FAYETTEVILLE -- Brian and Nanci Early weren't thinking about the football potential for the 14-year-old kid they were preparing to invite into their home.
They just wanted to see the teenager, Dre Greenlaw, get a shot at a stable family life after he had spent six years as a ward of the state, bouncing from foster homes to boys homes. Greenlaw was in Fayetteville while Brian Early was serving as the defensive coordinator at Fayetteville High School from 2009-2012.
Good fortune linked Greenlaw to the Earlys and their daughters, AJ and Camryn. And the bond is now official.
After nearly seven years of calling Dre their son, Brian and Nanci officially adopted Greenlaw in July, shortly after he turned 21 on May 25 and just a few days before Greenlaw represented the University of Arkansas at SEC media days in Atlanta on July 17.
Brian Early will start his fifth season as defensive line coach at Arkansas State University on Saturday against Southeast Missouri State as Greenlaw's official father.
"Even though it wasn't legal until July, he's always been my son," Early said. "He's felt the same way. We're Mom and Dad to him."
Greenlaw, the most experienced Razorback on the 2018 roster with 30 career starters, will open his senior season at home on Saturday against Eastern Illinois. Greenlaw said he knew he could have been adopted at age 14, but that there were benefits through the Department of Human Services by holding off until he turned 21.
"When I turned 21, I had the choice to make between if I wanted to just become my own man, which I am, and still stay in the DHS system, or be with the people that took me in and they care for me and show that they love me and I've got the same respect back for. I mean, paper or no paper, they're still my parents."
The Earlys thought at first that Brian might just serve as a mentor, taking Dre out to eat on the weekends, going to church and hanging out. But the family took him in during the winter of Greenlaw's ninth-grade year, when the boys home in which he was living was preparing to close and send him to a boys ranch in Alma.
Nanci Early said Greenlaw grew quickly on the family after just a few visits.
"If you've been around him you know he grows on everybody quickly," she said. "I was afraid it would be hard. I was afraid it would be uncomfortable. Like here's this kid coming in and he hasn't had a family in a really long time.
"It was never uncomfortable. He just fits our family so incredibly. ... I think everybody who meets him is like, 'Man, what a great kid.' I don't know how we got so lucky to have him."
Greenlaw said he is "blessed beyond measure" to have found a forever family.
"I'm blessed more than people realize because you only hear what I get to tell you," Greenlaw told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at SEC media days.
"A lot of people think they know you and they think they understand, but in the end, you only know what I tell you. ... I've been through a lot throughout my life. I don't want anybody to feel sympathy or sorry for me because of what I've been through, because in the end, it's made me stronger.
"It's made me where I am today. Now, would I have liked to have been with my real parents throughout the whole sequence? Yeah, if I had been with my mom it would have made things a lot better. But I know I wouldn't be as strong of a man as I am today."
Greenlaw doesn't go into great detail to describe his early family life in Conway. But his background included drug use in the family, which led to prison for one family member, and an unwillingness of others to take him in.
He said he tries to draw strength from what he's been through.
"I just use that past and the experience and those feelings that I have ... you still remember those long nights that you cried alone by yourself when you didn't have nothing to eat, you remember all that," he said. "So whenever things start getting hard for me and I don't see things clearly right, I just look at what I've been through.
"You can't do nothing but smile because you've come so far ... it's got to be God. I'm blessed. I'm going to try to use the gifts that God gave me and use them to the best of my ability."
Brian Early gave Greenlaw his first college scholarship offer. It came moments after Early hung up the phone with incoming Red Wolves Coach Blake Anderson in late 2013. Early had spent the 2013 season as a low-paid quality control assistant for Bret Bielema at Arkansas, but Anderson was offering him an on-field job.
Greenlaw was at one time committed to Arkansas State, but he had dreamed of playing for the Razorbacks.
"For a while I did want to go to Jonesboro, go to Arkansas State and be with somebody that I knew that cared for me," Greenlaw said. "But God placed Fayetteville in my heart for a reason. This has been home. I stay here more than I stay in Conway. I don't go to my biological home very much just because it's not the best situation for me. Fayetteville is definitely my home."
Greenlaw said Early has been supportive of his decisions since joining the family.
"I couldn't ask for anyone else to be there more than he was," he said. "It was just ... the example that he was showing and it was rubbing off on me. It allowed me to want better for myself. He definitely helped me in ways I couldn't imagine, just to find out who I was as a man and help me become that man."
After a 4-8 struggle in 2017, in which Arkansas made a one-year switch to a 3-4 defense, the Razorbacks are back in a base 4-3 under veteran coordinator John Chavis and Greenlaw is stoked.
"Oh,  was a blur. It was hell," he said. "But definitely out of everything negative and everything that was happening, there was a bright side to it because I got another chance to play, to show what I can do. Most importantly, I've got the best defensive coordinator."
Arkansas Coach Chad Morris calls Greenlaw a phenomenal leader.
"I think this young man gets it," Morris said. "He understands. He approaches every day with an attitude of gratitude. He's appreciative of what he gets and the people that have helped him along the way and where he is now and where he's been in life."
Chavis said he's learned a good bit of Greenlaw's back story in the short time he's been at Arkansas.
"He's had the right people in his life, there's no question about that," Chavis said. "He's a young man that has excelled and a young man that has done well.
"He's taken the talents that the good Lord's blessed him with and he's worked hard and he's grown. And not just as a football player. I can't tell you how much he's grown as a man. Our time together hasn't been that long, but he's a mature young man. He's not just a football player."
The Earlys have been well aware of that since bringing him into the family fold on Dec. 23, 2011, after many hours of foster care lessons and mountains of paper work.
"We said, 'Dre, we've never done this before, and we're not doing this just because we want to be foster parents,' " Nanci Early said. "So I said, 'If you come live with us I just need you to understand you're part of our family and I don't know how to do it any other way.'
"He seemed excited about that, like he didn't want to just live there. He wanted to be part of the family."
Brian Early knew that Greenlaw would have been a huge impact player at Arkansas State, but he didn't try to force him into going to Jonesboro.
"We wanted to let him make his own decision," he said. "All of his life he's had decisions made for him and he's had things taken from him. We thought, let's give him this, let him make the decision and I know it was tough for him to do.
"That's where he always dreamed of playing. Obviously on national signing day we didn't get the signature we wanted, but hey, I wouldn't trade it for the one that we got in July, you know what I mean?"
Dre Greenlaw (center) is pictured with the Early family, Nanci (from left), AJ, Brian and Camryn.
Dre Greenlaw clowns around with Camryn Early (left) and AJ Early in the summer of 2012.
Sports on 08/28/2018
Print Headline: It's never too late: Greenlaw, Earlys officially together