Athletic resolve helped Danielle Green recover from life-altering injury

Atop a police station she had been helping to guard in Iraq in 2004, Danielle Green knew she was badly hurt. But then a feeling came over her: an adrenaline rush of belief.

"I actually knew I would be OK when I was still on the rooftop," said Green, an Army veteran wounded in a grenade attack. "After I said a prayer, I felt reassurance and hope, a burst of energy. Then my comrades came, and I knew I would make it. Although I didn't know my arm was missing."

Wednesday at the ESPYS (ABC, 8 p.m. ET), Green will receive the Pat Tillman Award for Service. For Green -- a Notre Dame graduate, former Division I women's basketball player, wounded warrior, veterans' counselor, joyful mother, forgiving daughter -- the so-called "test runs" of sports competition built a resolve inside her.

Because at their essence, competitive sports are supposed be about more than sports. Really pushing yourself to compete means scaling pre-conceived barriers. And realizing that the apprehension that comes with being tested usually has a companion emotion: a feeling of being fully alive.

So when her biggest challenge came -- fighting to recover and then learning to deal with a life-altering injury -- it was not trite to suggest that having been a high-level athlete significantly helped Green. In fact, that had been one of her advantages since joining the military.

"It was like second nature for me," said Green, a guard for coach Muffet McGraw's Irish from 1995-2000. "I was able to adjust rather quickly. Basic training wasn't an issue. I was used to 5 a.m. practices. I was used to the idea that if you don't do things as you're instructed, you do it again and again until you get it right.

"I was used to that redundancy and repetition. I was prepared through my experiences. I always tell people -- and I mean this in a good way -- that coach McGraw was probably my first drill sergeant."

Green is now a supervisory re-adjustment counseling therapist at the veterans' center in South Bend, Indiana. She will be at the ESPYS with her partner, Melvin Ward, their 10-month-old son, Daniel, and her father, Tommie Goree.

She'll be thinking about all the people who've played key roles in her life, including her late husband, Willie Byrd, who died of a cardiac arrest in 2011. About her teammates from Notre Dame, and her fellow soldiers. About Pat Tillman.

About the path that took a young woman from her hometown of Chicago to South Bend to Iraq and back, and the message of hope she brings to all with whom she has contact.

"Danielle is a really strong woman I've got such great admiration for," McGraw said. "I think basketball is so much more than the game. It's about building confidence in young women, and seeing them grow and go off to be role models."

Finding her way

McGraw and Green have a warm regard and mutual respect now, but that took time to develop. Green had been through a lot before she arrived as a freshman at Notre Dame in the fall of 1995.

She didn't have much of a relationship with her parents then; the only stabilizing influences were her grandmother and basketball coaches. McGraw took note of Green's discipline during the recruiting process.

"I remember she had to take something like a bus to a train to another bus just to get to school," McGraw said. "And she was in the ROTC program. She was someone you knew was trying to rise above some difficult circumstances."

At that point, McGraw had been at Notre Dame for seven seasons, with two NCAA appearances. She was still trying to establish the program as a national contender. Notre Dame joined the Big East for Green's freshman season, and she found McGraw to be very strict, precise, and businesslike. At times, that was hard for Green.

"Sometimes you can set these expectations for individuals that they don't know about," Green said. "I think when I came to Notre Dame, not having much support at home, I was looking at Coach McGraw more as a mother instead of a coach. Now, as a 38-year-old, I understand it all better. Reflecting back on it, I know she always wanted the best for me and the team. I think we have much closer relationship, a bond, now."

McGraw acknowledges that same evolution.

"Things have changed; That was at a time when the head coach was the disciplinarian, and relationships weren't quite the same as they are today," McGraw said, then chuckled about times when she and Green butted heads. "She didn't mind battling back. We had our moments.

"But sometimes I think with those players, after they graduate, it makes your relationship that much stronger. We talked quite a bit when she was making the decision to go into the military. We had turned a corner; it wasn't so much coach-player anymore. She was just someone I cared about."

Dealing with injuries

Green had torn her Achilles' tendon as a freshman in high school, then suffered a knee injury as a senior that kept her out during a portion of the prep basketball season. Early on at Notre Dame, she hurt her knee again. That injury and her general growing pains made her first year difficult, but she dedicated herself in the offseason to having a big sophomore year.

Eager to prove herself, and -- in McGraw's view -- the Irish's best perimeter defender, Green was at first devastated to suffer another Achilles' injury in October 1996. She was sidelined during what became a breakthrough season for the Irish, who made it to the program's first Final Four.

Now, though, rather than seeing that 1996-97 season in a melancholy way, Green is grateful for what she learned.

