Joe Greene is the hulking lineman in the iconic 1979 commercial, tossing his Pittsburgh Steelers jersey to a kid who gave him a Coke.
He’s one of the greatest players in NFL history and the leader of the renowned Steel Curtain defense that helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls. His nickname – Mean Joe Greene – is one of the most recognizable in sports.
But long before he became famous, Greene was a relatively unknown high school kid trying to prove himself as a football player. He graduated from all-black Temple Dunbar in 1965 when Texas high schools were still segregated.
On Saturday, he’ll be inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame. Though the 70-year-old Greene is already a member of the Pro Football, College Football and Texas Sports halls of fame, he was excited to get the call more than 52 years after his last high school game.
“To be recognized as one of the all-time high school greats, it’s better now than never,” Greene said. “The guys I always read about in high school were quarterbacks and running backs. But I was aggressive and I made some plays. I could hold my own at my position.”
Promoted to the Temple Dunbar varsity during his freshman year, Greene was the team’s best player at middle linebacker and the offensive line. Long before Greene became a legendary defensive tackle for the Steelers, his high school teammates saw his potential.
“Growing up, we knew he was a dynamic player and was head and shoulders above us,” said former Temple Dunbar teammate LeRoy Coleman who went on to coach at University High School. “We ran a 6-1 defense and he played middle linebacker and made tackles from sideline to sideline. He was as kind as anyone you could find off the field. But on the field he was a terror.”
In 1965 when Greene graduated from Temple Dunbar, SMU became the first school in the Southwest Conference to sign a black scholarship player with Jerry LeVias from Beaumont Hebert. John Westbrook walked on to the Baylor football team, and became the first black player to play for an SWC school when the Bears opened the 1966 season against Syracuse.
But SWC schools didn’t recruit Greene.
“I think I really wanted to go to Baylor because it’s so close,” Greene said. “But I wasn’t one of those guys who got bent out of shape because SWC schools didn’t recruit me.”
Greene signed with North Texas State where he moved from linebacker to defensive line before his sophomore year.
“I came to North Texas weighing 238 pounds but by the next spring I was 265,” Greene said. “The assessment was that I ate my way into playing defensive tackle. When you’re a linebacker, there’s a thing called (pass) coverage, and I wasn’t real good at that.”
Greene developed into an All-America defensive lineman for North Texas and was the fourth pick in the 1969 NFL draft. Though the Steelers finished 1-13 in his first season, Greene was named the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year and made the first of 10 Pro Bowls.
People started calling him Mean Joe Greene, a name he initially disliked.
“Our colors were green and white at North Texas and people started calling us the Mean Green Eagles,” Greene said. “When people started calling me Mean Joe, I thought it was a mistake. I refuted it for a good little while. But after my fifth season at Pittsburgh , my family and I drove to Canton (Ohio) to see the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When I was walking through the hall, I saw guys with names like Crazy Legs, Bronco and Bulldog. So I thought maybe it’s not too bad to have a nickname.”
Whatever name you called him, Greene was great from the moment he joined the Steelers. He was named NFL defensive player of the year in 1972 and 1974 and earned first-team All-Pro six times.
The Steelers rose from one of the worst franchises in NFL history to the best as they won four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
Greene feels fortunate to have been a part of the Steelers dynasty during that era, and has thought about those years a lot recently after the death of former team owner Dan Rooney on April 13.
“He was the first Steelers official I met,” Greene said. “I was there 13 years, and I got tossed out of games, I fussed with officials, and I wasn’t being the model player. He saw my antics weren’t about selfishness, they were about trying to win football games. They could have seen me as a malcontent but it was youthfulness.”
Many fans began seeing Greene in a whole different light after the 1979 Coca-Cola commercial. As Greene is limping into the tunnel after a game, a young fan offers him a Coke. After Greene drinks the Coke, Greene takes his Steelers jersey off his shoulder and throws it to the fan, saying “Hey kid, catch.”
The wide-eyed kid says: “Wow, thanks Mean Joe.”
“It’s one of those red letter days in my life, it’s a highlight,” Greene said. “It changed the perception of me a great deal. Back then football players rarely took their helmets off. You didn’t have ESPN, so you didn’t see faces a lot. When they saw me they got a chance to see I didn’t look that bad.”
Greene is the lone surviving member of the Steel Curtain front four which included ends L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White and tackle Ernie Holmes. Holmes and White died in 2008 followed by Greenwood in 2013.
“There were some melancholy days, for sure,” Greene said. “A week wouldn’t go by where I wouldn’t talk to Dwight, L.C. or Ernie. We spent a lot of time together after we retired, we went to events around the country, making appearances as the Steel Curtain.”
After coaching for many years in the NFL, Greene is retired now and living in the Metroplex. He’s a native Texan but will always be known for his brilliant years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“One of the things I said when I retired was I came here as a boy and through the leadership of Art and Dan Rooney and (former Steelers coach) Chuck Noll and his coaches, they allowed me to grow into a man,” Greene said.