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"Sure. Don't you?"
When he feels dragged down by contact with blockers, he reacts, even now in his more statesmanlike years. Houston has a young guard named Brian Goodman whom Greene credits with pertinacity—"I kick the bleep out of him and he keeps on"—but whom he can't stand to oppose because Goodman "doesn't know how to play, he just wrestles me. I feel like I'm worthy of a better person across from me than that."
"When we saw the films of the second Houston game last year," says Art Rooney Jr. with a shudder, "we sat by the phone waiting for the league office to call up and say they were going to put Joe in jail. He just beat on the poor guy. Goodman's younger brother came through the draft last winter and we joked about drafting him for Joe."
Greene has a firm sense, then, of how the game ought to be played, and a willingness to take the enforcement of standards into his own hands. One time in Philadelphia during the Steelers' dark years, they were getting beat, and Greene was being held, and the referees weren't calling it, and finally, before the Eagle center could snap the ball for another play, Greene reached over, grabbed the ball and threw it into the second tier of the stands. Then he stomped off the field.
Russell remembers the moment with awe. "Everybody looked at him. 'He can't be doing this,' we thought. We watched the ball spiral into the seats. It seemed like it took forever. The crowd was dead silent. And the players—there we were, we didn't have a ball, we didn't have a left tackle. It was like he was saying, 'O.K., if you won't play right, we won't play at all.' Nobody else would do such a thing. In the NFL! Anybody else would get in trouble with the league, with the coaches, Joe did it. In a moment the crowd exploded. They loved it."
And the Steelers loved Greene. One afternoon when Dwight White, who was living with him in Pittsburgh, was discussing Greene's sprawling funkiness as a roommate, Greene smiled. "I may be rotten," he conceded, "but I pull for dudes." When, during Greene's second year, the Steelers cut a former North Texas State teammate of his, Greene, in tears, declared he was going to quit. " Joe," said his friend, "I was just glad to come to camp," but Greene had to be talked out of an early retirement. When Craig Hanneman, a reserve Steeler defensive end, was traded to New England last year, Hanneman's coach never said a word to him, but Greene took the time to commiserate and tell him goodby.
To reporters, with whom he deals very well, Greene persuasively deprecates his own performances, and praises, quite aptly, the work of the other defensive linemen—White, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes—and Linebackers Russell, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and Defensive Backs Mel Blount, J.T. Thomas, Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards. Only on such a strong defensive team would Greene get away with taking as many instinctive chances as he does, free-lancing perhaps more than any other player in the league. But the Steeler defense would never have developed its terrific thrust—a much greater one than that of the Steeler offense—without Greene. L.C. Greenwood may be the league's fastest, slipperiest defensive lineman, and he plays his own graceful game while Greene's intensity helps psych up the highly mobile White and the terrifying Holmes. But as quick as L.C. is, he can't match Greene's initial burst. The films are likely to show Greenwood taking one step by the time Greene is past the line of scrimmage.
"He has the courage of his convictions," says Russell. "He doesn't wait and read, he just does it." He used to get trapped, and that hurt his pride, so now he has more discipline, but he reads on the run. Even if he's made a mistake, he's penetrated so quickly it may not matter. And he rises to the occasion. When half the team was out sick or hurt against Houston in '72 he tore the Oilers apart almost single-handedly, sacking the quarterback five times, most of them at key moments. He's a great hand for recovering fumbles; last year against Cleveland he picked one up and lateraled off to J.T. Thomas for the winning touchdown. You don't see many defensive linemen winning games with laterals.
Still, Greene feels he gives up a great deal to the system. Noll insists on his defenders' meeting blocks instead of dodging them. Greene is usually double-teamed, and he has to fill certain gaps against a possible run before he can go after the quarterback. He trailed Holmes and Greenwood in sacks last year and is more likely to cause the initial derailment of a play than to make the tackle, which is what he likes.
"The kind of role I play is like an offensive lineman; doing a good job but not being noticed," he says with some exaggeration. "I feel sorry for myself sometimes. But as long as the end result is there, I can dig. it." Greene has never been at odds with coaches or management. His first two years he staunchly backed boat-rocking player representative Roy Jefferson—going so far during the '70 players' strike as to spit in the face of Pittsburgh sportswriter Pat Livingston when Livingston adverted to the Steelers' poor won-lost record during an argument with Jefferson over the strike. But after that incident Greene was taken aside by Guard John Brown, now a successful black banker in Pittsburgh, and Bill Nunn, the Steelers' black front-office man. "They made me realize that I wasn't as mature as I thought I was," says Greene, "and that the coach had to run the team." Jefferson was traded, and Greene, though he was to be an unwavering supporter of the '74 strike, turned away from Jeffersonian militance to consolidate his power on the field.