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Jarvis Green: NFL Defensive End Turned Shrimp Entrepreneur10:15
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When Jarvis Green retired from the NFL at 31, he still had more to prove to himself. What, exactly? "That I could build a business from nothing," he says. (Dilip Vishwanat/Sporting News via Getty Images)
When Jarvis Green retired from the NFL at 31, he still had more to prove to himself. What, exactly? "That I could build a business from nothing," he says. (Dilip Vishwanat/Sporting News via Getty Images)

The first thing Jarvis Green wants to know, as we sit across the table from each other in the faculty cafeteria at Babson College, is which of the many nearby schools-that-start-with-the-letter-B houses my radio station.

“Oh, Boston University?” He says. “I’m trying to do something with Boston University.”

The next thing I know, we’re talking about Green’s plans to sell pre-cooked shrimp to college students with “value added sauce packets” so they “can’t mess it up.”

And if those aren’t phrases you’d expect to hear from a former defensive end, you’re not alone.

"I used to play football in the NFL. Won my two Super Bowls. I never thought I’d be doing this, you know. Learning price points. Understanding what it costs to get a shrimp out of the water."

Jarvis Green isn’t in the shrimp business because he needs the money. Sure, he could use more – he says we all could.

Jarvis Green is in the shrimp business because … well, let’s start at the beginning.

Lessons On (Not) Quitting

"The day they read my eulogy, they're gonna say, 'Oh yeah, I forgot. He played professional football as well,'" Jarvis Green says. (Nick Laham/Getty Images)
"The day they read my eulogy, they're gonna say, 'Oh yeah, I forgot. He played professional football as well,'" Jarvis Green says. (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Unlike most NFL players, Jarvis Green didn’t start playing football until the seventh grade.

"I wasn’t a kid that said I was gonna be an NFL player. Never played little league football, Pop Warner, whatever you want to call it. I was small, man, I was – seventh grade, I was probably 5’7”. I had no muscle on me. Just all bones…and skin."

On the first day of practice, the coach told Green to tackle his older cousin, who was twice his size. The hit was so hard that Green’s helmet spun around on his head. He found himself looking out through the ear piece.

"I’m like, this can’t be for real. He knocked the bejesus out of me. Coach said, 'Hey, Green. Stop being a punk. Go up there and do it again.' Did it. Almost swallowed my mouthpiece the second time. Looked around, took my helmet out and said, 'I quit.' Great ole coach Rabbaly, rest his soul, he passed away a few years ago. He followed me, was behind me, like, screaming at me. And then he said, 'Hey, what if I call your mom and your dad and your brothers?' They were all playing college football—my brothers. 'What if I call them and say you quit? You was a quitter?' Oh man. My older brothers were my heroes. I don’t want them to hear this. I put my helmet on, went back out there. That was the last time I quit anything."

Green didn’t quit when his parents got divorced and he had to work to help his mom pay the electric bill. (He says for weeks at a time they were taking cold showers and walking around by candlelight.)

He didn’t quit when he was sidelined by a serious back injury while playing football at LSU.

And he didn’t quit when his academic load got tough.

"I hated being labeled just the football player. That always burned me, always. 'Oh, you’re just a jock.' 'I’m not. I go to class like you.' I went and picked a hard major. So I went to school for construction management engineering. And everybody says, 'Oh, you’re going to change that five, six times.' I said, 'No I’m not. I’m going to graduate as an engineer, as a student — engineering.'"

In between studying for those engineering classes and attending practices and workouts, Green did something else that was pretty unusual for a football player. The thing is, while growing up in Louisiana, he had watched his mom and his grandma and his aunties in the kitchen. And, when his teammates got hungry in the off-season – when the university wasn’t allowed to feed them – he’d cook up huge stockpots filled with spaghetti and red beans, potato stew, shrimp stew, and jambalaya.

"I had an open door policy. I said, 'Make sure you shut the door. Don’t lock it. When you eat, whatever bowl, plate you use, clean it.' And then when I come home, whatever we got left, I put in the ‘frigerator."

"So you weren’t even there. It wasn’t like everybody’s hanging out?" I ask.

"Right. Open the door. Boom."

"My first two years, I thought I was going to get cut every day. Every single day. I had to have a plan B, C, D."

'I Had Something To Prove To Myself'

Green got his Engineering degree from LSU and was a 4th round draft pick in 2002. He joined the New England Patriots, and he made plenty of money, but he always had a job or two…or three…on the side.

"My first two years, I thought I was going to get cut every day. Every single day. I had to have a plan B, C, D. I worked on my days off during the season at Rolls-Royce. People thought I was crazy. They say, 'Hey, man. Concentrate. You're here. This is what you’re doing.' I understand. But I retired when I was 31. I was a kid. I have something to prove to myself."

