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Joe really was mean

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If you didn't see it with your own eyes in the early years, Joe Greene was probably better than you've imagined.

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

I confess I don't remember all the details. What I do remember is that the Steelers announced that for some reason or another a practice would be switched to the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. And for me it was an absolute no brainer that I was going take advantage of the opportunity and go.

Tech (as we used to refer to the institution's old name, Carnegie Tech) was located within walking distance from my old high school. But I honestly don't recall if I walked, drove or took the bus to get there. I should have been at college in Philadelphia, but somehow I wasn't. All I know is that on a weekday afternoon I had the privilege of attending my first Steelers practice.

There weren't many spectators there. Fifty might be a safe estimate. To be sure, it was an inconvenient time for most people, but the truth of the matter is that this was before there was a Steelers Nation. Steelers Village or Steelers Township maybe. And things thinned out even more when they broke off into position groups. I went with the defensive linemen. There were nine of us. Six defensive lineman; Joe Greene, L C Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Steve Furness and Craig Hanneman, defensive line coach George Perles, another fan and myself. And understand, us two fans weren't in the stands or on a hillside, we were standing no more than ten yards from where they were running their drills. Close enough to gauge the size of these men (I was a defensive lineman myself and was particularly curious in this regard). Close enough to hear every word that Perles said to them, including referring to Holmes, whose nickname was "Fats" as "Fatman". I don't think at the time I had any idea I was standing in the presence of the greatest defensive line the game of professional football had ever seen. I was, however, certain about Greene.

I've seen a lot of great athletes in my life, but three have stood out; Roberto Clemente, Julius Erving (Dr. J) and Joe Greene. Each shared two things. The first is exemplified by Roy Blount Jr's statement about Greene

(") another is the assumption among the Steelers that Greene can whip any man, if not indeed every team, when he wants to."

All three had that quality that when they decided to do so they could do whatever they wanted, even when matched against some of the greatest athletes in the world.

Batters who hit singles into right field would be thrown out at first base by Clemente. I was sitting in the right field stands of Forbes Field once and saw Roberto throw out Willie Mays as he attempted to go from first to third on a single. It wasn't just that he threw out Mays by a matter of feet, rather than inches, but that third baseman Don Hoak set his glove right in front of third base before the ball left Clemente's hand and never had to move it.

I was at the Spectrum in Philadelphia on Mothers Day 1982 when in an NBA Finals game, Dr J took off outside the right side of the key, flew past three Los Angeles Lakers including Kareem Abdul Jabbar, flipped the ball into the basket from behind the backboard and landed outside the left side of the key. They stopped the game for five minutes as the crowd went hysterical. Magic Johnson remarked to a teammate that he wanted to ask Erving if he would do that again. Erving performed that feat in front of a national television audience, but it was also true that he was on the downside of his career. Which brings us to the second trait that the three men shared.

Relatively few people saw them play at the peak of their careers.

Erving's best years were when he played in the American Basketball Association which didn't have a national television contract. Clemente and Greene's best seasons were with small market, mediocre to poor teams that didn't receive widespread media exposure. Clemente was 'discovered' fully in the national consciousness during the 1971 World Series, sixteen years into his Major League career. To this day Clemente is viewed in popular culture vehicles such as the movie Grand Canyon in cultlike terms. You had to be really hip to be into Clemente, because outside of Pittsburgh he was relatively unknown to the masses.

And then there is Greene.

In an interview on Wednesday, Steelers President Art Rooney II was asked what particular instance in Joe Greene's career stood out to him. At first he demurred, declaring that there were so many, but then he settled upon a game played in Philadelphia during Greene's rookie season.

Good choice.

Most of the footage we have of Greene's play was after teams figured out what the Steelers understood from his first day of training camp at Saint Vincent; in his prime you couldn't block Joe Greene with just one man, not if you wanted to win. He also softened his play to blend in with his teammates. But then there was 1969. Joe Greene played like a force of nature. He could not be blocked. Unlike other defensive tackles who were big, but also slow, Greene could chase speedy running backs to the corners and catch them. He did what he wanted.

But that Philadelphia game was not just about Greene's talent, it was about his attitude. Mean Joe Greene wasn't just some wrestling style marketing gimmick. With all due respect to the Coke commercials and the fact that he seems to me like a really nice man, make no mistake. On the football field Joe Greene really was mean. If you don't understand the history of how the game of football has been played in Pittsburgh, the significance and importance of this fact might be lost on you.

It is true that for forty years before the arrival of Greene the Steelers were, to say the least, a competitively challenged team. But there was one thing they always did well. They may not have been able to beat you, but they sure as hell were going to beat you up. It was considered a truism that you may defeat the Steelers one week, but might have trouble winning your next game because of the physical punishment you would have absorbed. One of the iconic photos from the 1960s was New York Giants quarterback Y A Tittle on his knees, bleeding from the head on the turf of Pitt Stadium after being abused by John Baker of the Steelers. The last Steeler to have his uniform number retired, Ernie Stautner, was known to have soaked and hardened the wraps on his arms in order to brutalize opponents.

This is not just something that was unique to the Steelers, it the reflected the approach to football across the board in western Pennsylvania. If anything cements the fact that Mike Tomlin gets Pittsburgh even if he was not born and raised here it is his understanding that the most violent team wins. This may be difficult for people with 21st Century sensibilities to appreciate. Today Pittsburgh is known for promoting the niceties of medical research, high technology and the like. For most of its history it was a much tougher town, with the roots of the game the product of that toughness.

