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Steelers laud Mean Joe Greene as team prepares to retire his number

Joe Greene was always tough, usually intense and sometimes mean.

Every former Super Steeler has a story about the man owner Dan Rooney calls “the most important Steeler.” But one shared by Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann might best capture what Mean Joe meant to those who made Pittsburgh, as the polka song goes, the town with the great football team.

In December 1975, a damp, cold rain soaked the city. Catching footballs thrown by quarterback Terry Bradshaw became challenging. Swann wore several types of gloves in practices, trying even ones worn by scuba divers.

For this particular game, Swann settled on golf gloves. A pass from Bradshaw arrived low, and Swann tried to scoop it off the slippery turf at Three Rivers Stadium. The ball hit his hands, but he failed to make the catch.

“As I came off the field, Joe met me at the sideline, grabbed my hands and ripped the gloves off,” Swann said. “He said, ‘Swann, if you weren’t wearing these, you would have caught the (expletive) ball!’ ”

Swann said he never again wore gloves.

Greene is the last Steeler to wear No. 75. At halftime of a nationally televised game between the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night, Greene will join fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman (No. 70) Ernie Stautner as the only Steeler with a retired number.

Greene, 68, has not played since 1981. He retired as a Coca-Cola commercial scene stealer, a four-time Super Bowl winner, and the greatest player from arguably the National Football League’s greatest dynasty — one that produced 11 Hall of Famers, including the coach and Rooney.

“I was so happy I was sitting down when (the Steelers) told me of their intentions. Flabbergasted is a good way to explain how I’m feeling,” Greene said of learning about the team’s plans over the summer.

“If not Joe, who?” asked Jack Ham, a Hall of Fame outside linebacker for the 1970s Steelers. “There are some great players who were there. Then there was Joe Greene.”

The player

For the 1974 season, coach Chuck Noll wanted to switch the Steelers’ defensive scheme. The new alignment often would position Greene, a defensive tackle, in a gap between the center and guard. It always would place him in a double-team situation.

First in practices and then in games, Ham said, he noticed Greene beating the double teams. Greene, then 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, was what Ham called the NFL’s first “athletic defensive lineman.”

“Spectacular plays — he could make them all the time because of that incredible quickness,” Ham said. “I always knew exactly where offensive linemen could attack me … because of what Joe did in that alignment.”

Greene was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and ’74, before and after the Steelers switched alignments. He was selected to 10 Pro Bowls and named to the All-NFL squad five times. In his career, he missed only nine games and finished with 78 12 sacks, though that is an unofficial count. The league did not begin recognizing sacks as a statistic until the season after Greene retired.

The leader

Greene made things easier for teammates on the field, but he didn’t always make life easy, said cornerback J.T. Thomas, recalling a game at Denver.

“He wanted to beat me up,” Thomas said. “I got beat on a 5-yard touchdown. Joe came up to me and asked, ‘Can you cover?’ I reminded him they had been running a 35 trap and had trapped his big butt all the way down the field.

“I didn’t back off, but I was in my second year and scared. I stood my ground. You had to with Joe. That was how he measured you.”

Thomas said disagreements in the huddle or on the sideline during a game never carried over into the dressing room. Greene liked to get under teammates’ skin, but Thomas said that was part of how Greene “set the tempo” off the field.

Noll looked to Greene to “police things,” Rooney said. He said the Noll-Greene relationship was “tight” and they “got along splendidly,” even though Greene had said he did not want to play for the Steelers, a team without a playoff victory on his arrival.

The Steelers were losers, and they continued that way during Greene’s first three seasons, going 12-32. Starting in the fourth year of the Greene era, when he earned his first honor as the NFL’s top defensive player, the Steelers won 105 of their next 132 regular season games. They won the franchise’s first championship during the 1974 season, then three of the next five.

Ben meets Joe

Only two of the Super Steelers smoked cigars with “The Chief,” the late Art Rooney Sr.: Greene and quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Their conversations rarely involved football.

“A lot of times, they talked about life,” Dan Rooney said. “My father wanted to know what was going on with them. He wanted to know that about all the players, but he had a special relationship with Greene and Bradshaw.”

Only two quarterbacks have delivered Super Bowl victories for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger had not yet joined that club when he met Greene as a rookie in 2004.

Mean Joe made Big Ben realize what about the Steelers was important.

“Seeing him was like seeing those Super Bowl trophies in the flesh,” Roethlisberger said. “I was in awe. It was jaw-dropping. I thought he could still play. He looked like it. His handshake felt like it.”

Greene, then a Steelers scout, told Roethlisberger to “play like a Steeler.”

“I took it to mean, ‘Play tough,’ ” Roethlisberger said.

The break (and return)

Though Rooney wants Greene to be known as “the greatest Steeler,” and he asked Greene to present him during his Hall of Fame enshrinement, their friendship was tested early in 1992.

Noll had retired. Greene, then an assistant coach, interviewed for the job.

Greene thought he would be Rooney’s choice. Rooney knew after the interview that someone else would succeed Noll.

“It was hard to say, ‘Joe, I don’t want you to keep waiting, thinking you’re going to get this job,’ ” Rooney said.

Greene left to join Don Shula’s staff with the Miami Dolphins. He and Rooney talked only a couple of times in each of the next few years.

“Our relationship with Joe was so good that I wanted to see it continue,” Rooney said. “On the other hand, I wanted to make sure he got on with his life’s work, as Chuck would say.”

A few years later, Greene called Rooney to thank him for making that decision.

In 2004, the Steelers, including Noll’s successor, Bill Cowher, established a position for Greene. Two years later, the organization won its fifth Super Bowl, ending a 25-year drought.

The honor

The Steelers have not won a Super Bowl without Greene, who retired from the organization in May 2013 with six rings.

Rooney wants a guiding light for this and future Steelers generations. His worry that the light might not always shine brightly is the reason Greene’s number is being retired.

“Our players should know he’s special,” Rooney said.

Some of Greene’s teammates’ numbers could be retired, Rooney said. He mentioned Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, who wore No. 32.

“No, Joe should represent all of us,” Harris said. “He’s our ambassador, our poster guy. His is the jersey that should be up there for all to see.”

Greene’s No. 75 is different, Rooney said, because without it, the number that matters to the Steelers most — six (Super Bowl wins) — would not exist.

Harris, who will attend the ceremony Sunday night, said that without Mean Joe there “would be no Super Steelers, Steelers Way or Steelers Nation.”

“Everything we were in the ’70s, everything the Steelers became, that started with Joe,” Harris said. “That’s what everybody should know.”

Rob Rossi is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.


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