The last entry in the Steelers' scouting file on Greene says, "I would question taking a boy like this in the first round as he could turn out to be a big dog." This note was prophetic only to the extent that it might have conjured up the difficulties involved in trying to block a Doberman pinscher. Greene does not even almost like being thought of as an animal, however. "Human," he said once when asked what people don't realize about pro football players.
Art Rooney Jr., the Steelers' vice president in charge of scouting, was not put off by the unevenness of Greene's college play. "He was a third-down player, all right," Rooney says, "but that was the only down he had to play. He was a guy who just completely dominated guys when he wanted to." Still there were quibbles over Greene when members of the Blesto scouting combine got to looking at figures. Someone had measured him at just under 6'3", which is short for a tackle. Officially Greene is 6'4" (and 270 pounds), but maybe he didn't want to be the day this scout took the tape to him. The inch in question was a gnat on which several Blesto people choked, until one of them, Don Joyce, who had been a standout tackle with the Colts, declared that he was only 6'2¾" and allowed himself to be measured against the conference-room wall to prove it. Thus are geniuses calibrated in our society.
In the end Greene was rated among the top prospects in the country, and coach Chuck Noll, going into his first draft with the Steelers, was especially high on him. When the Steelers made Greene their top pick in '69 they laid the first and biggest building block of a six-year program that brought them up from perennial failure. That primacy is one aspect of Greene's eminence on the team; another is the assumption among the Steelers that Greene can whip any man, if not indeed any team, when he wants to. Wanting to, though, the way Greene wants to, is not something you can turn off and on.
Greene held out for a long time before signing his first Steeler contract, then showed up in camp fat and late. Center Ray Mansfield, now a 10-year veteran, recalls looking forward to teaching the presumptuous rookie some lessons with the help of guard Bruce Van Dyke, now a Packer. "After a couple of days," says Mansfield, "we wished we'd never seen him." Greene took on the offensive linemen one by one, quickly learned to deal with a couple of moves he hadn't seen, and then proved too strong to be overpowered, too elusive to be hobbled and too smart to be fooled. Nobody had seen a player so quick and strong at once. He was something new, like aluminum when it first came out. Nobody wanted to fight him. The coaches wisely kept anything resembling a heavy hand off him. "Play your game, Joe," they said. Now all he had to do was make his formidability clear to opponents, to let them know, "I don't have to reckon with you. You have to reckon with me."
He also had to work off the frustration, during his first three years with the Steelers, of playing on losing teams. "That's bound to make you ugly," he says. Greene's nickname derives from that of his college team, the Mean Green (thought up, incidentally, by a lady named Sidney Sue), but in the pros Greene has done a number of things to deserve it. In his rookie year he was ejected from two games. Once he threw his helmet so hard at a goalpost that pieces of helmet went flying. Another time, after an opposing guard had hit him with a good clean block, he seized the offender with one hand on each shoulder pad and kicked him Hush between the legs. One day he was glaringly outplaying a good Cincinnati guard named Pat Matson, a 245-pound ball of muscle, until at last Matson developed a bad leg and began limping off the field. Greene ran over and grabbed him before he reached the sideline and tried to coax him back into play, crying, "Come on, I want you out here." Says Steeler defensive captain Andy Russell, "I'll never forget the look on Matson's face." There is even a story that once, after being thrown out of a game, Greene returned to the bench in such a rage that he opened up the equipment manager's tool chest and pulled out a screwdriver. Whatever he intended to do, he had second thoughts and threw it down.
Then there was the time he spit on Butkus. The Bears were humiliating the Steelers. Butkus was blitzing at will, taking long running starts and smashing into the Steeler center just as he snapped the ball, and Greene couldn't stand it any longer. The Steeler offense was on the field. Greene had no business out there, but when Butkus passed within 10 feet of the Steeler bench, Greene bolted out at him, yelling challenges, and drew back and spit full in Butkus's face.
"Butkus didn't look intimidated," says Russell, "but there was Greene, obviously wanting to fight him and fully capable of it, and you could see Butkus thinking, This wouldn't be the intelligent thing to do." So Butkus turned and walked back into the security of the carnage on the field. When Russell ran into Butkus in the off-season and asked him how he could let a guy spit in his face without retaliating, Butkus said, "I was too busy making All-Pro." Greene—who was himself named All-Pro for the fourth time, and NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the second time, last season—is perhaps the only man alive who could make Butkus come off sounding rather prim.
"Joe's first year," says Russell, "I didn't see how all that emotionalism could be real. It looked like showboating. But I realize now that he's that way. When I get beat I just think, Well, I was out of position, I made a mistake, I'll do this to correct it. With Joe, it's in his psyche. It's like it's war, and the other side is winning because they're more violent. And he's the only guy I know, he can be playing a great game, but if the team's losing, he gets into a terrible depression. It could be an exhibition game!"
The other thing that gets Greene's goat, or rather his mountain lion, is being held. He says he realizes that if the rules against offensive holding were strictly enforced, offenses would never get any plays off, either because offensive linemen would keep on holding and Hags would be thrown all day, or because they would quit holding and the quarterback would be smothered all day. Greene lives in an age in which defensive lines dominate pro football. But sometimes he feels guards cling too much. He likes to think of his game as one of quickness and finesse, of avoiding blockers, rather than one of violent contact. "It's that thing in me that I want to be a running back," he says.
"You want to be a running back?"