The Steelers so thoroughly did right by their greatest player Sunday that it nearly went without notice that another wrong was finally righted. Joe Greene’s No. 75 was retired, and a bright light literally was shined on the career of the first famous face of this flagship football franchise.
Ernie Stautner seemed to touch Greene from beyond the grave, causing Mean Joe to choke back tears early during a speech that was touching, funny and inspiring. Greene was four sentences in when he looked up at the new Great Hall exhibit that displays the retired jerseys belonging to him and Stautner. Something staggered Greene. A smile quickly formed on his face as he struggled to clear his throat.
“I can’t say how happy I am to be placed in this awesome category with Ernie,” Greene said. “He was the first Mr. Steeler.”
If we’re from the town with the great football team, we need to appreciate that Pittsburgh’s Steelers did not begin playing defense when Greene arrived in 1969.
“Nobody was tougher than Ernie,” former linebacker Andy Russell said. “If they fought in a parking lot, Joe would win, but Ernie would have never given up or stopped fighting until he was knocked out.
“He was the toughest football player I ever played with or against, and he was a great, great player. People should know that Ernie Stautner was great.”
Stautner died in February 2006 a few weeks after Greene celebrated his fifth Super Bowl victory, this one as a scout for the Steelers.
Dan Rooney, who would know better than anybody, said Greene is “the greatest Steeler because he changed everything,” and though it probably won’t be this way forever, there seems something wonderfully fitting about the Steelers never having won a Super Bowl without Greene as part of the organization.
It really isn’t true that the Steelers never won anything — not one playoff game — before Greene, because wins are not always an accurate measure of success.
Stautner made Pittsburgh a City of Defense before Greene transformed it into the City of Champions, Russell said.
“For his time, Ernie was small,” Russell said, referring to Stautner’s measurements (6-foot-1, 230 pounds).
“But he was fast, and he never stopped. He’d wear out the bigger linemen he was going against, and, boy, did he hit you. Guys felt it when Ernie hit them. He and Joe had that in common. They’d put guys down.”
In 14 seasons, Stautner recorded three safeties, recovered 23 opponents’ fumbles, made four All-NFL squads and played through almost every imaginable injury, including fingers and a nose that Russell said always seemed broken.
The highest praise paid to Stautner: “He would have fit right in with our guys on defense in the ’70s,” Rooney said.
For 50 years, Stautner’s No. 70 was the only number retired by the Steelers. However, his importance to the franchise never was properly depicted in a Great Hall full of lockers containing former players’ gear and ceiling-high columns celebrating the six title teams.
Steelers president Art Rooney II said Sunday “it’s great” that the largest displays inside the Great Hall are now the ones for Stautner and Greene.
Were he alive, Stautner, like Greene, probably would have reveled in a turn-back-the-clock performance by James Harrison against Baltimore on Sunday night. Harrison, in his prime, was a true heir to the legacies of Stautner, Greene and other Steelers’ defenders (from Jack Lambert to Greg Lloyd to Joey Porter) who inspired crazed Pittsburgh crowds to chant choruses of “Dee-fense! Dee-fense!”
History suggests the Steelers eventually will return to consistently bringing down quarterbacks, burying ball carriers, blanketing wide receivers and playing mean defense. … if the NFL allows them.
“No,” Greene said, he is not happy with where the NFL is headed as points become plentiful, hitting becomes bemoaned and acceptable defense becomes making occasional stops instead of allowing occasional scores.
Stautner surely would agree.
After all, he and Greene have a lot more in common that being the only Steelers whose jerseys are retired. They’re the Steelers who turned the Steelers into what Steelers Nation was built upon.
“Football,” Greene said. “Not some other thing.”