Willie Greenlaw’s teammates lift him onto their shoulders after he pitched Portland High School to a victory in 1953. That was the year that Greenlaw led Portland to the Telegram League championship – equivalent to today’s Class A baseball – by pitching a 16-inning, two-hitter and tripling in the winning run in a 2-0 victory over Thornton Academy. Photo courtesy of the O’Brion family

He was called a Superman on a playing field. He was compared to Mickey Mantle. He was thought by many to be the best athlete ever to come out of Portland High, if not all of Maine.

There was little that William Keith “Willie” Greenlaw could not do on an athletic field or court. As a Portland High and University of Nebraska star in the 1950s, he had a rare combination of strength and speed packed into a 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame.

Greenlaw, who died April 29 at the age of 90, was Portland’s own version of Roy Hobbs in the 1984 movie “The Natural.” His high school athletic exploits made him a local celebrity and a staple on the sports pages of the Portland Press Herald and Evening Express.

Details of his standout performances are told and retold by those who competed with and against him, as well as by spectators who were drawn to Portland’s vibrant sports scene more than six decades ago.

It was a time with far fewer distractions, when local sporting events would routinely draw big crowds.

“He was the legend in that era because of the person he was, not only because of his athletic ability — which was far above everyone,” said his son-in-law Marty O’Brion Sr., 69, of Portland. “He was humble.”


Greenlaw led Portland High to championships in football and baseball his senior year while also competing in track and field and basketball.

Willie Greenlaw, a former Portland High and University of Nebraska football standout, died on April 29 at the age of 90. Portland Press Herald file photo

He was a two-time all-conference halfback at the University of Nebraska, where he also played baseball. He pitched two years of minor league baseball, then returned to Portland and continued to shine playing semi-pro football for the Portland Sea Hawks of the Atlantic Coast Football League. He was also a top pitcher and hitter in the competitive Twilight Baseball League, which featured the area’s top college and adult players.

Greenlaw, who lived in Portland, is a member of the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame (1984 inductee), the Maine Sports Hall of Fame (1986) and the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame (1989). He was also part of the inaugural Portland High Football Hall of Fame class in 2013.

His Maine Baseball Hall of Fame biography notes that Greenlaw’s baseball and football feats “made him a ‘Superman’ among athletes in the 1950s.”

Jack Dawson, 89, of Portland, regularly competed against Greenlaw in football and baseball when they were kids growing up in Portland and young men in the Twilight League.

“He was built like Mickey Mantle,” said Dawson, a former Portland mayor and the longtime head of the James J. Fitzpatrick Trophy committee in charge of selecting the state’s top high school senior football player. “If you saw him do anything, you knew he was strong and he would do things with ease. He was a natural. Two outs in the ninth inning he would hit a home run. He’d run a punt back for a touchdown, have the play called back on a clip or something, and then he’d run the next punt back.”


One young fan was O’Brion, who would eventually marry Debra Greenlaw, the oldest of Willie and Caroline (Cavallaro) Greenlaw’s two daughters.

O’Brion remembers when he was a kid of about 8 years old – “long before I’d ever heard of my future wife,” he laughed – and asked his father who was Portland’s and Maine’s greatest athlete.

“He names a few guys and then he said, ‘When it all boils down to it, it’s Willie Greenlaw,’ ” said O’Brion, whose father followed the local sports scene and athletes.


Greenlaw was a modest family man. He worked for many years in the trades, first for Maine Tile and later at Paul G. White Tile of Portland. He and Caroline celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary in March.

“He was just Grampa to me,” said Marty O’Brion Jr., 40, a teacher and coach at Bishop Feehan High in Attleboro, Massachusetts. “But you ask anyone of that generation and he was the man.”


Greenlaw in his prime seemed more than mortal to one young boy who was crazy for sports.

“I was four years behind him in school, and I thought Willie Greenlaw was God,” said Peter Gribbin, who went on to a long career as a teacher at Portland High and became the Bulldogs’ public address announcer. “I’m going to North School there and I remember a kid spotting this guy and saying, ‘That’s Willie Greenlaw,’ and we thought that was terrific.”

Greenlaw never was one to brag or tell long-winded stories about his accomplishments. He didn’t need to. People would routinely stop him on the street or approach him when he was watching a grandchild play sports. Everyone wanted to chat about his greatness.

“My father, he didn’t talk about himself a lot,” said Debra O’Brion. “He was embarrassed really when it came to people gloating about him.”

