Former Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene, right, shakes hands with Dan Rooney, chairman emeritus of the team, before an NFL football game between the Steelers and the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 8 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH — The fierce competitor and the Hall of Famer in Joe Greene would love to run out of the tunnel just one last time. The 68-year-old in him and his knees just aren’t going to allow that to happen, he joked.
Besides, Greene — a man who struck fear into the hearts of opponents with his ferocious play — is more worried about keeping it together emotionally during his speech Sunday night.
Thirty-three years after he played his last game, the Steelers will retire Greene’s No. 75 during halftime of their nationally televised game against the Ravens. For Pittsburgh and for the organization, it’s a chance to properly say — as the kid in his iconic 1979 Coca-Cola commercial once did — “Thanks, Mean Joe.”
Greene joins Ernie Stautner (No. 70) as the only players in franchise history to have his number retired by the Steelers, who, traditionally, have opted not to re-issue select numbers. It’s a distinction not lost on Greene.
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“I’ve probably had several sleepless nights thinking about what a great honor this is and can I be up to the task. I don’t know,” said Greene, whose arrival in 1969 ushered in the start of the Steel Curtain and an unprecedented four Super Bowl championships in six years beginning in 1974. “We’ll just have to see. I know that I’m going to get really emotional, and I’ve always been an emotional guy. I just hope I can finish. I know getting up there and hearing the fans and seeing the fans and seeing familiar faces (that) it’s going to be an emotional time for me.”
Eight of his former teammates are also enshrined in Canton — “you can’t separate any of us,” he said — but Greene is widely considered the best of the group and the leader of arguably the best defense in league history. He was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and was All-Pro or All-AFC nine times in his 13-year career.
But, when asked about his legacy on the game, Greene deflected praise, citing team success.
“The Pittsburgh Steelers, when we say that, that has resonance throughout the National Football League in a positive way,” said Greene, who will have 19 family members, including his mother, with him. “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.”
That most of the fans who will pack Heinz Field on Sunday night will be too young to have seen Greene play or that the ceremony isn’t at Three Rivers Stadium is of no significance.
“I didn’t play at Heinz Field, but I don’t know if I can discern the difference being out there from Three Rivers Stadium because it’ll still be Pittsburgh,” Greene said. “I hope I can do the Steelers and the fans and my family and myself well.”