He wore sunglasses when he ran.
He won six NCAA track titles in those shades during his college career at the University of Nebraska, a seven-time All-American who took home bronze and gold medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
The year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The year Bobby Kennedy was killed. The year race riots spread across the land.
Charlie Greene didn’t raise his fist on the medal podium, like U.S. teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who reached for the sky with black-gloved hands and bowed their heads in silent protest during the national anthem.
But he talked about it afterward, after the two black sprinters were sent home.
He’d heard people talking, he told The Associated Press that October. Fans asking: What’s wrong with those runners? Don’t they know how lucky they are to live in America?
“They said we’ve never had it so good,” Greene said then. “My reaction was to reply, ‘Why don’t you accept half freedom and see how you like it?’ But I just didn’t argue.”
It’s been 50 years now.
He talked to Smith last year, two old sprinters catching up. They talked about Colin Kaepernick and the NFL protest he started, taking a knee during the national anthem.
“I said someone should tell Kaepernick it will be 50 years before people realize what he was saying,” Greene says. “The public display by Tommie and John was to bring to attention that America was lying. Lying about how they treated their own citizens.”
And then he says this: “Every generation of African-Americans have a part to play on the shoulders of the ancestors we stand on.”
Once the world’s fastest man, he’s slowly getting stronger after a kidney failed — the donor kidney he got eight years ago, his own worn out from years of diabetes and high blood pressure.
He’s wearing gray sweatpants and a gray sweatshirt; a Husker stocking cap and a Husker scarf around his neck.
He’s wearing black-framed glasses, like the young man in the black-and-white photo from his freshman year at NU. Same thick frames. Same clear-eyed look.
Barrels of ink have run dry covering the life and times of Charlie Greene. The kid who grew up in Seattle was “born fast” in Arkansas and came to Lincoln on a track scholarship.
An improbable choice, but his high school coach hailed from David City and convinced Greene’s mom that Nebraska would be a good fit.
“I grew up in the day when your mother said something, you didn’t have a lot of choice,” Greene says.
Greene is 73. Glad he came here. Happy to call Lincoln his home.
The best thing he got from being a Husker: “A college degree.”
After college and the Olympics, after he married Linda — a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter he met in Mexico City — Greene left Lincoln for a 20-year career in the Army.
He rose to the rank of major. He lived in Korea and West Berlin. He served part of his career in the military’s equal opportunity and race relations program.
He became an executive for Special Olympics in Washington, D.C. Then he came home to UNL and worked in student affairs, the discipline guy, striving to be fair.
He and Linda had raised two daughters by then, Mercedes and Sybil.
Better than a gold medal.
“Both of them are college-educated, both of them have good jobs with the federal government. Both of them own their own homes; that’s the American dream, isn’t it? Own your own little piece of the rock.”
His proudest accomplishments, he says. “Along with their mother.”
Greene finds a red folder. Old clippings of other accomplishments, gathered by a friend. His place on the list of top 150 Nebraskans, praised as an inaugural member of the Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame, the guy who tied the world record in the 100 meters three times.
No. 131 on the list of 150, he says. Not bad.
He takes out a copy of a story from Jet magazine, newsstand price 20 cents. The sprinter in his sunglasses, muscles gleaming. “World’s Fastest Human,” the cover says. “‘Shades Digs Girls, Jazz and Hard Rock Music.”
His Olympic bronze medal in ‘68 came in the 100; his gold in the 4×100 relay.
His best time in the 100-yard dash was a world record-tying blur: 9.1 seconds. “That and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee,” he says.
It will also get you a place in history.
“Here’s a guy who was a world-class sprinter and he’s at the University of Nebraska,” said Mike Babcock, the Hail Varsity editor who attended NU during part of Greene’s college career. “This is a big deal, this gives Nebraska track and field credibility.”
He remembers Greene’s sunglasses, the shades he called heat shields. He remembers that Greene belonged to Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity. That his big brother there was Bob Brown, the Husker who would go on to NFL fame.
The 6-foot-4 lineman and the 5-8 sprinter. Years later, Babcock would interview both of them, focused and successful men outside the realm of sports.
Greene was an amazing athlete, said Chris Anderson, an associate athletic director for community, governmental and charitable relations. An even better man.
Anderson met Greene in 1984 when she was a sports information department student assistant working track meets. Greene was a buddy of her boss, Don Bryant, and he’d invite her to his office: Come talk to the fastest man in the world!
She did. The brash runner was long gone, replaced by a storyteller and good listener, always willing to meet with athletes and letterwinners and staff.
“He touched so many hearts and souls and lives,” Anderson said. “He just is the perfect gentleman, always with a big Husker heart.”
Greene volunteered in NU’s Life Skills program. He motivated the Husker volleyball team. He befriended football players. He volunteered with the track team at Lincoln Northeast, trained kids from Lincoln High. He traveled the world, lending a hand to help athletes move their feet.
“He coached from Day One,” Linda says. “Charlie was always engaged with kids.”
Greene remembers one kid, a black teenager from a poor family, a football player who went on to play in college. Quicker from Greene’s training.
I owe you, Coach, the young man said. I owe you for helping me.
You don’t owe me, Greene answered.
“I told him, ‘You gotta do the same thing for someone else.’ That was my way of giving back.”
The world’s fastest man is looking ahead now, looking for ways to stay relevant in the world.
He’s working hard in physical therapy. He’s on limited dialysis and he won’t get a new kidney.
He looks out from those black-framed glasses, a mirror of the kid born fast.
“Let’s title this story once upon a time,” he says. “Once upon a time. Slow.”
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