Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Evan Markfield
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
he rookie's reputation was cemented on a makeshift basketball court.
Which was appropriate, since Dominique Green isn't a basketball player at all, but a true freshman strong safety who found himself going from walk-on to starter over the course of the summer. And it was during that offseason—in one of the Tar Heels' so-called "summer challenges"—that Green first wowed his teammates with his athleticism.
On the ad hoc court, set up for the players in the Rams Head gym on campus, the main event was supposed to be a 3-point shooting contest. But after that was settled, an impromptu dunk contest broke out. Guys who you'd expect to throw down did just that—6-foot-6 defensive end Kareem Martin, 6-3 linebacker Darius Lipford.
Suddenly, the 5-foot-11 Green stepped up, threw himself a high-arcing lob off the hardwood, caught the ball and cocked it back behind his head before throwing down a spring-loaded dunk.
"Guys were just like, ‘What?!' We knew he would help us on the football field," senior free safety Tre Boston says. "When you're a player, guys have an eye for talent. We knew he could help us."
It sounds a little silly to think that a casual dunk contest could lead to the full faith of Green's football teammates, but it did. It showed them that his strong spring performance wasn't a fluke. It showed them he was fearless. Proving he was an exceptional athlete didn't hurt either.
That faith—and that of UNC's coaches—has been rewarded by Green's growth on the field.
"I think I showed the coaches I was someone they could lean on," he says. "I didn't want them to second-guess themselves. I wanted to show I was ready and willing to do whatever it takes to play a part on this team. I was out there competing."
A starter since the season began, Green's progress has mirrored that of UNC's defense and it showed signs of life in the heartbreaking Thursday night loss to Miami—in no small part because Green had seven tackles and two interceptions.
"The kid, he has a knack," head coach Larry Fedora says. "He steps up and makes plays for us."
"The kid, he has a knack. He steps up and makes plays for us."
In a secondary dominated by veterans, Green has gone from being unknown to blending in seamlessly, giving people a glimpse of what UNC's future back there might look like.
"Dominique has come a long way, and it's crazy because he's come a long way so fast," Boston says. "I've been here four years, and he's probably learned the position and played well faster than anyone I've seen do it. It's amazing that he even came in as a walk-on."
Yet he did.
Green had scholarship offers from Cincinnati and Texas Tech, as well as several schools in the Football Championship Subdivision, and those closest to him knew it was his dream to get a Division I scholarship.
So you could imagine their surprise when he decided he was turning them all down to walk on at Carolina. And nobody—not his mother, not the grandparents who raised him—was more shocked than his mentor, James McLean, who works and coaches football at Carver Middle School, in Green's hometown of Laurinburg.
Green called him on the way to the airport in Cincinnati after his visit with the Bearcats. He told McLean he wanted to be close to home and he had decided not to take the free ride but instead try to walk on somewhere in North Carolina.
"I was shocked," McLean says. "I'll never forget that. I was at home, and when I got off the phone, I turned to my wife and said, ‘That boy done lost his mind.' That's Dominique though. Once he made his mind up, that's what he wanted to do. I was absolutely, positively shocked."
McLean calmed down some when he had time to consider Green's line of reasoning.
"I'm so close to my family and my city," Green says. "I wanted people from my city to come see me if they could, and my family for sure."
Green's grandmother, Vicky, wasn't going to get on a plane, even though his grandfather, Thomas, might. And it wasn't just about them. His mother, his extended family, his friends—he wanted them all to be able to come see him play college football, to share in his experience.
"That's Dominique in a nutshell," McLean says. "He was more concerned about his grandmother and grandfather than he was about himself. He said, ‘If it's meant to be, it's meant to be.' He turned out to be a little prophet."
And it didn't take very long to find that out.
After failing to qualify academically out of Scotland High School, Green spent a semester at Hargrave Military Academy. From there, he chose the Tar Heels over a similar preferred walk-on offer at N.C. State. So in January, he was enrolled and getting to know his new teammates without having to wait for the following fall to roll around.
By the spring game he was already making impressive plays—like an interception on the 2-yard line—while working through some freshman mistakes, like not realizing that by making that interception on a fourth-and-long throw, he'd have been better off batting it down.
But defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was in his corner and constantly impressed by what the rookie could do. One day after practice, Koenning called him over and told him to make sure he went to Fedora's office some time the next day. Green nodded in affirmation.
Waiting a beat, Koenning added, "You have to sign the papers for your scholarship."
