When 6-year-old Cameron Green received his first football jersey from the Buffalo Grove youth football league, it meant something more to him than it did most kids. The No. 31 printed on the front and back -- the same number his father, Mark, wore in the NFL for the Bears -- and the yellow letters "GREEN" sprawled across the back made it real to him. He was a football player now. So that night before bed he slipped on the black jersey and, holding a football as he usually did, dozed off. He did the same thing the next night, and the night after that.
"He slept in his jersey three nights in a row. He wouldn't take it off," Green's mother, Sandy Kanardy, said of the jersey he still owns and displays today. "I had to sneak into his room in the middle of the night, wash it and then put it back on him so he didn't know."
Though barely old enough to read or ride a bicycle -- something his sister, Haley, taught him in the family's backyard -- Green was already well-versed in the art of football by the time he started playing. At age 2 Green and his father played games that required the toddler to catch 10 passes in a row with his hands -- use your body to haul in a grab and you went back to zero. It wasn't shades of Todd and Marv Marinovich, either; Green genuinely enjoyed the games and carried a football with him wherever he went, listening intently as his father taught him how to properly throw and how to tuck a ball away once he secured a catch.
"He was about 4 years old and his dad was outside teaching him how to throw a football and where to place his fingers," Kanardy said. "And it was so important to him, and he was so focused. I would walk around the house picking up footballs wondering where they all came from."
His parents let him make his own path, and it was easy for him to find football.
"It’s been since I was a little baby, I've loved football for a long time. And both my parents support me as much as possible and they let me do whatever I want within it," Green said. "So they've been telling me to go ahead and enjoy it, love it as much as possible while you get the chance to play it."
Green has been given the chance to play football, and he's done it exceptionally well. Now a junior wide receiver at Stevenson, he has caught 26 passes for 522 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns this season for a Patriots team that has won six straight games and is getting hot with the playoffs looming. His numbers would be even better if it weren't for Michigan State-bound Matt Morrissey (31 receptions, 599 yards, eight touchdowns) playing opposite him on offense, though quarterback Willie Bourbon has found a solid balance between the two to lead the Patriots offense.
"He runs good routes and he understands his body and he understands how to put himself in position to fend off the cornerback or the safety to put himself in position to catch the ball," said Mark Green, who started at running back on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team. "He’s very knowledgeable, he doesn't make mistakes on the field, he knows where he’s supposed to be, knows his assignments. But more than anything, I like his comments and the way he feels about (his) team and his teammates, and being able to help his teammates and being a leader."
His athletic prowess from an early age meant he was going to play up in age his entire career, starting when he pleaded with his parents as a 6-year-old to play in a Buffalo Grove league for 7-and-8-year-olds. He just couldn't wait. And as his father taught him the ins and outs of the game, he experienced time at just about every position on the field.
He began his football career as a running back -- just like his father -- but as the best player on his Buffalo Grove team moved to quarterback as a 4th and 5th grader. As he continued to grow he shifted to tight end in 6th grade before moving full-time to wide receiver as a 7th grader. He began his Stevenson career with a bang, grabbing seven touchdowns in his first four games on the freshman team. The coaching staff then moved him up (again) to the sophomore team, where he scored three touchdowns in his very first game -- at 13 years old. He even caught a touchdown pass in the Patriots' opening-round playoff win against York that year, shortly after his 14th birthday.
"I was a little kid out there, 14 years old trying to catch something against a 17- or 18-year-old player," Green said. "But I just went out there and played and it worked out."
Added his father: "He’s always played up, he’s always been the youngest kid on the team, and he never let it stop him. All of his friends are older than him...and he’s a very, very astute guy, he’s a good student, people love the kid. He’s got a very contagious personality, and this is way beyond football."
It's remarkable to consider that the 15-year-old Green, who won't receive his driver's license until next month, has accomplished so much at such a young age. His mother still harps on him about matching up his socks when he leaves the house. Sometimes he doesn't have time to open up a stack of recruiting letters because his homework isn't going to finish itself. Some of his favorite moments away from football are going out to eat with friends to talk about -- what else for a 15-year-old? -- sports. He's just a kid who happens to be 6-foot-3 and have a remarkable knack for catching and running with a football.
But alongside his incredible talent is a side of humility. It took him a while, but after running past everyone in grade school, middle school and early in high school, he's learning to move away from a sole focus of his individual accolades in place of his teams'. He caught 31 passes for 516 yards as a sophomore, but understands that as a junior his Patriots need more than just numbers from him, and he's giving that extra effort as one of the team's leaders.
"Sophomore year I was just worried about going out there and making plays," he said. "But this year I’m more of being a leader and trying to help my teammates make plays or even be vocal. So it’s tougher, but I’m more of a vocal player this year and I’m trying to help out my teammates as much as possible."
In showing true leadership, Green is combining that with natural skill to turn into a Division I talent. Collegiate coaches aren't allowed to call Green yet -- he has made calls and sent and received letters -- but a number of schools have already shown significant interest, including most Big Ten schools, Florida State, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Auburn, among others. He currently has two scholarship offers (Toledo and Illinois) and will have his choice of where to attend school when he ultimately makes his decision next year. Growing up in a house with a former NCAA national champion and NFL running back, Green watched on TV the same schools who currently are coveting him to suit up for them now.
"It’s really cool because you grow up looking at teams, watching them on TV saying, 'I want to be that guy,'" Green said, 'and then finally being able to say 'I can be that guy,' it’s a great experience to go through. It’s cool seeing schools wanting me to be at their school, and I’m honored to be in that position."
He can jump with the best of the athletes in the state -- he was moved up to the varsity basketball team last season, his mother's favorite sport to watch him play. He can run after the catch with 4.8 speed, and there's a chance he may wind up playing defensive back thanks to both his instincts and the way his father taught him about football schemes and fundamentals at an early age. But when asked what Green is looking for at the next level, education tops the list. And it's not a simple PR ploy; he means it.
"Football’s not forever, and I’m going to have to get a job after football and education is a big thing, especially what’s going around the United States right now. So that’s one thing that I may need to really amp up to make sure I have a life after football."
It's something both his parents have instilled in him, yet are always proud to hear him say: "I told him the other day, you’re in a position where somebody is willing to pay for your education to do something that you would do for free," his father said. "Education is so important. He understands that, and he’s been taught that his whole life."
Green said he's "blessed to say that those two are my parents" and that what continues to drive him most every day is that he'd like to one day wind up just like them.
His father has always been there to lend a critical yet helpful eye, and has already been through the recruiting process as an All-American from California. And for years his mother has driven him from practice to practice, game to game, sport to sport -- even karate and gymnastics -- and owns a shirt that reads: "Full-time taxi service for my kids." Cameron Green does plenty on his own and one day he'll suit up for a Division I program, but he's fully aware that he hasn't done it -- and couldn't do it -- on his own.
"They helped me out with everything, whether it was school, grades...or friend problems," Green said. "They've always had my back in anything I do, and I’m just very blessed to have them. I mostly use the advice that (they) gave to me, which was stay confident. They just told me to keep with it, never give up.
"So I kind of just played through everything, and here I am."
Here Cameron Green is, clean jersey and all.