Joe Greene, hall of fame defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, limps down a ramp toward the locker room. Battered and weary, he carries his jersey draped over his shoulder.
A child offers asks Joe if he needs help. Joe tries to avoid the child. The child persists, offering Joe his Coke.
Joe accepts. Taking the Coke in his massive hand, he downs it in one gulp.
Joe starts down the ramp. A bit confused, and perhaps disappointed, the child says good-bye and moves toward the stadium.
Joe stops, turns and calls: “Hey kid. Catch.” He tosses his jersey to the child whose eyes go wide as he pulls in the precious jersey. Awe fills his voice as he says: “Wow! Thanks Mean Joe!”
Those of us who inhabit Steelers Nation have said those words many times over the years. Today, they carry special meaning.
When he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1969, people asked “Joe who?” Chuck Noll made a defensive tackle from North Texas State University the fourth pick of the 1969 draft and the first pick of his coaching career. Most folks in Pittsburgh had never heard of the school or of Joe Greene despite his outstanding college career. Joe quickly taught us to know and admire him becoming one of the dominant players of his era and the cornerstone of the Steel Curtain.
The Steelers had never won a championship when Joe arrived. Now six Lombardi Trophies decorate Heinz Field. Joe Greene anchored the defensive line on four championship teams. He served in the front office when the Steelers won the other two.
Fans referred to the “same old Steelers” with an air of resignation when he arrived. Today, a .500 season marks a bitter disappointment.
No one player makes a team. But few players have played such key role in transforming a franchise as Joe Greene did.
He forced offenses to adapt to account for him: double teaming him, triple teaming him, still failing to stop him. He played with a fervor that led by example and raised the play of those around him.
The outstanding North Texas State University defense earned the nickname, “Mean Green.” The name followed Joe to Pittsburgh and stuck to him. “Mean Joe Greene.”
At moments he lived into the nickname, particularly in his early years when the Steelers’ losing seasons frustrated him. He reportedly spat at Dick Butkus in one game. He tossed his helmet into the stands in another. His intensity drew the team together and led others to adopt a similar attitude and match it with their play.
Of course, the fire burned all the years. Late in his career, as the Steelers faced elimination in the playoffs, officials ejected Joe for punching an opponent.
When he retired, for the first time, as a player, he became the defensive line coach under his former head coach Chuck Noll. Noll’s retirement brought speculation that the Steelers might hire Joe as the head coach. It did not happen. This resulted in a second retirement from the Steelers organization. The new coach, Bill Cowher, did not keep Joe on the staff.
Steelers Nation found it hard to watch at times, but Joe spent a few years coaching with the Dolphins and Cardinals. After the Cardinals let him go in 2004, the Steelers created a position for Joe in their scouting and player personnel department. He served for nine years before retiring for the third, and he says final, time today.
Player. Hall of Famer. Coach. Executive. As Steeler President Art Rooney said:
“There are very few people in the history of the NFL who have had a greater impact on one franchise than Joe Greene has had on the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Wow! Thanks Mean Joe!
See you along the Trail.