Willie Greenlaw played football for the Portland Sea Hawks, a semi-pro team, and the University of Nebraska. The family still has his old Sea Hawks helmet and a football from the University of Nebraska that is signed by many former Huskers. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Two of Greenlaw’s most memorable games came in his senior year at Portland High, with championships at stake.


With a statewide football playoff still decades away, Portland knew it would be crowned state champion in 1952 if it won its annual Thanksgiving Day game against Deering and improved to 8-1.

A reported 9,000 fans packed into Fitzpatrick Stadium and watched Greenlaw score the winning touchdown in a 25-20 victory. He rushed for 187 yards, and put the game away with an interception. Despite missing two games that season with an illness, Greenlaw rushed for over 1,500 yards. A left-footed kicker and punter (he reportedly often had punts of 60 or more yards), he scored 107 points that season.

In the spring, shortly after he and Caroline were married on March 3, 1953, Greenlaw pitched all 16 innings in a 2-0 five-hit, 18-strikeout championship victory against Thornton Academy in the Telegram League – equivalent to today’s Class A baseball.

His triple in the 16th inning broke the scoreless tie. He scored on an error, making Thornton junior Dick Grant, who also pitched all 16 innings, the hard-luck loser. Grant would go on to a seven-season minor league pitching career in the Chicago White Sox organization.

“Everyone says now that I should have walked him,” Grant told Portland Press Herald writer Mike Lowe in 1997 before his induction into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame.

It was an era of outstanding athletes.


Greenlaw’s Portland High classmate Frank Nappi, after a year at a prep school, followed him to Nebraska. Their baseball coach at Portland was Edson Hadlock Jr. James J. Fitzpatrick was the school’s athletic director.

Hadlock Field, where the minor league baseball team Portland Sea Dogs plays, is named after Edson Hadlock. The state’s top high school football award is named after Fitzpatrick.

South Portland native Dick Daniels competed against Greenlaw and later alongside him on the Sea Hawks, the semi-pro football team in Portland. Daniels played college football at Wake Forest.

Dawson competed in football, track and baseball at Cheverus and then Boston College.

Deb and Marty O’Brion Sr. look over clippings and photographs of Deb’s father Willie Greenlaw, who is thought by many to be the best athlete to ever come out of Portland, if not the state. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“He had great speed and he was very strong. He was left-handed. He had great speed and balance,” he said. “If you could catch him, you could bring him down, but catching him or trapping him was difficult.”



In three seasons (1954-56) as a halfback at Nebraska, Greenlaw rushed for 1,162 yards and had 253 receiving yards on 14 catches. His career rushing total still ranks in the top 60 in Cornhusker history. He was a second-team all-Big Seven pick in 1954 when he gained 427 yards (7.6 yards per carry) for a 6-5 team that played in the Orange Bowl.

In 1955, Greenlaw led Nebraska with 584 rushing yards and was named first-team all-Big Seven.

An ankle injury slowed his senior season, but he and his old Portland High teammate Nappi combined for the winning touchdown in a 15-14 victory against Missouri in the season finale. On a fourth-and-16 play with under 2 minutes to go, Greenlaw, playing halfback, uncorked a long pass that Nappi caught.

“I worked at the post office for years and we had this carrier who had gone to Nebraska and one day he said, ‘You know, they still talk about Willie Greenlaw in Nebraska,’ ” said Marty O’Brion Sr.

In 2008, Marty O’Brion Jr., visited Memorial Field in Lincoln, Nebraska. He and his siblings and cousins had grown up receiving Nebraska-red pajamas and clothing in honor of their grandfather.

“I walked on the field and saw his name on the players’ tunnel, because he is in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame,” O’Brion said. “Pretty special moment. Really cool, and it kind of gave truth to all the stories we heard.”


After college, Greenlaw pitched for three teams in the Cincinnati Reds’ organization over the 1957 and 1958 seasons, compiling a 14-22 record in the Class B and C leagues with a 4.70 ERA over 61 games (44 starts) and 287 innings.

He hit .200 with two homers and three triples in 120 at-bats.

When he returned to Portland, Greenlaw continued to shine through his 20s. He once threw consecutive no-hitters and was among the top hitters in the competitive Twilight League. He was also one of the main reasons the semi-pro Sea Hawks football team routinely drew 2,000 or more fans to Fitzpatrick Stadium.

Dawson, then coaching at Cheverus, recalled one Sea Hawks game when Greenlaw caught a short pass with time running out. Instead of running out of bounds to stop the clock, Greenlaw reversed field and scored a touchdown.

“He just kept running. He dropped the ball in the end zone and ran right into the Expo. His job was done. That was Willie,” Dawson said. “He’d played enough. It was time to go home.”

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