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Super Bowl 2021: LI's Mike Greenberg has made his mark in Bucs' front office

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Director of Football Operations Mike

Ask just about anybody who is most responsible for the Buccaneers playing in Super Bowl LV on Sunday and they’ll probably say "Tom Brady." But ask people in the Bucs’ front office and you might get a very different answer.

Sure, they’ll concede that Brady’s play and his mere presence at quarterback has been franchise-altering. And yes, they’ll point to other players and coaches and give them their props, too. But eventually they’ll tell you about a 35-year-old from Long Island who has been with the organization longer than just about anyone else, who has cunningly survived a decade of losing seasons and risen through the ranks to become the man with the keys to nearly every aspect of the franchise.

"He’s unbelievable," coach Bruce Arians said. "If there is any type of question about anything, he has the answer. It’s absolutely amazing. He is tireless and on the phone 20 out of 24 hours a day. He’s invaluable to this organization."

Every good team has one of these cogs, the brilliant, behind-the-scenes guy who makes the gears churn and the wins possible but whose name you’ve probably never heard.

Only in this case, the name is actually well recognized. Just not regarding him.

He’s Mike Greenberg. Not the ubiquitous ESPN daytime programming presence but the former three-sport athlete at Bellmore JFK High School and graduate of Cornell and Hofstra Law School who is the current director of football administration for the Buccaneers. And every decision the Buccaneers have made to get to this point, to get within a win of a Lombardi Trophy, has crossed his desk in some form or another.

“Mike Greenberg is one of the first people you would want to build a team with if you need a general manager.”

Dave Gardi, the NFL’s senior vice president of football operations

That goes from physically writing the contract that Brady signed to join the team last spring — and figuring out an unorthodox way of getting signatures on the document from a thousand miles away in the earliest stages of the pandemic — right down to the types of seeds that are planted on the practice fields and at Raymond James Stadium.

"I‘ve learned a lot about the different types of grass and fields, more than I ever thought I would learn," Greenberg laughed.

His main job, though, is compliance with the league’s collective bargaining agreement and the team’s salary cap.

"I always was drawn to the salary cap," Greenberg told Newsday. "I’ve always been a numbers person. It’s interesting how they make the whole puzzle fit and I was kind of drawn to it."

The team that nudged him in that direction wasn’t even a football franchise. It was the Yankees. Greenberg grew up a huge Mets fan and in the late 1990s that made him a helpless but disgusted up-close observer to the four World Series titles the Yankees won over five years . . . one of them against his beloveds.

"I watched the Yankees for years just dominate with a huge payroll and to me that always felt kind of wrong," he said. "I realized the difference between that and football is everyone is kind of on an equal playing field in football. You have to really think things through. There is a lot of strategy in where you are allocating your resources. That really intrigued me as a numbers person and a sports person."

His parents, Linda and Richie Greenberg, who still live in Bellmore, remember that kind of thinking from him at a young age.

"No one could beat this kid at Connect Four," Linda said. "You know the game where you have to figure out the next move? No one could beat him. To this day."

"He was always very smart, very analytical," Richie added.

He was even a Newsday Scholar-Athlete in 2003. He was inducted into the Bellmore JFK Athletic Hall of Fame in 2017 (mostly for his work with the Buccaneers and not his exploits as a 5-5 point guard with what his coach, Rory Block, lovingly said were "no basketball skills at all" but "heart and tenacity" that kept him on the court).

Now he’s on the verge of a Super Bowl, and possibly so much more. As the Bucs have improved, so, too has Greenberg’s profile. He’s still the second most recognizable Mike Greenberg in sports, but he sometimes uses that to his advantage. When he calls agents he always gets through because they think they might be getting an interview on ESPN for their client rather than what he usually has to offer, a practice squad tryout or a one-year minimum-salary deal.

There are plenty who believe Greenberg will soon eclipse his broadcasting namesake in terms of leaguewide relevance and import. They are actually astonished it has not happened already.

"The NFL is beyond foolish that this guy is not a GM," former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who gave Greenberg his first front-office internship with the Jets in 2008, told Newsday. "They go through these searches and people think they are being thorough, but they’re not because there are untold stories like Mike Greenberg’s. The day he walks into a franchise he is going to make everyone in that building better, happier, smarter. It’s an absolute no-brainer that he will be a wildly successful general manager."

