When 6 ft. 4 in., 265-pound Mean Joe Greene sets up to play defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a feeling of apprehension invariably overtakes whatever member of the opposition has been assigned to confront him.
How do you stop a human avalanche? How do you derail a runaway express train? How do you detour a guy whose football shoes are the size of skateboards? How do you reason with someone who looks as though he might take hostages?
"What you do," explained one of Greene's longtime adversaries, "is try not to make him angry. Usually he does pretty much what he wants out there anyway. But when Joe feels he has been wronged, nothing short of a bulldozer can make a dent in him."
Although Greene, after 12 years in the NationalFootball League, is as familiar with Pittsburgh's defensive system as anyone, he sometimes prefers to write his own script. Nothing too fancy, mind you, just enough to make the Steelers' defensive coaches shudder when they see the game films.
Of course when Mean Joe disregards an assignment and goes off on his own, it isn't quite the same as going through a foul-up with another player. It's difficult to argue with someone when he ends up holding the opposing halfback in one hand and the football in the other.
The word on Greene from rival NFL camps is that he is too strong to be over-powered, too alert not to know when he is about to be double-teamed, and too quick in the think department to fall for any gimmick that might take him away from the ball.
At least two things concerning Greene's personality over the years bear repeating here, if only for their shock value. Several reporters who regularly cover the NFL and have interviewed Joe claim that he does not like his nickname and that secretly he wants to be a running back.
Just why a man who was twice ejected from Steeler games as a rookie and who once destroyed his helmet by throwingit at a metal goal post at magnum force would rebel at being called Mean is not quite clear. But I know this, I'm not going to be the guy who suggests that he be renamed Tiny, Twinkle Toes, or Gentle Joe.
Occasionally Greene likes to put newspapermen on by telling them that what he does really isn't that important; that the other Steeler linemen are just as good; and that he gets his kicks from winning and not frompersonal glory. But the fact is, he keeps track of his quarterback sacks as well as anybody else.
Two things that make Mean Joe so tough for opposing linemen to handle are his straight-ahead power and his hands, which are enormous.He is constantly using them to redirect the travel plans of the enemy, and when he grabs a running back's shoulder pads, that is generally the end of the play.
Although the Steelers' media guide is packed full of facts and figures concerning Greene's many accomplishments, one line tells it all. It reads: "Has always followed a pattern of getting better as the season progresses."
A lot of the instinctive things Mean Joe does on defense, of course, wouldn't be nearly as effective if he didn't have the speed to go with that massive body.
Watching Greene on the sidelines is like watching a tiger pace back and forth in his cage. Joe has so much excess energy that football is probably the only sport with enough contact in it to satisfy his crash-proof body.
During Greene's first two years in the NFL, most of his teammates were convinced that his restlessness wasn't legitimate but a form of showboating.
"How could a guy be that fired up all the time?" they asked. "Why would he be over bothering the Steelers' offensive coaches with questions as well as the defensive ones?"
The answer is that Mean Joe Greene doesn't just like to win, he also wants to be in on everything that goes on. If Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll were to ask him to play both ways, he'd probably be delighted.
During the off-season, Greene, his wife, Agnes, and their three children (Charles, Edward, and Jo Quel) live in the Dallas suburb of Duncanville. Whether you can believe this or not, Mean Joe is often in demand as an after-dinner speaker, and he is a good one.
Greene has also made a pile of money with an award-winning television commercial, which finds him halted in a football stadium's concrete runway after a game. He reluctantly accepts a soft drink from a small boy. The kicker comes when Mean Joe, still wearing a look that belongs in a scabbard, tosses the kid his jersey!