"What did you have to prove to yourself?" I ask him.

"That I could build a business from nothing."

"Could you not have picked something easier?"

"I could have."

When he retired from football in 2009, Green was not lacking in opportunities. ESPN invited him to Bristol, Connecticut for a boot camp to test his skills as a football commentator.

"I said, 'I don’t want to do that.' It was the same thing. Got the old violin, you’re playing the violin. Put me to sleep. Just didn’t want to do it. Opportunities as a coach. Start off low level, earn it. 'No, I don’t want to do that, man. I’m done with football.' 'Whatcha want to do?' 'I want to go against the grain.'”

Returning A Favor, Starting A Business  

So that brings us back to how a defensive end ended up in the shrimp business. And let’s get one thing out of the way right now. Green knows the baggage that comes with being a black man from the south who chooses to sell shrimp for a living.

Just in case you didn’t see the movie that won the 1995 Oscar for Best Picture, Forrest Gump, played by Tom Hanks, enlists in the Army where he meets Benjamin Buford Blue, a.k.a. Bubba. And Bubba really likes shrimp.

Forrest and Bubba make a plan to go into the shrimp business together. But they’re ambushed in the jungle in Vietnam. Bubba tells Forrest to run, Forrest, run. And by the time Forrest comes back, it’s too late to save Bubba.

After the war, Forrest buys a shrimp boat. And, as with everything else he does, he’s pretty successful.

"My little thing is, 'Don’t call me Bubba.'" Green says. "People laugh, 'Ha ha ha.' Oh, I’m a black guy? Bubba? No, Bubba died. Guess who owed the favor to him? Tom Hanks. That’s me. Owed somebody a favor. That’s how I got into the shrimp business."

Green says he can’t really get into that favor. He’ll only say that he owed it to an old family friend – a Vietnamese man with a connection to a large Vietnamese shrimp co-op that needed some help.

I say, 'Doing what?' 'Selling shrimp.' I say, 'OK, I know what shrimp taste like.' I say, 'Man, I don’t know anything about shrimp, though. I don’t want to sell in Louisiana. People sell shrimp on the side of the road.' 'No, want you to go back to Boston, where you play ball at.' I say, 'Oh, good idea.' Went home, told my kids’ mom, 'Hey, somebody wants me to help with the shrimp business.' And the first thing she said, 'Oh, think you’re Bubba Gump?' She just laughed, laughed.

You probably know by now that it’s going to take a little more than that to make Jarvis Green quit at something.

Step 1: Learn Everything There Is To Know About Shrimp

"I started doing it. Worked for free for six months. When I started, they gave me a broom and a mop. And I started cleaning out, you know, bathrooms, kitchens, the plant. And just learned, went down the line, peeled shrimp, deveined shrimp, dehead shrimp, I’ve been on my share of the shrimp boats. I just wanted to experience it, so I could tell somebody if something went wrong, I could tell ‘em why it went wrong in the supply chain."

As part of his sales pitch, Green gives cooking demonstrations, using everything his mother taught him and all the skills he perfected cooking for his teammates at LSU. But when he first started out, he didn’t tell prospective clients that he had played football at LSU…or anywhere else.

"Ten years from now, I’m gonna be selling shrimp. I love it. And when I start talking about it, the hair on the back of my neck stand up."

"I never said who I was. My name was Mr. Green. 'I sell wild-caught Gulf domestic shrimp.' I had my meeting with Stop & Shop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Same thing: 'Hi, I’m Jarvis Green. Trying to sell some wild-caught Gulf shrimp.' And I’m sitting down and talking to people, and they say, 'Man, you’re a big guy.' They say, 'You ever play sports before?' I say, 'Yeah.' They say, 'For who?' 'Ahhh… I played up in the Boston area.' 'For who? BC? Boston College?' I say, 'No, the Patriots.' He says, 'What? Why didn’t you say that in the beginning?' I say, 'I was trying to sell the shrimp, the product, not me!'"

In 2015, Green started Oceans 97 – his own company. Now he’s knocking on the back doors of restaurants and meeting with universities for a business he built...from scratch. He says he’s not the biggest seafood company out there, which is fine. He doesn’t want to rule the world, he just wants a small piece.

"The day they read my eulogy, they're gonna say, 'Oh yeah, I forgot. He played professional football as well.' Ten years from now, I’m gonna be selling shrimp. I love it. And when I start talking about it, the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I start shaking. And I remember somebody saying, 'Man, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.'”

This segment aired on October 29, 2016.

Karen Given Twitter Senior Producer, Only A Game
Karen is the senior producer for WBUR's Only A Game.

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