For Sunday, though, he’ll remain hidden in plain sight, literally standing on the sideline during the game, watching the team he helped assemble play for the ultimate goal in the sport. His mom and dad, his sister and his brother, and his wife, Ilana (also a Bellmore JFK grad), and their kids, will be in the stands. They were by his side for all those losing seasons, there is no way they would miss this.

"Thrilling," Greenberg said of how he expects Sunday to feel. "I’ve seen the organization and how much time and effort everyone puts into it. Just watching over the years how hard everyone has worked and how disappointed everyone is when the season doesn’t end the way we want, and now watching it all come together, to me that’s the special part."

As the guy who helped bring it together, it should be.

A MOVING STORY

Like many great Super Bowl stories, Greenberg’s starts with a move. Not a roster move like a free-agent signing or a trade, though. In this case it’s an actual move.

Tannenbaum, then the general manager for the Jets, was changing Long Island addresses in 2008 shortly after his promotion from assistant general manager to the big chair. He spent a long day at work, as he recalls, and came home late to ask his wife, Michelle, how things had gone with the moving company they’d hired.

Pretty good, he soon learned. Michelle had spent the day with Richie and Linda Greenberg from Charles Wood & Son Moving in Bohemia. They had a wonderful time bonding over boxes and chatting over china closets. And at the end of that first day-long encounter, the Greenbergs did something they felt a bit queasy about. They told Michelle their son, Mike, was a first-year student at Hofstra Law School who had aspirations of working in an NFL front office one day himself. Would it be OK if their Mike reached out to Michelle’s Mike?

"We’re not like that," Linda Greenberg insisted, "but when it comes to your kids, you become pushy."

Michelle Tannenbaum was more than happy to set it up.

"It was non-negotiable for me to stay in my house if I wasn’t going to meet with Mike Greenberg based not on what my wife said but how she said it," Mike Tannenbaum said. "Like: ‘These are the nicest people we have ever met and you WILL meet with their son.’ I was like: ‘Yes ma’am. Right away.’ Even if I didn’t want to meet with Mike Greenberg, if I wanted to stay married, I was going to have to do it."

He added: "There are three people who are responsible for Mike Greenberg being in the NFL: Michelle Tannenbaum, Michelle Tannenbaum and Michelle Tannenbaum."

That conversation led to Greenberg being offered an internship with the Jets in the summer of 2008. It was a transformative year for the franchise. That’s right, before he was part of the front office that acquired Tom Brady, Greenberg’s NFL career began as part of the front office that acquired Brett Favre.

"I was a little bit more in the background on the Brett Favre stuff," Greenberg laughed. "They didn’t really care that much about what I had to say at the time."

After that he interned in the NFL’s offices in Manhattan during the academic year, and in 2009 he was back with the Jets as a full-year intern. By then there was another move — the Jets had ditched Hofstra for new digs in Florham Park — so Greenberg spent half of each week working for them there, staying with an uncle in Short Hills, New Jersey, and the other half back home on Long Island finishing his final year at Hofstra Law. Oh, he also was the research editor for the Hofstra Law Review.

Greenberg wasn’t just getting coffee for his bosses . . . although that was part of his morning routine with Tannenbaum. He was learning the business of football the only way it can really be mastered, from the inside. Working under Tannenbaum, Jackie Davidson and Ari Nissim, he received an education on how the machinery that had always fascinated him actually worked.

"The challenging part about this industry is that it’s hard to really learn a lot about the cap and how it works until you are kind of in it," Greenberg said. "I always recommend to people that the best way to get your foot in the door is internships because you can learn, and that’s what my experience with the Jets taught me. That kind of information wasn’t available in a college course."

Greenberg was a hit with the Jets.

"Mike was always a guy who, everything he did, he exceeded expectations and did it with a smile on his face," Tannenbaum said. "He was a guy who got more and more responsibility. If we asked him to do two or three things, he would do five or six things. He would come back with suggestions, ideas . . . Some people are smart, some people are problem-solvers, some people just give you energy. I don’t know why or how, but this guy can really just check every box. He just makes your organization better by having him there every day."

What he wasn’t was an immediate fit with the Jets. They already had plenty of cap people — Tannenbaum chief among them — and Greenberg said he knew if he wanted a full-time job he would have to change organizations. He sent resumes around the league and Tampa Bay’s general manager at the time, Mark Dominik, offered him a job as a player personnel assistant.

