'Mean Joe' bows out of Pittsburgh's 'Steel Curtain'

When running backs like Red Grange, Tom Harmon, and O.J. Simpson ended their professional football careers, reams of glorified copy were written about them.

But whenever someone like a defensive tackle takes off his uniform for the last time, he usually gets about five lines of agate type well back in the sports section, no matter how many times he made all-pro.

You are about to meet the exception, a man called Mean Joe Greene, who for 13 years was the cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Steelers' famed ''Steel Curtain.''

Where most defensive players try to knock the football loose from the quarterback, Greene used the opposite approach. Of course it helps if you're 6 ft., 4 in. tall, weigh 260 pounds, and have hands the size of shovels. But Joe could think too, read offenses, and move almost as well laterally as he did straight ahead.

The ''Mean'' in Joe Greene came mostly because his college team, North Texas State, was called the Mean Green. This is not to suggest that Joe was anything but a combative person in cleats and shoulder pads, only that a man who raises flowers and occasionally listens to classical music is more than one-dimensional.

One thing Pittsburgh Head Coach Chuck Noll liked best about Greene was that, if he happened to ignore the Steelers' game plan, it was because in the fire of combat he had come up with a better one. The opposition was not unaware of what was happening either and, like Noll, was usually unable to do anything about it.

Although most people think it was a soft-drink company that discovered the commercial advertising charms of Mean Joe via the medium of TV, soft drinks actually ran second behind one of the nation's major airlines.

If you don't remember this particular commercial, it had Greene despositing himself rather roughly into the seat of an airliner, looking straight into the camera's eye, and saying: ''I almost like it!''

But the TV commercial everybody remembers is the one which finds Mean Joe, tired and sweaty, moving slowly after a game through a concrete runway, where he reluctantly accepts a soft drink from a small boy. The kicker comes when Greene, still wearing a look that belongs in a scabbard, tosses the kid his jersey!

This gesture had such impact with the public that the idea was later beefed up and turned into a TV movie.

When a reporter asked Joe prior to the 1980 Super Bowl how good he was, Greene replied:

''I don't know how good I am. You never quite arrive at a point where you're satisfied with yourself, but I've always tried to be the best I could in every game. I can't speak for other guys, but even if it's an exhibition game, I'm going to play like it's for the championship. You know, people pay good money to see those games, even if they don't count in the standings.''

What made Greene such a great player, aside from his size, speed, quickness, strength, and desire was his ability to frequently sniff out in which direction a play was going before the ball had been centered.

Joe couldn't do it all the time, of course. But he did it often enough, especially in crucial third-down situations, that everybody came to know that it was no fluke.

When one-time Steelers' defensive captain Andy Russell was asked by a national magazine to comment on Greene he said:

''At first I didn't see how Joe's emotionalism over football could be that real. To me it looked like showboating. But I realize now that he's that way. When I get beat on a play, I just think, 'well, I was out of position, I made a mistake, I'll do this to correct it.' But with Joe it's his psyche. It's like a war with him. He's the only guy I know who can be playing a great game himself and, if the team is losing, he gets into a terrible depression. I mean, this could happen in an exhibition game.''

So there you have it -- the ballad of Mean Joe Greene, as unbelievable in words as it was on a football field.

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