According to the 2010 census, there were 462 people that lived in Mount Vernon. It’s a rural farming community in the southeastern corner of South Dakota that has had to cooperate with surrounding communities to simply field a nine-man high school football team.
That’s where Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway began his pursuit of the NFL dream, a dream that played out over an 11-year career and came to an end Tuesday morning as Greenway stood at a podium — his wife and four daughters smiling below — and thanked the people that guided him through his formative years.
The linebacker was a mainstay for the Vikings defense since coming back from a torn ACL his rookie season and missing just four games over the next decade. Despite a reduced role and a budding core of defensive stalwarts around him, Greenway remained one of the most popular Vikings until his final game against the Chicago Bears on Jan. 1, when fans roared as Greenway was the last Viking to emerge from the tunnel during the starting lineups.
Greenway never wavered from his loyalty to the Upper Midwest, and Vikings fans returned to the favor in their loyalty to Greenway
The Vikings’ fan base has long expanded into surrounding states, primarily the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska. If you grew up in small-town South Dakota, or even attended the University of Iowa — as Greenway did — well, you’re basically part of the Minnesota family.
Greenway never wavered from his loyalty to the Upper Midwest, and Vikings fans returned the favor in their loyalty to Greenway, who played for three coaching staffs and battled through some leans years during his career yet never lost his connection to the fans. “Because I grew up in South Dakota to Iowa to here,” said Greenway, “I had so many fans, so many family members who could come to games, so many people that were college roommates that were able to come up and be a part of my career and kind of let everybody experience it, rather than if I’d played somewhere else it wouldn’t have been the same experience.”
While the Vikings play in one of the Midwest’s most urban hubs, their footprint extends across the rural reaches of the Heartland, where Greenway is as relatable as they come. His late father ran a farm, and Greenway was often his ranch hand. On Tuesday, the 34-year-old recalled a day nearly 30 years ago when he was helping his father feed cattle and mentioned that he’d like to play professional football someday.
“I’ll never forget,” said Greenway. “He said, ‘It’s gonna take a lot of hard work, but it’s possible.’ It’s one of those moments you never forget as a kid, and my dad was my hero, and I think when he said that, it was something like, ‘You know what, I’m going to try and do that.’
“And it took a lot of work, it’s taken a lot of effort and a lot of good luck, but as I got to the point where I got a little older and I started getting recruited and you go through those times, you realize that growing up in that environment on the farm and in that community was the reason that, not only I was able to have success at Iowa but also to be able to have 11 years of success here, continued success, was all because of, not only who I am, but what made me who I am, my parents and my background and my farming background and that community.”
Greenway suspects that he’s signed a piece of memorabilia for nearly every member of his South Dakota community.
“They were the ones that gave me this dream and this opportunity.”
As a 195-lb. high schooler, he played quarterback and safety. Being at such a small school was a recruiting disadvantage — despite numerous conference and state accolades — but Kirk Ferentz and the coaches at Iowa saw Greenway’s potential. They recruited him as a safety, then turned him into a linebacker that eventually played at 240 lbs. and merited a first-round pick status in the NFL.
“They were the ones that gave me this dream and this opportunity,” Greenway said, “and they were also the ones that encouraged me to finish and get my degree so now that my playing career is over I can go on and do something else. The respect I have for that program and not only the men I just named is incredible.”
As Greenway sat through the 2006 NFL Draft with his soon-to-be wife, Jenny, she was excited to move from the Midwest. According to Greenway, she would have preferred any team south of the state of Iowa.
When Minnesota picked her future husband 17th, it didn’t quite fit her criteria.
But what started as Jenny Greenway’s concern turned into the beginning of Chad Greenway’s legacy, as the two moved north and laid down roots in Minnesota, completing her husband’s tri-state trifecta — from South Dakota to Iowa to Minnesota. “Looking back, it ends up being an incredible opportunity,” said Greenway, “and it’s been awesome.”
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