Joe Theismann was not the most-revered No. 7 in Washington when he was the first to don it for this city’s NFL team in the mid-1970s. For anyone like me who was coming of age in the local sports scene at the time, that was Cornelius Green, or Flam (for flamboyant), as Leonard Shapiro nicknamed Green in these pages four decades ago because of the white cleats and tassels he sported on his socks, a la Muhammad Ali, as a star quarterback at Dunbar High School.
By the time Theismann showed up in 1974, Green wasn’t just a D.C. sensation, but a national one. With his scarlet and gray jersey emblazoned with No. 7, Green was about to embark on his third year as Ohio State’s first black quarterback. He was coming off an MVP performance in the Rose Bowl as a sophomore, where he led the Buckeyes to a 42-21 win over Southern Cal that avenged a shellacking from the Trojans a year earlier.
“I can recall vividly in the mid-’70s,” Dwayne Haskins Sr., the father of Washington’s first-round quarterback patronymically named, who grew up in New Jersey, told me of first seeing Green. “[Green] had an anointed swagger.”
It is with that history that his son started sporting 7 as a kid. And well before the tale about Haskins Jr., who makes his training camp debut this week, seeking Theismann’s approval to wear 7 for Washington, which was effectively shelved when Theismann retired in 1985, Haskins Sr. reached out to Green for guidance.
Green, who started coaching and working at St. Albans a decade ago, was happy to hear from him.
“It was really funny because St. Albans and Bullis [where Haskins Jr. played] were in the same conference,” Green recounted to me. “I coached the seventh and eighth graders and had a game over there [at Bullis].”
Green said he saw the Bullis varsity going through some drills and heard its star quarterback, Haskins, was considering Green’s alma mater. So he walked over to ask a coach if he could introduce himself.
“Nope,” the coach told him, Green recalls with a chuckle. “That wasn’t happening.”
But after Haskins signed with Ohio State in 2016, Green got a call from Haskins’ parents. They’d been referred by a mutual acquaintance. They wanted to talk to Green about the return for a fifth year of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and the impact it would have on their son playing.
“We talked for about an hour and a half,” Green said.
He counseled them to be patient and said their son would get his chance.
His advice proved correct, of course. Haskins won the Sammy Baugh Trophy in 2018 as the nation’s top collegiate passer, led Ohio State to a 13-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory in which he was an MVP like his numerological-sake, Green.
“I went out to the Rose Bowl this year … to see Ohio State play Washington State,” Green said. “Two nights before the game, I walked over to the team hotel.”
Green still hadn’t met the quarterback following in his footsteps. But there he was.
They embraced. The new No. 7 pulled out his cellphone and snapped a selfie with the original.
“And puts it on Twitter,” Green said happily.
It captured a lineage of black quarterbacks from the D.C. area wearing 7 separated by more than two generations.
Haskins Sr. noted that no. 12 was the popular quarterback number when he was growing up. But when he saw Green on television on Saturday afternoons, “7 was a distinction.”
And as a particularly devout man, Haskins Sr. said the number resonated even more with him because of its prominence in the Bible.
Green didn’t wear 7 at Dunbar. But he did wear a combined number divisible by 7; 10 on the road and 11 at home.
When he arrived in Columbus, Ohio, as a freshman for Woody Hayes, he was directed to his locker. A jersey numbered 25 (and two plus five makes seven, of course) was hanging in it.
“I said, ‘I know they’re not giving me No. 25 to play quarterback!’ ” Green said.
Two games into the season, he managed to get the number he made famous at Ohio State and would inspire a young man almost half a century later.
Green made history as the Buckeyes’ first black quarterback in 1973, when Hayes installed him over returning starter Greg Hare. Green’s first start resulted in a 56-7 over Minnesota. By the time he was done, Green was on teams that won four Big Ten titles. He managed a 31-2-1 record as a starter. He was named an all-American in 1975. He was even voted team MVP and Big Ten MVP in the same season his backfield mate, running back Archie Griffin, won his second Heisman Trophy. How does that happen?
But Green said he sees a lot in Haskins that he always envisioned for himself and never realized.
“I didn’t get drafted until the 11th round and Dallas moved me to wide receiver,” Green recounted, which was the norm in the ’70s NFL for black quarterbacks. “Subconsciously, I always wished I was 6-3, 6-4, 6-5, [not 5-foot-11], so I’m sort of living things through Dwayne now.”
Green also didn’t have a father to celebrate his accomplishments and shepherd him through life as Haskins. Green was reared by extended family in Northeast in the shadow of defunct U-Line Arena (or Washington Coliseum), now an REI. Green said his father became entangled in alcohol addiction and never saw him play.
After Haskins opted for April’s NFL draft, Green said he got a call from the dad. Haskins Sr. invited Green to the draft party the family was having.
So Green was on hand to watch the young man for whom he is an inspiration get chosen as the third quarterback in the 2019 NFL draft with Washington’s 15th overall pick.
“I think this will be a lifetime relationship,” Green said.
It’s already been one.