a bright and talented kid.
He was revered in his community and in his city. Not only for being a exceptional athlete, transcendent even, but for being a well liked kid. Although he never made it to his 19th birthday he did make an impact on the city. He lived a life, and possessed a talent, worthy of having a city school dedicate their field to him and a university make him their first retired jersey.
In his 18 short years Charles Greenhill made an impact on the city of Memphis. His impact before college was enough to see his name honored in his community. His short time in college gave glimpses of his greatness. His dramatic and sad fate left us wondering just what might have been.