Greene, Charles Edward ("Mean Joe")
GREENE, Charles Edward ("Mean Joe")
(b. 24 September 1946 in Temple, Texas), football player who was the heart and soul of one of the best defensive units, "the Steel Curtain," as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1970s Super Bowl dynasty.
Greene is a sensitive and private person, so full details of his family background are sketchy. Given the nickname "Joe" by an aunt when he was young, Greene is the oldest of four children. His father was a carpenter who "just went somewhere" when Greene was about ten years old. Greene's mother worked as a domestic to keep the family together after that time. Greene said: "We never felt deprived growing up. We always had clothes and they were clean. I don't ever recall being on welfare."
As the oldest Greene looked after his younger siblings after school, and he retained that fatherly attitude toward his younger teammates as a college and pro football player. To help support his brothers and sisters, he earned money as a laborer but vowed to find a better way of life. Football was his ticket to that life. Eventually reaching 6 feet 4 inches and 275 pounds, Greene, like many other Texas youngsters, found football a natural calling. He began to play at Temple's Dunbar High School but was not recruited by the power schools of the still-segregated Southwest Conference (SWC).
After his high school graduation in 1965, Greene chose North Texas State (now the University of North Texas) over Texas A&I (now Texas A&M at Kingsville), New Mexico State, and the University of Houston. While at North Texas (1965–1969), he was converted from his high school position of linebacker to defensive tackle. Greene earned some All-America mention as a junior, and as a senior in 1968 he was a consensus All-America though still relatively unknown. As a member of the North Texas Eagles, Greene acquired the foundation for his "Mean Joe" nickname if not the actual nickname. The wife of the North Texas sports information director, Sidney Sue Graham, thought the outstanding Eagles defense should have a catchy nickname. Since the school's colors were green and white, "the Mean Green" caught on as a collective nickname. Eventually Greene became "Mean Joe," but he never liked the sobriquet. He once told a writer, "My friends just call me 'Joe.'" Greene married Agnes Craft while they were both students at North Texas. The couple had three children.
The Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League (NFL), who needed help at many positions, shocked much of the football world by making Greene, a little-known player from a little-known school, their first-round draft choice as opposed to heralded Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty, a Pittsburgh-area native. But the new Steelers coach Chuck Noll had scouted Greene as a college player and was convinced he could be the cornerstone of a great defensive unit. Not only was the well-versed Noll correct about Greene, he also secured Hanratty in the second round of the 1969 draft. This did not keep the Pittsburgh media from blaring banner headlines asking, "Joe Who?"
Although the Steelers were several years away from the dynasty years, Greene made an immediate impact and impression. At the time NFL rookies were hazed by veteran players. Greene was not about to do a veteran's bidding, and he said so. He also invoked the wrath of the seasoned players by "holding out" for twenty-three days of training camp before reporting. When he finally got to the Steelers camp, the veterans were prepared to teach him the ways of the NFL. However, Greene did the teaching. In a drill called "the meatgrinder," Greene faced two established Steelers veterans, the starting center Ray Mansfield and the Pro Bowl guard Bruce VanDyke. Relating what happened, Mansfield said, "He [Greene] grabbed Bruce by the shoulder pads and me by the neck and threw both of us away like we were ragdogs." Mansfield continued: "Suddenly we had a player who was better than the other guys. It was like having a big brother show up when the class bully was chasing you."
Greene's aggressive play in his first year, when the Steelers won their first game and lost the next thirteen, got him ejected from several games. But it also got the attention of the rest of the NFL, and he was named the Associated Press (AP) NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He also was named to play in the Pro Bowl, an honor he gained nine more times before his storied career ended after the 1981 season.
By 1972 the Steelers were contenders, but before they won their first championship of any kind, Greene needed to perform at a near superhuman level. On 10 December 1972 Pittsburgh played the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans). With the score tied 3–3, the starting quarterback, the Professional Football Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, was injured. Greene, by now the unquestioned leader of the team, told his defensive mates, "We can't let 'em score a point." He then led by example. He sacked the Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini five times, blocked a field goal attempt, and fought through three blockers to strip an Oilers runner of the ball and recovered the fumble. The Steelers won the game 9–3 on two more field goals set up by the good field position established by the outstanding play of Greene and the other Steel Curtain defenders. Said Noll, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee as a four-time undefeated Super Bowl coach: "It was just an unbelievable performance and effort. I've watched the film a dozen times and I still can't believe it."
Greene performed similarly throughout the Steelers' Super Bowl reign, which saw them capture the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy (as Super Bowl champions) after Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, and XIV, an unprecedented run of four titles in a six-year span. Green was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 1974. He was also All-Pro many times before he retired. Television endorsements beckoned the charismatic Greene. He starred in a spot in which an exhausted Greene accepts a postgame Coca-Cola from a young fan. A scowling Greene downs the entire Coke in one continuous gulp and says nothing. The discouraged youngster begins walking away but is stopped when a menacing-looking Greene calls out, "Hey, kid, here." Greene then throws the elated youngster his game jersey. The music swells and all is well. Those who know him best contend this depicts the real Mean Joe Greene. So successful was the television spot that it spawned a made-for-TV movie, "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid."
A chronic back problem hastened Greene's retirement in 1981, and Greene became an NFL defensive line coach first with the Steelers, next with the Miami Dolphins, and then with the Arizona Cardinals. Noll called Greene, "The best I've ever seen—there'll never be another Joe Greene." While his offensive teammates Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth won more accolades, Greene captured the fancy of Pittsburgh's blue-collar fans and redefined how his position, defensive tackle, is played. Greene was elected into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
Greene's life and career are discussed in Roy Blount, Jr., About Three Bricks Shy of a Load (1974); Ray Didinger, Great TeamsGreat Years—The Pittsburgh Steelers (1974); and Larry Fox, Mean Joe Greene and the Steelers' Front Four (1975).