01/30/07 — Southern Wayne retires Warren's number

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Southern Wayne retires Warren's number

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on January 30, 2007 2:19 PM

Greg Warren shook hands, exchanged hugs, signed autographs, posed for pictures and sported his Super Bowl championship ring.

Such is the life of an NFL player.

But Friday evening's return to his alma mater, Southern Wayne, left the soft-spoken and modest Warren humbled and nearly speechless. He listened quietly as principal Tim Harrell read off a list of accomplishments spanning his prep, collegiate and pro careers.

A lump formed in Warren's throat when his father, Saints football coach Bob Warren, stepped onto the court and presented him with a replica of his No. 51 jersey -- a number that is now retired. The younger Warren received a standing ovation from the near-capacity crowd, and grinned as he glanced toward one end of the gymnasium where a banner hung to commemorate the evening's celebration.

"It's kind of like the Super Bowl for me," said Warren. "It's really exciting, but at the same time, I think it's one of those things that it won't hit me exactly how much it means to me until I come back again and again, and see that banner up there with my number on it.

"It's great to have so much hometown support, have my family and friends from the neighborhood here. Shoot, I had forgotten about half the stuff they said I did here and at Carolina."

Warren is just the fourth athlete in Southern Wayne history -- and first in football -- to have his number retired. He joined elite company -- Michael Olliver (men's basketball), Sam Jones (women's basketball) and Cecil Exum (men's basketball). Jones played on the U.S. women's national handball team in the Olympics, while Exum enjoyed a storied career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Well-wishers continued seeking autographs and others patted Warren on the back once the ceremony ended. He quietly twirled the ring with his finger as he talked with former coaches.

The most-asked question Warren heard, "Why didn't you tell me about the new coach?"

Warren, admittedly, learned of Mike Tomlin's hiring while watching a game and reading the ESPN sports ticker. The selection surprised Warren and his teammates, who expected an in-house coach to replace Bill Cowher.

"They felt the best (thing) for our team was to get Tomlin," said Warren, a former walk-on at UNC. "They're great decision makers, they do a lot of things right and I think it's going to be good for our team."

The 34-year-old Tomlin was the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator in 2006 after spending the previous five seasons as defensive backs coach at Tampa Bay. Cowher resigned Jan. 5 after 15 seasons with the Steelers, including a Super Bowl title in 2006.

Tomlin is just Pittsburgh's third head coach since 1969 when Chuck Noll, then 36, took over for Bill Austin, who lasted just three seasons. Noll and Cowher combined for 370 wins in nearly 40 seasons for one of the most-storied franchises in NFL history.

"I still haven't had any contact with him (Tomlin) and he's still got to pick up some more assistant coaches," said Warren. "I haven't heard anything about camp, but I'm heading back in the middle of February. With a new coach, you can have three mini-camps instead of one.

"I don't know if we'll have three, but we probably will."

Warren anticipates renewing his contract within the next few days. The 6-foot-3, 252-pound long snapper is also anxious to build on the Steelers' 6-2 worksheet during second-half play this past season.

Injuries factored into the slow start, but Warren said recovering from the Super Bowl certainly affected the team's play the first half of the season.

"I don't know if the injuries did so much," said Warren. "It's such a long season to start with and then you go to the Super Bowl, that's an extra five weeks. That's time you don't get off.

"It wasn't until two days until (after the Super Bowl) when they started talking about we have to be back in two weeks (at camp) to start training. I think we were still trying to recover from the previous season.

"It took us awhile to get over it."

Pittsburgh started 2-6 and seemed out of sync in every aspect of the game. The Steelers took every opponent's best shot, couldn't catch a break and struggled to make something to happen to reverse the misfortune.

Second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, injured in the offseason, sustained an in-season injury. Once everybody healed, Pittsburgh nearly clinched a postseason berth.

"When you're on top like that, the following year everyone is gunning for you and you've got a big bull's-eye on your chest," said Warren. "We always knew we had the tools to win. It took us a minute to get going and that was a second too late.

"This league is so competitive that anybody can be beaten any day."

Another autograph seeker approached Warren. Warren signed the sheet of paper and returned to the gym. He talked with his father and at times, stole another glance or two at the red-bordered banner.

"That's just a lot of hard work that's paid off," said Warren. "It's cool."