"I took the bar exam and two days later moved to Tampa and have been here for 11 years now," Greenberg said. "It worked out."

Greenberg has been gone for more than a decade, but he still has a strong legacy with the Jets. It was his recommendation for Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht to hire Davidson as his director of football research this past year after her 11 seasons in New York.

"Mike Greenberg had always spoken so highly of her and her intelligence," Licht said. "He said that she was the smartest person that he’s ever worked with back in New York when they were together."

They joke now that while they have always been NFL colleagues, in their only two seasons of actually working together on the same team Greenberg and Davidson have gone to an AFC Championship Game with the Jets in 2009 and now a Super Bowl with the Bucs in 2020. Many believe Davidson could become the first female general manager in the NFL one day.

As for Greenberg, Tannenbaum calls him "the second-best intern in the history of the New York Jets."

Who was the best?

"Some guy named Roger Goodell."

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: BRADY

Speaking of bests, there was a quarterback Greenberg was in charge of landing about a year ago. It was a pursuit that began before anyone even knew it would be possible, when Arians was asked at the Combine last February for an example of a free-agent quarterback he might be interested in signing.

"Tom Brady," he blurted out, receiving a stern stare from the tampering police.

No one even knew at the time what Brady’s plans were going to be. Would he remain in New England, where he had played for 20 years and won six Super Bowls? Retire at age 42? It was a pipe dream.

"You can’t hit a home run unless you are going to swing for one," Arians said last week of his vocalized desire to sign Brady. "You can’t do anything special in life sitting on a fence. The question back then was if there was a quarterback who was a free agent who would you want and yeah, of course it was Tom Brady, not even thinking he would become a free agent. But once he did, it was a pursuit that we wanted to make and we knew he had some interest. But that’s how you live life. I dunno. Do you sit and live in a closet and try to be safe or do you go have some damn fun?"

It probably wasn’t much fun for Licht and Greenberg, their leverage evaporated. But they proceeded forward on their quest.

"I think all of the coaches when asked about Tom Brady would say they would take him and find a spot for him," Greenberg said. "I think [Arians] just answered honestly. Of course you’d want the guy. The guy is phenomenal. I think he was just kind of answering honestly and from the heart that he’d love to have him."

It was Greenberg who had to figure out how. He’d worked on plenty of big contracts and deals, signing Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul and Mike Evans to their extensions. But this was different. This was Brady.

Eventually they landed on a verbal agreement for the two-year, $50 million deal that would send the future Hall of Famer to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Getting him to actually sign it was another challenge altogether.

This was in mid-March 2020 and COVID-19 was wreaking havoc with just about every aspect of life in the world.

"Normally you fly him in a private plane, he comes in, he does the physical, and he signs," Greenberg said. "The challenge we had was we weren’t allowed to bring him in and he was in New York. Here we get by far the biggest free agent of all time, but in a COVID world. It’s not like you can plan for anything because everything was changing constantly. There was a lot going on and we were basically shut down in the office but for a few of us who we needed here for free agency."

It was then that Greenberg’s roots to the New York area came in handy.

"He texted me one morning and said: ‘Are you around later this afternoon? I might need a favor from you,’ " Greenberg’s brother-in-law, Jake Gellerman, said of the seemingly innocent exchange. "I was like: ‘I have a work call at around 3 o’clock, but besides that I think I’m good.’ "

What Gellerman did not know — what no one outside of a very select few knew at the time — was that Brady was going to sign his free-agent contract with the Bucs that day, and Gellerman would be the one to deliver that document to the quarterback and get it back to Tampa. It took not a league executive, not a superagent, but a 30-year-old publicist whose big sister had happened to marry an upwardly mobile Buccaneers pencil-pusher a few years back to carry the most shocking deal in decades across its finish line.

Greenberg emailed the unsigned contract to Gellerman, and he promptly printed it out in his Manhattan apartment. Then he jumped in an Uber and went downtown to meet Brady at his place in Tribeca.

"They told me to go up to the doorman and just tell him you’re here to see Tom," Gellerman said. "They direct me up to his floor and yeah, there he is in his kitchen, waiting to sign. It was pretty surreal for sure."

There were some pleasantries, but not much small talk as Gellerman recalls. It was early in the pandemic, so handshakes were already a no go and Gellerman kept polite social distance. Gellerman chatted a bit with Brady’s son about video games while the quarterback perused the papers and, having met his satisfaction, signed them.