"At first I didn't catch it," Green says, "and then I was like, ‘Did he just say what I thought he said?' And Kareem Martin was just sitting there with a big smile on his face. Then I walked to the locker room just steady smiling. I couldn't stop smiling. I felt the whole day after like I was on top of the world. That showed that coach believed in me a lot."
"I couldn't stop smiling."
Green went back to his dorm and called his grandparents to share the good news, finding an audience larger than he expected.
"Everybody was at the house," he says. "They were celebrating, yelling on the phone. I at least talked to half the family. It felt good."
And just like that, before he had even played a game of his freshman season, Green had the best of both worlds—he was playing less than a two-hour drive from his hometown of 15,000 and he was doing it on scholarship.
"It's wonderful," McLean says. "Dominique Green is one of the nicest kids I've ever had the opportunity to work with. He's one of the most focused kids I've ever seen. He works hard in the classroom, he works hard on the field. At Carolina, I think he thought he was going to be on the outside looking in. He went with the intention of working towards a scholarship, but I don't believe that he believed initially that he'd get that shot. But he went there with a mindset that if it was possible to get a scholarship, he was going to get it. So it's great to see him succeed. There's nothing fake about him. What you see is who he is, and that's how he's been as long as I've known him, and that's what endears him to us."
The love that the people of Laurinburg have for Green is unequivocally a mutual feeling.
His teammates sometimes jokingly give him a hard time about how much he talks about home and going home and people from home. But when Green starts thinking about Laurinburg, he's dead serious.
"My city's small, and a lot of people don't make it out," he says. "And some make it out and don't look back. But I love my city to death, so that pushes me, too. Being here, I can be close and show them that they can make it."
He cites the influence of pro linebacker and Laurinburg native Terrell Manning—"Even though he went to State, he helped me out," Green says with a chuckle—who made himself a fixture around Scotland County High School's football program even after leaving home for Raleigh and then the NFL.
"By coming back, he was saying, ‘I love y'all. And I've still got faith in y'all. And y'all can make it out.' Terrell played a big role. He was like a big brother."
Green envisions himself playing a similar role for those who are growing up in his hometown now and in the future.
When he comes home to visit, he's the first one in the weight room for McLean's mentoring program, showing kids proper technique, telling them about his experience going to Hargrave and fighting for everything he's earned to this point. McLean says that when Green comes to visit Carver Middle School, "it's almost like we brought in President Obama."
"He comes out and tells his story and encourages the kids," McLean says. "It's one thing when I tell them. But when a 19-year-old is telling you the same thing, it means a lot."
And it's not just some role model song-and-dance, in which the college future star tells the middle-schoolers to study hard and take their vitamins. Green pretty much lives what he preaches every day.
Boston calls him a "homebody," noting that Green has no interest in the night life around Chapel Hill and prefers instead to just relax with some music pumping in his headphones. McLean remembers getting a call from Green during the spring and asking the freshman what Franklin Street was like.
Green was stumped.
"And I said, ‘Green, there's no way you've been in Chapel Hill for two months and you have not been on Franklin Street.'" McLean recalls. "He knew how to get to the classroom, he knew how to get to the film room, he knew how to get to the meeting room, he knew how to get to the weight room. But he didn't get out—he was trying to get that opportunity to get on the football field. You're so proud to see a kid who comes from the spot he was at and worked so hard to accomplish the things he has. And he's only a freshman. I forget that sometimes."
His teammates and coaches forget it sometimes, too.
The players will treat him like a veteran because he's so mature and then have to remind themselves to take it easy on him because he's actually still pretty new at this on the college level.
Coaches will unconsciously expect big things from him, like one of his first times in the weight room, when he ended up with 405 pounds on his back, willing every muscle in his body to not just flat give out on him while veterans Boston, Darien Rankin and Kameron Jackson looked on, shaking their heads.
"And he's only a freshman. I forget that sometimes."
But they wouldn't be shaking their heads for long.
After not being part of an organized lifting program at Hargrave, Green got his legs under him in Carolina's weight room. He showed flashes of his football ability during spring practice. And then, of course, there was that dunk—a minor moment, sure, but in sort of the same way that an exclamation point doesn't take up a whole lot of room in a sentence.
It announced his presence on the scene. It made his teammates take note.
It's why it's easy for them to forget that right now, still being just a freshman, Green is mostly likely not yet done surprising them with "Wow!" moments like that one.
"For years to come, I know he's going to be a great player," Boston says. "I think he's going to do something special here at this university, and it's crazy because maybe a year ago nobody knew about this guy."