After stepfather's death, Texans' Jonathan Greenard has message for NFL players wary of COVID vaccine

Mike Jones
USA TODAY

Jonathan Greenard understands the reservations that some of his NFL brethren share when it comes to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. He, too, once felt a wariness about the effectiveness of the shot and any potential side effects that could follow.

But Greenard, a defensive lineman entering his second season with the Houston Texans, also has a strong understanding of how COVID-19 can devastate a family. This past winter, his mother, stepfather, brother and niece all tested positive for COVID-19. His mother, Carmen Varnum, endured a number of complications before eventually recovering. However, Greenard’s stepfather, Washington Varnum Jr., died early this year of COVID-19 complications at 54.

And so, convinced that the risks of the virus far outweigh the risk of negative reactions to the vaccine, the 24-year-old Greenard got vaccinated. When he hears of resistance to encouragements to receive the vaccine, Greenard said, he wishes he could bring people to a place of greater understanding and peace of mind.  

Jonathan Greenard's stepfather died from COVID complications earlier this year.

On Thursday, the NFL announced stricter guidelines related to how teams should operate in the coming season and outlined how an outbreak amongst unvaccinated players could place squads at a disadvantage. The league could force teams to forfeit games canceled due to an outbreak among players who aren’t vaccinated. In case of such a cancellation, all players from both teams would be subject to forfeiting game checks.

The NFL hasn’t mandated vaccines among players. However, league officials are making it very difficult for those who opt against vaccination to operate with ease. Upon learning of the new protocols, some players opposed to receiving vaccines voiced their displeasure with the perceived efforts of the NFL to strong-arm them into getting the shot against their will. 

Arizona Cardinals star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a since-deleted tweet said, "Never thought I would say this, But being in a position to hurt my team because I don't want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the @nfl." Shortly after, he tweeted, “Freedom?”

New England Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon voiced his frustration with the new policy with a tweet that read, "The NFLPA (expletive) sucks." Las Vegas Raiders running back Jalen Richard tweeted, "We playing in jail this year and you should act as such."

The responses proved troubling to Greenard, who believes his fellow players are guilty of acting out of either selfishness and/or fear. He sees greater consideration and education as the proper response to vaccine-related concerns, not obstinance. 

“I’m young and in good health, as most of us NFL players are,” Greenard told USA TODAY Sports during a phone interview Friday.  “But it’s not about us. It’s about the ones around us who are older and have underlying conditions. We have a chance to save them and give them a couple more years or however longer. It’s not up to us. It’s up to us to keep those safe around us."

He added, “My mom was dang near the same situation as my stepdad but recovered thanks to God’s grace. But my stepdad didn’t make it. It’s about the ones like my stepdad who wish they could’ve had a vaccine at the time, or who could’ve taken a vaccine to help them out. But if people could put the selfishness aside, I think this pandemic could’ve been over a long time ago.”

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Greenard, who has suffered from an irregular heartbeat and asthma and thus fell in the high-risk category, was quick to point out he understands the concerns some players have. But he believes answers to those questions are available.

“Yes, everyone responds differently, and yes, people have a fear and opinions," Greenard said. "However these are trained professionals and I take their word for it. I don’t live in fear. I just want to do my part to protect myself and my family. My family was devastated by it and I don’t want people to wish they’d taken action when it’s too late.”

The NFL and NFL Players Association have emphasized educating players and team employees on the benefits of receiving one of the three COVID-19 vaccinations available to the public. 

The education remains ongoing, according to NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills. The NFL announced on Friday that 80% of players have had at least one does of the COVID-19 vaccine and that nine teams have relayed to league officials that more than 90% of their players are vaccinated. Five teams still have less than a 70% player vaccination rate.

But Sills, speaking to reporters on a conference call Friday, said that he believes that as players begin reporting for training camps in the next week, the vaccination figures will continue to increase. 

Asked about the concerns some players have expressed about getting the vaccination, Sills explained, “I would have the same conversation that I have with patients. I’m still a practicing physician so I meet and talk to patients all the time. So, my message is very straightforward. These are the safest and most effective vaccines that I have seen developed certainly in the lifetime of my medical career."

Further explaining the types of conversations that the league and medical professionals as a whole must have while educating players and the public on vaccinations, Sills said, “You don't shout anyone into belief here. These have to be thoughtful discussions."

Greenard shared a similar mindset. 

He tweeted on Thursday in response to the players who reacted negatively to the league’s policy, saying, “Coming from somebody who it has affected personally, get the vaccine. You’re not gonna die or grow extra limbs. Quit reading and spreading this BS. It’s not about you, it’s about ppl like my stepdad who I wish was still here who died from being exposed. Smh.”

But on Friday, Greenard said he believes that players, whether vaccinated or not, will approach each other with respect. He doesn’t envision differing views on vaccinations as potentially divisive for NFL locker rooms.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Greenard said. “I’m never going to slight anyone or look down on anybody. I’m not in their body. I’m going to love you the same way. If you don’t want to get it, that’s you. I know guys who know how I feel about it and still have their stance on it and I still respect them.”

Greenard does hope, however, that players can have their concerns dispelled and that all or an overwhelming majority of them receive vaccines to ensure the health and safety of everyone in their respective organizations and, more importantly, those in their lives.

The painful memory of his stepfather’s battle with COVID-19 fuels that desire.

“This offseason was one of the hardest times, besides my biological father passing when I was in junior high school,” Greenard said. “But it was tough. … you never know how it can hit you. It just took a turn for the worst. When he first went into the hospital, we’d call and text a little bit, and then it went from calls to just texting because he was using too much of his oxygen, then he was on the ventilator and it was tough.

"When we got the news, I had gotten in the car from the airport to come back home and my mom told me they were going to have to pull the plug. He was in a stagnant point and wasn’t going to get any better and was going to have to be on machines and still wouldn’t be getting better.”

Reflecting on those moments, Greenard reiterates, “I just don’t want guys to have to learn the hard way. I’m coming from a place of love and experience because I’ve been affected by it.”