Violence in football wasn't merely gratuitous (though it could be), it was strategic. It was about breaking the will of an opponent to compete. It is what Tomlin probably means when he talks of players "shrinking" when the element of hitting (violence) is introduced into the equation. I played in the Pittsburgh City League at a time when Westinghouse High was at the tail end of a quarter century of dominance. They won with talent and discipline but they also intimidated and terrorized their opponents. When working as a vendor at Three Rivers Stadium I recall a conversation I had with several coworkers, current or former high school football players like myself, several of whom actually admitted to faking injuries in the games they played prior to their contests against the 'House' in order to avoid having to face the Bulldogs.

In Pittsburgh getting on with one's life's work often meant risking being vaporized by molten metal in a steel mill or contracting black lung in a coal mine. The brutality of the gridiron was something that guys from that sort of environment did for giggles. Chris Collinsworth once described playing against the Steelers while a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. He stated that after the competitive phase of the game was over the Steelers would be laughing at you as they tried to put you in the hospital. Viewers probably thought he was kidding.

Here's what Ryan Shazier had to say this week.

"I wasn’t surprised at all," Ryan Shazier insisted to reporters Monday when asked about the almost barbaric punishment being doled out in the Steelers’ annual backs-on-backers drill. "We’re a hard-nosed team. We’re in Pittsburgh, Ohio."

He caught himself immediately and laughed a bit.

"Pittsburgh, P-A. I’m sorry about that. Went to Ohio State. We’re from Pittsburgh, P-A. We play dirty."

Caught himself again.

"Not dirty, but hard-nosed."

Actually Ryan, you probably had it right the first time.

So to understand Joe Greene you have to get that he served as a bridge between two eras, introducing competitive effectiveness while maintaining and even amplifying the team's culture of violence. That's what that Philadelphia game was about.

There was a moment in that game that everyone who saw it remembers, but first, in order to establish proper context you need to understand that it was played at Franklin Field, the Eagles home stadium before the completion of Veterans Stadium. They run the Penn Relays at Franklin Field, meaning that there are several lanes of state of the art track surface along the perimeter of the stadium floor. Football is played in the infield area of the track, a considerable distance from the stands relative to other venues. At one point in the fourth quarter of this game, frustrated that the team was headed toward another loss, Greene grabbed a ball that was placed for the following play and, with what seemed to be just a flick of the wrist,  tossed it high into the stands, dozens of yards away. no penalty, no ejection, not even a verbal reprimand. The officials merely replaced the ball as if that sort of thing happened everyday. Later we would learn that the referee approached team captain Andy Russell about saying something to Greene who was also being abusive to Eagles players. Russell refused. 'You talk to him', he rebutted.

And then there was Chicago.

The Bears were also a reflection of a tough town and of their founder George Halas. Their contests with the Steelers sometimes exploding into a collision of two tough guy cultures. Just think about 2005, Jerome Bettis and Brian Urlacher, and you get the idea. In '69 neither of these teams were going anywhere as they met at Wrigley Field in Chicago (Pittsburgh and Chicago were involved in the coin flip for who would have first pick in the 1970 draft. The Steelers won and netted Terry Bradshaw). The game degenerated into a series of fights. In these more modern times such a thing would not be allowed, but at that time you have to imagine a level of tolerance that might be closer to that of what we see with ice hockey.

One of my memories from watching that game on television was Steeler safety Charlie Beatty, a college teammate of Greene's being cut off from his teammates by a couple of Bear's linemen who then pummeled and stomped him. But the main event involved Greene and Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus. For younger readers or just those new to the sport, Butkus was the Ray Lewis of his era, feared by everyone. Well, everyone except Greene apparently. Gary Pomerantz describes what happens in his book Their Life's Work.

Chicago linebacker Dick Butkus, blocking for punt returner Gayle Sayers, blindsided the oncoming Greenwood, knocking him unconscious near the Steelers' bench. Butkus stood over the fallen rookie like Ali stood over Liston. Onto the field stepped Greene. Eye-to-eye with Butkis, Greene threatened him and spat in his face. "Butkus was standing there with this [spit] thing hanging down his face mask," Mansfield said. Mansfield thought, This is going to be the greatest fight in the history of the NFL! But Butkus turned and walked away. Decades later, Mansfield said, "That was the beginning of the end of the Pittsburgh Steelers' problems."

So you must understand when it was said that teams feared the Steel Curtain defense, they meant that they were actually scared. Ernie Holmes stated that during the course of Super Bowl IX that Minnesota Vikings center Mick Tinglehoff was literally trembling (Holmes derisively referred to him as "Ticklehoff"). And who can blame him facing Holmes, Jack Lambert and Greene.

Examples are numerous. In the America's Game program on the 1975 Steelers Greene is shown grabbing a Cleveland Browns offensive lineman by the shoulder and kicking him in the groin. In a 1977 playoff game in Mile High Stadium in Denver, he knocks a Broncos offensive lineman who has been holding him out of the game with a punch to the gut. ESPN's Tom Jackson describes another incident when Greene moved toward the Denver bench in anger and the whole Broncos team recoiled in fear.

Of course it is doubtful he could have survived in Roger Goodell's sanitized NFL. But his legacy with the Steelers will live on. Ask Ryan Shazier.