In the Trenches

NFL Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene dreams of another Super Bowl ring, but this time with the Miami Dolphins.
| By Edward Kiersh | From Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

It's another 40-play morning in training camp "prison," and as the relentless Miami heat takes a toll on young players, Mean Joe Greene prowls the sidelines, barking out orders.

"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.

"Coach Noll finally asked me, 'What kind of leader do you want to be--a negative or positive one?' That did it. I began to play smarter, I wasn't always looking for the sack. Without any ultimatums, so I wouldn't rebel, Coach Noll helped me realize I could put everything on the line, to keep pushing it, without going for the knockout blow all the time."

Greene's anchoring of the defense prompted teammate Ray Mansfield to say, "Joe was like having a big brother around when the bullies were coming....He tossed them away like rag dolls." But Greene's leadership failed to lift the Steelers in 1969, '70, or '71. They went 12-30 over that span, never coming close to the playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl.

Then Terry Bradshaw, who was picked up in 1970, came into his own as quarterback. With Bradshaw passing to Lynn Swann, and the Greene-led Steel Curtain defense strangling offenses, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six seasons.

"I'm exhilarated by coaching, but those Super Bowls, the beauty, the artistry...," says Greene with a sigh. "Enough said. Maybe I'd bitch if I hadn't been named to the Hall of Fame, but what I did, what the Steelers accomplished, all that speaks for itself."

Noll is not reluctant to talk about Greene's value. Praising No. 75 for his countless goal-line tackles during those championship years, Noll says of Greene, "I never ran into anyone who wanted to play more, and be better, than Joe did."

Game-saving plays in the final minutes still enthrall Greene. "That's when a question mark hangs over you, the thrill of the unknown," says Greene, who would "shade" the center--lining up at sharp angles between the guard and center-- to disrupt opposing teams. "Backed up on the goal line, the sense of success or failure is right there. You don't know if you'll fall off the edge or stay on it. [Sometimes] you fall off. But that's how you get to be good, by relentlessly testing the limits."

Greene was admittedly less the assassin and more the wily coyote once he sustained his first serious injuries--to his neck and back--in 1975. Unable to cover all areas of the field, he was compelled to play more conservatively. "After I got hurt, I just couldn't flow into someone else's spot," he says. "I was limited physically, so I had to become a wiser player. I didn't do things to get myself into trouble. That gave me my worth."

The adjustment allowed Greene to extend his string of Pro Bowl selections to eight seasons, and he earned two more nods in 1978 and 1979. But no longer able to single-handedly dominate defensive schemes and disgusted with rule changes that limited defenders ("Forget the dirty stuff. Now if you just hit someone hard you get fined $25,000."), Greene retired in 1981.

He stumbled around awhile, briefly working as a CBS announcer, opening a Tex-Mex restaurant in Dallas, and starting a firm that distributes frozen fruit bars.

Struggling in the business world and daydreaming about the game in his Froz Fruit office, Greene eagerly accepted Chuck Noll's offer in 1987 to become the Steelers' defensive line coach. Now becoming a "storyteller," illustrating different defensive tactics with references to Pittsburgh's glory days, Greene created one of the top-ranked defenses in the NFL (in 1990, the Steelers led the league in total defense and pass defense). And he began smoking cigars.

"When I came back to the Steelers, Mr. Rooney would always say 'Joe, come on, join me, have a cigar,'" Greene recalls affectionately. "I'd put them in my drawer or give them to the Steelers trainer. I didn't know what they were, what brands, nothing. But I finally smoked one, and it was pretty good, so I started to smoke those things."

Predictably, few members of the Steelers family ever chided Greene for smoking during his five-year coaching stint. "The boss smoked, and besides, I'm too big for anyone to mess with me."

Yet Greene was more than sheer brawn. The "thinking man's defender," able to adapt to sophisticated offenses in the late 1970s, he consistently found new ways to stifle an attack, no matter what master strategist was charging into his territory.

"Coach Noll taught me my craft; that's why I'm a coach today. But he did like to talk, a lot. If I was busy, or wanted to avoid him for some reason, I learned what to do. I'd light a cigar. Never saying a word, he'd smell that Hoyo de Monterrey and just keep on walking."

