The Pittsburgh Steelers are recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest organization in professional football and perhaps in professional sports. Any attempt at a comprehensive list of contributors would most certainly lead to an injustice in the form of important omissions. But any serious accounting must include four cornerstones; Art Rooney Sr, Dan Rooney's transformation of the front office, Chuck Noll and Joe Greene.
To fully appreciate Greene you must understand that he serves as a living bridge between what the Steelers were, for better and worse before the current era of greatness and what they are today. In the pre Super Bowl era the Steelers were one dimensional. They fell short at the craft of football, constantly flirting with incompetence, unable to win consistently, and all too often, not at all. But even then Pittsburgh excelled at the culture of football. That culture was grounded in the ability to collectively dispense and absorb violence. The running cliche throughout the 60s was that when you played Pittsburgh you would likely win the game, but also lose to your next opponent because you would be too beaten up to compete. The Steelers frustrated because they rarely were able to successfully marry the culture to the craft. The drafting of Mean Joe Greene in 1969 represented an evolutionary leap; a marriage of talent and attitude that would eventually leave the NFL no choice but to legislate against an organization that would inadvertently lead the game to ruin because they would be unstoppable.
If you weren't around from the beginning then it would be easy to under appreciate or misunderstand Greene and his impact on at least two levels. If your thinking about Greene is grounded in Coke commercials and a 'civilized' 21st Century posture toward violence in the game, then you either will not get him or certainly not appreciate what he represents. Remember that line from the movie Unforgiven;
"You just shot an unarmed man"
"Well he should have armed himself."
Cris Collinsworth once spoke of playing against the Steelers by relating that Pittsburgh players would be trying to put you in the hospital while laughing at you. I remember thinking at the time "And what's your point?" It is true that he received the title as part of a PR campaign by his college program, but make no mistake, on the field Joe Greene was mean. This was no wink and nod to some professional wrestling type moniker. One only need reference the gif posted by slatedog in the comments section of PaVaSteeler's tribute piece. It is also important to note that while there may be some difference in a manner of degree, this attribute was in keeping with the type of defensive players who performed for the black and gold. Ernie Stautner and Big Daddy Lipscomb being just two examples. One of the most iconic photos of the game is that of GIants' quarterback Y.A. Title on his knees and bleeding on the turf of Pitt Stadium after being leveled by Steelers' defensive end John Baker. But these guys played the role of John the Baptist to the main event.
What shot Greene over the top was his passion in combination with a level of talent that most never saw on full display. Like Roberto Clemente and Julius 'Dr. J' Erving, relatively few saw Greene at his peak; before his talent was diluted by the schemes of both opponents and his own team. Erving's problem was playing his best years in an upstart league that had no national television contract. For Clemente and Greene it was playing for small market franchises playing mediocre to terrible ball. Imagine an interior defensive lineman who is the best athlete on the field. He was unblockable by any one man. He was able to chase down and catch running backs. Unfortunately, even though he did pretty much whatever he felt like doing, that wasn't enough to win games. His talent and his rage were not without focus. His hatred of losing was as prodigious as his other qualities.
This brings us to the Butkis thing, mentioned elsewhere but just too good and important to not repeat. During Greene's rookie season the Steelers and Bears met in Chicago. Neither team was going anywhere competitively. The Bears were a team whose culture was also rooted in the blue collar toughness of the upper Midwest. Owner George Halas had been a great athlete in his own right (he was the other player in the trade that brought Babe Ruth to the Yankees). He once suggested to Art Rooney Sr. that they fight over the proceeds of a game. Rooney, a national Golden Gloves boxing champion reportedly laughed at Halas. The Bears on the field leader was its middle linebacker Dick Butkis. A frothing, menacing presence. At the time Butkis was considered the meanest and most intimidating man in football.
The league was a lot less squeamish about fighting in those days and by the third quarter the game was being regularly punctuated by skirmishes. One that stood out in my mind is when Charlie Beatty a safety who also hailed from North Texas State, Greene's alma mater was isolated by two Bears offensive lineman, taken to the ground and heel stomped rather vigorously.
The climax and the stuff of legend came soon after. The version I was aware of came by an account written by Roy Blount Jr. as related by some of the Steelers players. Greene had had enough, stormed onto the field, approached Butkis and spat in his face.
[Pause here for dramatic effect]
Then Butkis, the meanest and most intimidating man in the NFL turned and walked away. Those Steelers who witnessed it were astonished.
Greene would soon get help in the form of Mel Blount and L C Greenwood, and Jack Ham, and Dwight White and Jack Lambert and more. The Steel Curtain defense was not just dominant on a talent level, they also literally terrified their opponents. In Super Bowl IX All Pro Minnesota center Mick Tinglehoff was reduced to physically trembling as Greene and Ernie Holmes hovered over him. God know what pleasantries were being exchanged.
What Greene started couldn't be stopped on the field. They had to legislate against the Steelers, in essence declare them illegal. And over forty three years that has only managed to slow them down. That's Joe Greene's legacy.