SI Vault
He Does What He Wants out There
Roy Blount Jr.
September 05, 1994
This 1975 SI Classic profiles the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mean Joe Greene, a man with emotions as formidable as his physical gifts
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 05, 1994

He Does What He Wants Out There

This 1975 SI Classic profiles the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mean Joe Greene, a man with emotions as formidable as his physical gifts

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Like Katharine Hepburn, Charles Edward (Mean Joe) Greene refuses to sign autographs. Like Bruce Lee, he kicks people. Like Winston Churchill, he cries. "I never had a desire to hurt anybody," Greene says. "I have at certain times had violent urges, but I don't think I ever have hurt anybody. Tried to a couple times, but I don't think I have. Yeah, guess I have. In high school. I was dirty then. Kick 'em. I might not've hurt 'em, though, they might've just been afraid of me.

"I do play football no-holds-barred. Any edge I can get, I'll take. I'd grab a face mask only in a fit of anger. Uncontrolled anger is damn near insane."

Greene once shattered three or four of Cleveland guard Bob DeMarco's teeth, and they were big teeth way back deep in the jaw. Once, Greene admits, he tried to twist the head off a fellow professional who was holding him. Is it because deep down inside they are so relieved that he is not going to twist their heads off—is that why people who spend time with him are proud to say that Greene is a warm, thoughtful, sensitive man?

Certainly there are other men who are nice and don't get the credit for it that Greene does. He's famous, that's part of it: He's the great defensive tackle and volatile cornerstone of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. And he has such bearing. He may be the most nearly rollicking player in the NFL, but his expression, which can be affable, droll, quirky, smoldering, tends to settle into a basic grave. He can look as grave around the eyes as James Mason, but stronger, of course. His head may be as big as James Mason's chest. Art Rooney Jr. says that Greene is the only man in whose mouth one of Steeler patriarch Art Rooney's huge billy-stick cigars looks normal.

No one would take Greene for a sweet/terrifying child of nature, the way they took the late Big Daddy Lipscomb. Greene has this discerning look. When Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw tells a joke to the team, one observer notes, he looks to Greene to see if it has gone over. If it's a good joke, it probably has. With teammates or friends, though not with fans, Greene is usually comfortable to be around. He doesn't dominate a table.

But there is that big head. And hands about the size of shovel blades. And there is a molten quality about Greene's limbs. He is no Apollo (Zeus, maybe). He is jointed oddly, and moves at once more smoothly and more floppily than other strong big men. His physical presence suggests, perhaps, that he could shift—flick—any loglike portion of himself in any direction at any moment. His college coach called him "a fort on foot." And sometimes, on the field, he goes damn near insane.

Wearing a loose T-shirt and swimsuit, Greene sits back in a soft chair in his home in a suburb south of Dallas, with his two-year-old daughter, Jo Quel, drowsing on his chest. He has an air of profoundly edgy repose, like a mountain that would like to ramble but is not about to slide. He muses, "I'm always nervous, like I've got to do something, something other than what I'm doing. I don't know what it is. Except playing. When you get into that game, you haven't got time to think about what you ought to be doing. That game, that's it. I feel I've got some helluva games in me. I'm just waiting for 'em to come."

Lord preserve our sense of reality if whatever consummation Greene awaits comes to him. The ground may open, and he will descend to a place more intense, where he can chase Beelzebub around, kicking at him, or a chariot may come down and bear Greene off to a better place, where he can make all the tackles and also run back punts. As it is, Greene has led his team to the NFL mountaintop and has had transcendent individual moments on the field. Once he threw the other team's ball away. Once he spit on Dick Butkus in front of everybody. Once he rushed the quarterback, stole the ball from him, rumbled into the end zone with it, tossed it over his head, caught it behind his back and handed it to a cheerleader.

Greene is more than mighty, wily, fierce and twinkle quick. He is a man so daringly self-defined and outrageously responsible that it is said of him, as of very few other sports figures, "He does what he wants to out there." He plays—or, sometimes, refuses to play—the conservative, regimented, technology-ridden game of football as if it were a combat poem he is writing, and gets away with it, and yet fits himself well enough into the prevailing system to be the warmly accepted spearhead and bulwark of a winning organization. There is no ballad of Mean Joe Greene, but there was a TV commercial. In this commercial Greene took a seat on a United Airlines plane, shifted his loosely put-together frame around to test the seat's comfort, then looked coldly, perhaps grimly, into the camera and said, "I almost like it."

Greene loves football. He quit it the first time he went out for it and was still threatening to quit it for good as late as last season. If his gifts had not been so blatantly extraordinary, he would never have gone so far in his militaristic profession, for he has never taken to what is generally considered discipline; he tended to run amok in high school ball, and when an older group of Steeler scouts, since departed, watched him play for North Texas State, they deplored his attitude. "Puts on weight, tendency to loaf," said one. "Physically this boy has all of it," said another. "Mentally he is disappointing in that he only uses his ability in spurts. Will need a heavy hand, but he can play." Where anybody was going to find a hand heavy enough, the scout did not say.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7