"I changed my mentality then," Green said. "I watched from the bench with the coaches. I saw my teammates come together even though we had injuries and some people leaving the team. I did whatever I could to provide moral support.

"I realized I was probably a little immature; that I needed to pay my dues. So by the time my junior season came, I was ready to contribute. I don't have any regrets; it was a good career and I got my degree."

After a few years of teaching school, Green got involved with coaching and a relationship blossomed with Byrd, who'd long been involved in Chicago youth basketball. He was older than Green, a calm and supportive presence. He wasn't in favor of her going into the military, but backed her once she made the decision at age 26. They married before she went overseas, and after she was severely wounded in the grenade attack, he was with her through the rehabilitation process.

"What I learned from sports is that you don't know what's going to come your way, so you have to be ready." Danielle Green

Green also found out how far and wide the "Golden Dome" of Notre Dame spread. Soon after the attack, she was transferred to a hospital in Germany for surgery. One of the doctors caring for her was Tim Woods, an Air Force surgeon whose parents, Eileen and Dave Woods, were then in Germany visiting him.

The Woods, who were from South Bend, were also Notre Dame athletic boosters and close friends of McGraw. They went to see Green in the hospital. McGraw recalls her phone ringing in the middle of the night, and hearing about Green's injury from Dr. Woods. She then spoke to Green.

"It was just such an emotional moment," McGraw said. "But then she said, 'Don't you cry, because I'm holding it together.'"

Seeing the Woods family, talking to McGraw, and hearing from Notre Dame fans helped Green through those initial difficult days and weeks realizing her life had changed. A natural left-hander, she now had only her right hand to use.. She had suffered other injuries as well, with a lengthy rehab to face. But she wasn't alone.

"That realization came that, no matter where you are in the world, there's going to be a 'Domer' somewhere nearby," Green said. "When I got hurt, Notre Dame was there for me.

"They flew me in to be honored at a football game a few years ago. They've dedicated four chairs in my honor in basketball, so if I ever want to go to a game or have other military people come, they can sit there. Coach McGraw and Notre Dame have been very, very supportive."

In November 2012, the Notre Dame's women hoops team faced Ohio State as part of the Carrier Classic, played on the deck of the USS Yorktown in South Carolina. Green was there for that event, which benefited the Wounded Warriors Project.

"That was a great experience," McGraw said. "Knowing one of the wounded warriors was one of our own, it made it even more special. Those are people who've done so much for our country. It was a chance to say thank you."

A new life

Green decided to go into school counseling, but then gravitated back to the military. She works now with veterans dealing with a variety of issues, including post-traumatic stress and readjustment problems.

At times, she will take off her prosthetic arm just to let her clients know that she truly does understand.

"As a combat veteran, I have a connection with them, but you still have to build that rapport and trust," Green said. "And they're often dealing with this sense of self-blame that's very difficult to talk about. If you've never been in combat and had to operate a weapon to take out another human being, you don't know the toll that takes on someone."

Green works hard at staying mentally and physically healthy herself. She lost Byrd four years ago, but eventually fell in love again, and now has baby Daniel. Her father, wanting to try to make up for not being there for Danielle when she was young, has moved to South Bend to help her.

"I've been able to say, 'It's OK, I'm going to forgive you and accept you for who you are now,'" Green said. "I didn't have a relationship with my dad growing up. But if I would have closed that door permanently, I wouldn't have my dad now."

"Danielle is a really strong woman I've got such great admiration for." Muffet McGraw on Danielle Green

Green recently got news that she'll have a chance to co-write a book about her life, and the journey on which she has dealt with great physical and emotional pain, but also experienced profound joy.

"What I learned from sports is that you don't know what's going to come your way, so you have to be ready," Green said. "I remember us playing Rutgers when I had to sink two free throws to go to overtime, and that seemed like a lot of pressure.

"What you can do is practice. I didn't like practice, but I understood the value of it. Basketball is part of the fabric of who I am, and there's a parallel to the military. You train, you go over real-life situations. It's like having a scouting report. You have to prepare for how you'll respond."

Green then goes back to that rooftop in Iraq in 2004, a moment of pain and fear that every soldier prepares for -- and yet hopes not to face. Her prayer, the quick reaction of her fellow soldiers, and her athletic resolve all came into play.

Her admiration for Tillman makes this honor she's receiving particularly poignant.

"I can talk to my son when he's old enough to understand," Green said. "And say, 'Here's the significance of this award.' It's about the commitment and sacrifice that Pat Tillman made. And your mom, and so many other people. Those are the lessons I'm looking to pass on."