To hear Nicholas Greene talk about his life, you’d swear you were listening to a professional motivational speaker.
In his short 17 years on this planet, he already has had to face physical and emotional obstacles that would bring even the strongest soul to its knees.
Not only has he lost much of his central vision due to a rare genetic disease of the retina, but he also lost his father, John Alton Allen, last year in a tragic shooting on Wright Street in North Rome after he’d struggle with drug abuse and the law over the years.
“There was a saying that Coach Groves said this past game. He said ‘The next down is always the most important.’ And I was just thinking to myself that I can relate the ‘d’ line to my life, to my disability and everything I’ve gone through and what I do,” Nick said Saturday as he gathered with his mother Nicole Greene, little brother Jayden and his teacher for the visually impaired, Dawn Wright, to share his story in the hopes of inspiring others.
“So my life is like a 300-pound dude standing in front of me, keeping me from getting to that running back or that quarterback and that running back or quarterback is the peak of my life, right? What’s in front of me is my disability, the criticism, you know — my body type, how I feel small and everything negative in front of me. And you either get to that quarterback or you just try harder the next time. The next down is the most important.”
Six years ago, when he was only 11 or 12, he began noticing changes in his vision.
“I was at recess and I had a really bad headache and like the color of my vision turned like red a little bit and I thought it was because my head was hurting so bad. It was bright outside,” Greene recalled from 2013. “So I went to the coach and I told him I have a headache and asked if I could go to the clinic. When I went to sign in at the clinic, I couldn’t because I didn’t know what it said. When I read the eye chart, I could only see the first ‘E,’ the biggest one on top. Before that, I always had my nose up close in a book, but I never thought there was anything wrong with that.”
Nick said the incident didn’t hit him as hard as people would think. But when he was later diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a form of macular degeneration that is more common in young people than adults, his mother went into denial.
Although blindness and visual impairments run in her family, Nicole said she was blindsided by the realization that her oldest boy ended up with an impairment that affects only one out of every 10,000 people worldwide.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I was a single parent and we had just moved to Iowa and I didn’t know anyone and I’d never heard of Stargardt. My vision was fine. I wanted a second opinion, but they told me the same thing. Nick, though, he just took it and ran with it. He went home and played video games and continued to be Nicholas.”
It wasn’t until other children began teasing him in middle school without relief that his condition started to get the best of him. Like his father, he began striking back at those who angered him, his mother said.
There was one bully, in particular, Nick went after in the school hallway, punching him “30 times here and 30 times there” during what Nick could only describe as a “blackout” situation.
“I didn’t even remember most of it,” Nick said of his breaking point.
But his teacher, Dawn, has vivid memories of this event that helped her finally realize they had more in common than she’d thought.
“I’d grown up in an abusive home and so I understood where he was coming from,” she said, adding that although Nick had been in and out of school detention, she hadn’t yet grasped the deep emotional injuries that had sparked his outbursts.
Nick’s mother said Dawn has become much more than “just a teacher” in Nick’s life.
“She’s been a godsend,” Nicole said, adding Nick was able to lean on her even more when Nick’s father died suddenly. “She’s family.”
John Allen Jr., or “Man,” was fatally shot in June of last year in front of his own home by Grady Harper Jr. after Allen had struck Harper’s younger brother Jamal, knocking him into a ditch. Allen, a 36-year-old convicted felon who had had a confrontation with the younger Harper the previous evening, had been shot multiple times. Harper was found guilty on the murder charge in March of this year.
Nick said that although he always loved his father — who also played football for Rome High — and always will, he did notice a significant change in his behavior in the months leading up to his death.
“We used to listen to music and play Xbox and, you know, wrestle and everything like that, but things got worse,” Nick said as his mother’s eyes began to water. “If you stay in that lifestyle, things never get better. You can only do that for so long. When he started doing the drugs he was selling, it started affecting how he acted toward me. He became a lot more aggressive and a lot more adamant about what he wanted. And if he was wrong, he was right.”
After his death, grief had so enveloped Nicole, she became paralyzed in her ability to help Nick and his baby brother Jayden.
“It shook the mess out of me and I didn’t know how to process it,” Nicole said. “And Nicholas being like he was, he just withdrew. He doesn’t want to put his issues on everyone else around him.”
After Nick made it through the summer of his father’s death without the outlet provided by football, he seemed to make up for it once the season started again, Nicole said.
And he hasn’t stopped since. His efforts were even noticed by RHS Head Coach John Reid.
“He’s improved his skills, improved his strength in the weight room. He’s kind of an inspiration to the kids ‘cause he kind of has a lighthearted approach. He’ll joke around, but the kids know how much of a struggle it is for him,” Reid said after Wednesday’s practice. “We found a place where he can play and be of value and he’s already played a bunch of downs on varsity football. I don’t imagine too many kids in the state of Georgia have done that with as poor of eyesight. He’s earned their respect because he comes out here and works hard every day.”
Nick said that although he used to struggle with going after the wrong player if both teams were wearing the same colors, he’s learned to adjust the way he views the field, keeping his eyes up to the left so he can use his peripheral vision to see the other players better.
He also has made good use of his other senses being slightly magnified, which includes being able to read his opponents’ body language before the football is even in play.
The greatest adjustment the 6-foot, 215-pound defensive lineman made, however, has been the way he views his own life. Not only has he improved his game, but he’s getting all A’s and B’s in his classes now.
“I look at it as levels,” he said. “Everyone goes through changes in their lives. You’re not the same person tomorrow you were yesterday. Seeing everybody looking up to me now, seeing what I can do on the field and being able to impact the morale of my team, I love those feelings and it’s even better when you have a disability because you know you had to work even harder to get where you are.”