"Dee-Fense. Dee-Fense."

Echoing through Joe Robbie Stadium on Sundays, it's a strange new cry in Miami. In the past, crowds only thrilled to Dan Marino lighting up the sky with long bombs.

The Dolphins had to throw often and long because the defensive line was awful. In 1991, the year before Greene joined the team, Miami was ranked 27th against the run in the NFL, allowing 2,301 yards--a whopping 144 yards rushing per game.

All that's changed with Greene's attacking style of line play. Abandoning the read and react approach that allowed opponents to play ball control, the linemen now have "attitude," a new quickness off the ball that produces turnovers and game-winning defensive stands. In dramatic contrast to their past vulnerability, the Dolphins in 1994 ranked sixth against the run, giving up only 89 yards per game on the ground.

To turn Miami into Super Bowl contenders, Greene has been in players' faces. "Coach is emotional," Dolphins defensive end Jeff Cross says. "Usually you just think of this big old monster of a guy." Yet Cross, praising Greene for his transformation from a mere sack-minded pass rusher to a clever run defender, also says, "The coach is very down to earth, a teacher patiently explaining things, a master technician."

It's compliments like these that put added pressure on Greene. After three-plus seasons of standing in Shula's shadows, does he want the glories--and headaches--of a head coaching job?

"I've never set goals, I've always allowed my ambitions to evolve naturally," says Greene. "Yet now I want to be a head coach, 'cause if some of these players are doing something I don't like, I want to be in charge. There are those times that I want to get things done and I can't. As a head coach you're in position to get them done."

Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, Greene's former teammate who's also a leading head coach candidate, says, "Joe would be an outstanding leader. He has a presence and he knows how to win."

Greene has heard all the praise. But he and Dungy are black, both bypassed for assorted coaching slots, and that prompts him to explain, "It's definitely far more difficult for blacks to land that top job. Much tougher! Why? There are no black owners around. I'm not saying anything racist or prejudiced. It's just reality, the economics. White owners feel more comfortable with whites. They're the guys who've networked with owners, so whites trust and have more confidence in white coaches."

Greene says this without the slightest trace of anger. Easygoing off the field, he seems to be enjoying the coaching life, even though scouting players during the off-season leaves little time to play golf ("I'm terrible at it") and visit ex-Steelers teammates at card show signings.

The old-boy network in sports doesn't worry him, at least for now, mainly because he's been able to live again for Sunday. Trotting onto the field, feeling the tensions and excitement anew, he's replaced old visions of "playing the perfect game, making every tackle," with a different idea of perfection. He craves that next Super Bowl.

"The joy of being in a Super Bowl, leaving my imprint there, seeing the excitement on players' faces--that's what gears me up every Sunday," says Greene, visualizing this return to the "Holy Land" with a wave of his corona.

"The 40 plays in the morning, the 40 in the afternoon here [in camp], the fronts, the defense, the bitching, all this is to get to the big one. And sure, there are guys who fear me, guys who don't like me and tell me I'm pushing them too hard, that I'm always in their face.

"But I'm from an era when it was basics and fundamentals. I knew who was in charge, and now some of these guys have to be whipped into shape. I'll be damned if I don't keep pushing it. I haven't been to a Super Bowl in a real long time, and if I could pick any one description of how I approach the game, it's 'refusing to be denied.'"

One bad dude, tough and relentless. Still an icon of big D, the type that meant gouged-out eyes, twisted limbs and moaning quarterbacks, Mean Joe is in rarefied company: with LT, Huff and Butkus in the trenches, where the man's name says it all.

Yet he's also the softie, still hoping to honor Mr. Rooney. Once his Super Bowl is realized, expect Greene to wink at his mentor while he passes out "smokes to the boys." Worthy of the Rooney ritual, it'll be "the fancy stuff," as Greene promises to celebrate that day by "lighting the biggest, sweetest cigar I've ever had."

Edward Kiersh is a writer living in Florida who is looking forward to seeing the Dolphins in the Super Bowl.

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