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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"Explode, explode, get off that ball faster," yells the Dolphins' defensive line coach, and arguably the greatest tackle in National Football League history. "Leverage, leverage, get under that tackle, then strike the blow. Pop, pop."
Barely able to walk, Greene's 290-pound disciples lumber back to a huddle, muttering profanities. Unlike their coach, who's driven by dreams of a Super Bowl, they're only thinking of an immediate Gatorade break. But their four-letter protests are short-lived.
"Get your asses in there, move move, low to the ball, low, low," snaps Greene's fiery voice, roaring across the field. "Use your legs, your legs, catch him, wrap him up."
The players immediately crouch into position. No one wants to mess with this legendary dude with a 'tude, the scowling and snarling Mean Joe.
The baddest of the bad when his Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowl titles between 1975 and 1980, Greene was an easily provoked street fighter with a predator's ominous eyes and an unflinching will to dominate. Quick to punch and kick opponents if it meant a win, he lived by the club's Steel Curtain creed: "Putting it all on the line all the time." This was his fire within, the unshakable mix of swagger, savvy and aggression that catapulted him to 10 Pro Bowl selections in 13 years, four Super Bowl rings, and the Hall of Fame.
"While many of today's athletes have to consult horoscopes before they play, on Sunday I was always ready to kick some ass," Greene says with a grin during a break in the Dolphins' scrimmage. "I wasn't worried about being penalized for cut blocks or head slaps; I'd get after a guy. When the Steelers were playing, it was like Jaws was in the water. Everyone else had to get the hell out of there."
At 49, Greene has lost little of his fervor for the game and success. "You must push the edge," he insists, "intensity, intensity, intensity. You've got to keep pushing to be the absolute best." He's broader and softer in the middle than when he threw his 260-pound bulk at opposing linemen (he is so sensitive about his weight that he refuses to discuss it), yet Greene is still in players' faces, chewing them out for blown tackles. As for his vaunted kicking ability, that, too, remains intact. Only these days, he vents his fury by punting clipboards.
Yet as Greene relaxes on a training camp patio, an unlit La Gloria Cubana dangling from his mouth, he also shows a more sensitive side. Handed a Cigar Aficionado photograph of ex-teammate Terry Bradshaw smoking a Griffin's, he says with a laugh, "That's my guy Terry, always with a biggie." Greene nods his head approvingly.
"I'll never forget Mr. [Art] Rooney, spoiling the both of us, giving us our first cigars," says Greene, paying reverence to the Steelers' late owner. "Mr. Rooney was constantly smoking. He was always passing them out. He gave me this big, big cigar when I signed my first contract. I still have it--it's one of those huge El Presidentes in a box. Now it sits on a shelf, one of my prized possessions."
Tough and straightforward, Greene is not disposed to sentimental reminiscing. Initially reluctant to be profiled, he seemed worried that an interview would disrupt the Marine-base atmosphere at the Dolphins' training camp. But now that Bradshaw's picture prompts fond thoughts and added jabs at his favorite QB ("He's become quite a TV star-- he's got the money to smoke that fancy stuff."), Greene is more relaxed and high-spirited.
He's about to light his La Gloria when Miami defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti suddenly looks in from a doorway. He gives Greene a somber look--one that needs no translation. Greene's lunch break, all 15 minutes of it, is over. It's time to get to a meeting with head coach Don Shula. Pronto. So forget the La Gloria. There will be no smoking in prison this day.
Three days later, spirits are running high at the Miami training complex. Already laden with talent, with such stars as Irving Fryar, Bryan Cox, Keith Byars and Dan Marino, the Dolphins have just acquired powerful Steve Emtman to beef up their defensive line. Now the talk among reporters at camp is the Dolphins' "lock" on the Super Bowl, which they haven't won since 1974.
Greene, though, has his cheerless "game face" on. Tired after the Dolphins' full-day scrimmage against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he still has to prepare for his nightly meeting with Olivadotti and Shula. "Coach is very meticulous; Shula's aware of everything," says Greene, rustling through mounds of papers and charts scattered across his desk. "A winner, he's impressed me a lot."
And it is easy to be impressed with Greene. On the wall behind him is a Silver Anniversary Super Bowl All-Time Team poster celebrating his being named to the game's all-time greatest team. He modestly shrugs off this honor as he continues searching through his desk, finally discovering what he has been looking for: a Flor de Caribe corona.
"My favorite cigars are the La Gloria, the Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur--I've been smoking them on and off for a long time. I like maduros a lot," says Greene, who smokes two to three cigars daily when not in camp. "I smoke all kinds of cigars; I like variety. I really enjoy creating an environment around my smoking, one where I won't be bothered. I love smoking in the car--the quiet, the aloneness. I also like to begin my day with a cigar. It's unbelievable how relaxing this is, how it gets me ready for the day.
"Yet I've still found that I get tired of smoking one type of cigar. It loses its taste after a while. So I go back and forth between a maduro and an English claro. But you name it, I'm not fancy. I like most robust cigars."
Still looking menacing in his Dolphins T-shirt, his muscular legs propped on a desk, Greene seems well-suited for what he calls "manly, richly flavored cigars." Yet he admits he often has to savor these strong blends in a private sanctum of his Cooper City, Florida, home. Agnes, his wife of 28 years (they have three grown children), has "banished" him there, and feeling that pressure, he concedes, "I'm always retreating to that room. Cigars are my escape from stress. When I'm smoking, it's a delicious moment, like watching the ocean, enjoying some soft jazz."
Mean Joe on the run?
It's an image that hardly squares with his old routine--hauling down two defenders at once and sticking guys in the chops.
"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."
Brawling with football opponents became a constant for Greene, who concedes, "I guess I could've been really nasty in a losing situation."
Apart from his aggressive nature, the six-foot-four Greene possessed the dedication, savvy, and raging spirit every college football coach covets. An agile pass rusher able to slash through blockers, he was scouted by numerous schools before winding up at North Texas State University in 1965. Wearing green uniforms, the football squad was dubbed the Mean Green. The team was even more ferocious during Greene's years, going 23-5-1. But Greene acquired more than a reputation for flattening quarterbacks. Attending numerous Cowboys games in nearby Dallas, he discovered a hero who would serve as a model for his future style of play.
"Getting off the ball, bam, the explosive quickness and charge, that's what fascinated me about the Cowboys' Bob Lilly," marvels Greene. "This guy came at you, so quick off the snap. I tailored my whole game to be like him."
This fascination bore fruit for Greene, an All-America at North Texas in 1968. The hapless Pittsburgh Steelers, a 2-11-1 club that year, ignored the fact that he was a "little-known kid from Texas" and made him their controversial number one draft pick--the cornerstone of coach Chuck Noll's rebuilding program.
"Pittsburgh was the last place I wanted to go," says Greene, remembering an early 1969 season contract dispute that immediately soured Noll and the fans. Yet even after more fights and ejections from games, Greene was voted the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in '72 and '74, the Steelers' first hint of better things to come.
"Pittsburgh was also the best possible place I could've gone on to, for I found a coach who allowed me to grow. I was bumping against all the boundaries; the rules I went by were my own rules. There was a lot of foolishness; I'd do anything to win. I was uncontrollable," Greene says.
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