In the Trenches
NFL Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene dreams of another Super Bowl ring, but this time with the Miami Dolphins.
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96
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"I never tried to hurt or slaughter anyone, but in football you've got to be the warrior; nice guys just don't survive," says Greene, revealing the ambivalence he's long felt toward his nickname. "I wasn't a dirty player, but I had this belief, maybe it was foolishness, that I could overcome everything and everyone. I felt invincible. I'd be damned if I'd let anyone beat me. Maybe I couldn't beat everybody, but I was going to be a man, be in the hunt, pushing it, pushing it and whipping my share."
Greene was such a bad boy that when it came to marketing him, Madison Avenue had to invent a different spin: Greene as the gentle, lovable giant in a 1978 Coca-Cola commercial.
"When I was first asked to play that role I said, 'Hell no,'" recalls Greene, "for I've always striven to be the best. I didn't want to fall on my face as an actor." But fanciful as it seems, that makeover won cheers. Honored with two Clios (the Oscars of TV commercials), the ad was such a long-running hit that it is still easy to picture Greene limping in a stadium corridor, weary after a rough game, accepting a soda from a young boy. Punctuating that memorable handoff with "Hey kid, here... catch," Greene tosses the youngster his game jersey--and in return touched the hearts of Americans.
"Only after I was sure I could do it did I agree to appear, and now I'm proud, very proud of those Clios [the script won an award, as did Greene for best male performance]. There's only one problem. I never got my award. I still don't know what happened to it."
Though scattered throughout his house amid cigars, books and papers, Greene's numerous football awards won't disappear. They're engraved in NFL folklore, mementos from Greene's redefining the art of survival on the front lines.
"You're the hunter and also the hunted, on the run and standing on the five-yard line with seconds to play. You have to do everything possible to save your ass from getting kicked," says Greene with so much gusto, it's easy to think he still craves these personal challenges. "They're getting after you, and you have to flip around, be the aggressor. It's not violence, there's no rage. It's just going to a job, getting a kick from the high anxiety."
The hard-charging possessor of 66 quarterback sacks, Greene still insists that he's a "pussycat," that his dishing out pain was an acquired skill, not the stuff of a natural-born intimidator. "All players have to learn how to be cold-blooded--an aggressive streak comes from education and motivation. He has to evolve, be cultivated."
Greene's own education began with "Old Speedy," one of his Dunbar High classmates while growing up in Temple, Texas. This older boy regularly bullied Greene, humiliated him in fights, and one night, crept into Greene's house and stole $5 from his mother, Cleo. "I can still hear him say, 'Yeah, I took it. What are you going to do about it?' " recalls Greene.
At the time, Cleo was struggling to take care of four children (Greene's father had abandoned the family), and she pleaded with her son to stay out of trouble. But Speedy's taunts enraged Greene, and overcoming his fear of the bully, he took matters into his own hands.
"I mopped the floor with him, I gave him a really good beating," insists Greene, zealously. "That fight, when I was in the ninth grade, got me over the hump. I went from average football player to good player. I was able to find myself as a man after that fight."
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