"I could have been in his apartment for five minutes, I could have been in his apartment for an hour for all I know because of the weirdness of it in my mind," Gellerman said.

That was that, for Brady at least. For Gellerman, he left the apartment and was suddenly in possession of the only copy in existence of what not only had immense significance in the history of the NFL but sealed a $50 million agreement. What did he do?

"I jumped right in another Uber and went directly to the FedEx on the corner of my apartment building," he said. (He admitted to taking a peek at the contract on that ride back, and while most of the legalese went over his head, he was impressed by all of the zeroes.)

Once back uptown he scanned the signed contract and emailed that to Greenberg, then put the original in an envelope and overnighted it to Tampa. Success.

Gellerman, who like Greenberg and his sister is also a Bellmore JFK graduate, said he sometimes thinks about his small but indispensable role in NFL lore.

"But because I am so close to Mike I know how small it actually is compared to the work that he and Jason [Licht] and all of them did," he said. "If I ever did try to brag about it, he would probably slap me right back into place. But it was cool."

The deal certainly has worked out for everyone.

"Watching No. 12 play is incredible," Greenberg said. "He is everything that we thought he’d be and more. It’s just unbelievable watching how everyone, the players, even the coaches and staff, everyone kind of gravitates to him. He is, to me, the most humble superstar I have ever seen. I find myself going to practice more just to watch him and watch how everyone interacts with him."

Brady has even won over one of the biggest Jets fans that Greenberg knows. His dad.

"For 20 years I hated Tom Brady’s guts only because he would kill our Jets," Richie Greenberg said. "He would absolutely kill our Jets. And then we got him. And all I said to my son recently was: ‘Now I know why we hated him. The game is never over. When he’s there, the game is never over.’"

LI TIES STILL STRONG

Despite his 11 years in Tampa, Greenberg is still a Long Island guy at his core. Every summer for the past six years he, his brother Jay and his sister Lauren rent a house in Southold for a few weeks during the NFL’s offseason.

"We love it out there," he said. "I never really went there growing up as a kid and you always hear about the Hamptons, but the North Fork is great."

He still keeps in touch with his friends from Bellmore JFK High School. Although they have stopped asking him for advice on their fantasy football moves ("It doesn’t translate," Greenberg said of his incompetence in that pastime), they have a long text chain that is filled with hundreds of messages after each Buccaneers game.

He touches base with his old high school basketball coach regularly, too. A while back he sent Block a video of his young son slam dunking on a Fisher-Price hoop. Block shot back that he already was making more baskets than his old man ever had.

"He’s enjoying the hell out of this," Block said. "It’s unbelie . . . actually, it’s not all that unbelievable."

And every morning on his way to work he calls his mother. Every week after the game he calls her, too, and listens to her break down what went right and what went wrong for the Bucs.

"I didn’t know a thing about football," she said of growing up in Brooklyn. "I was a twirler in high school so I went to the games but I didn’t understand it."

She does now.

His parents were upset when he left over a decade ago.

"I knew he would never practice law in the conventional way," Richie Greenberg said. "I knew that wasn’t for him. So when he started working for the Jets that was a dream come true. That was the greatest thing. Then he ran off to Tampa Bay."

Greenberg could be on the move again soon. That’s what tends to happen when teams win. Their parts get picked over by other organizations who want to capture a piece of that magical recipe. Greenberg seems destined for a general manager job soon.

"Mike Greenberg is one of the first people you would want to build a team with if you need a general manager," said Dave Gardi, the NFL’s senior vice president of football operations, who had Greenberg as his intern in the league office in early 2009. "If you gave Mike the keys to an organization and let him run with it I know he’d bring in great people. His name should be considered. He deserves that."

Gardi speculated that one of Greenberg’s best assets — being humble — is actually what has held him back.

"If he politicked a bit more, he might have a job now as a general manager," Gardi said.

Added Tannenbaum: "He was ready five years ago."

Wherever he winds up next, Greenberg will bring Bellmore and Long Island with him.

"It was nice growing up on Long Island," he said. "It was a great family environment. When you move out of there, you kind of take for granted that everywhere is like Long Island. But it’s not. It was just a great place to grow up. I really enjoyed living in Bellmore."

It’s allowed him to be living his dream now.

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