By F. Dale Lolley
October 28, 2014
Pittsburgh Steelers' tackle "Mean" Joe Greene (75) gets ready to rush in as Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Fran Tarkenton (10) calls signals during Super Bowl IX, Jan. 12, 1975, in New Orleans. Greene led the Steelers' defense in their 16-6 victory. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
PITTSBURGH – Anyone who watched Steelers Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene during his 13-year career knows he always played with a lot of emotion.
When the Steelers retire Greene’s No. 75 at halftime of Sunday night’s game against the Baltimore Ravens – making it just the second retired number in team history to go with Ernie Stautner’s No. 70 – Greene admits he’ll get emotional on the football field again.
“There have been moments in the past that have kind of rivaled this, (like) when Mr. Rooney (Dan Rooney) asked me to be his presenter at the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said Greene. “I have enormous emotions about that. And when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame (in 1987), I had great emotions about that because it was all about my life and the people I worked with and grew up with and I enjoyed victories with and had losses with. This is pretty much the same because it’s about the Steelers and it’s about my playing days with “The Chief” (Art Rooney, Sr.), Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll and his staff for sure for tolerating me.”
Greene was obviously joking about the Steelers “tolerating” him. From the time he was the Steelers top draft pick in 1969 until his retirement in 1981, Greene wasn’t just the face of the Steelers. He was the Steelers.
He would go on to serve as an assistant coach under Noll for five years and later as an advisor to the scouting department before retiring after nine years in that position in 2013.
But his mark was left on the Steelers in many ways that transcend what he did on the field, leading Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles, six AFC Championship games.
There were 11 trips to the Pro Bowl and the honors of being named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team. But Greene helped change the culture of the Steelers, who were the NFL’s lovable losers before his selection in 1969.
“One of the things that I remember so much through the years and especially the early years when we were being called the ‘Same old Steelers,’ what I remember was the fans, those loyal 13,000-15,000 people who came to the stadium,” said Greene, who will have nearly 20 family members on hand for Sunday’s game.
“Other fans would fuss at us at times, but they wouldn’t let anyone fuss at us, which I thought was great.”
Because of Greene and the other eight Hall of Fame players on Pittsburgh’s roster during their Super Bowl runs of the 1970s, that changed.
And Greene was the catalyst. He was the player that all of those other great players rallied around, which is why the Steelers felt the need to retire his number. They had not given it, or those worn by Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris and Mike Webster to other players to wear.
“It’s Joe Greene,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “We all feel a little better when we see Joe, even though he’s not playing. I know the fans have a level of appreciation for him and what he means to this organization and what he meant to this organization and this city and football in general.”
Greene nearly didn’t get his trademark No. 75 when he came to the Steelers. In training camp his first season, he was given No. 72 because another player, defensive lineman Ken Kortas, was already wearing 75, which Greene had donned in high school and college.
“I wore 72 throughout the preseason and when Ken was released, 75 was in my locker,” Greene said.
It’s still quite prevalent in the stands every time the Steelers take the field. There are always fans in every stadium the Steelers play in wearing a Joe Greene jersey.
It’s a testament to his legacy.
“The Pittsburgh Steelers, when we say that, that has resonance throughout the National Football League in a positive way,” said Greene. “It means champions, and I hope that in the following years that this organization and the teams and the coaches that become a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers can continue the legacy of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation. It means something. It means winning. It means championships. It means doing things the right way. It’s an attitude that we could possess.
“We had a formula and I thought that was good. That was the leadership all the way down from the ownership to the coaches (and) everyone in the locker room. There was something that we called the Steelers way and it’s hard to get and it’s hard to keep. That’s what I would like for people to think about. They would associate me (and) my number with all of the other numbers that the players before them wore. You can’t separate any of us. I believe it’s still a special place. My hope is that it always will be a special place.”
Because of Joe Greene, that will always be possible.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org