INDIANAPOLIS – He was voted to 10 Pro Bowls, five times an All-Pro, twice the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He has six Super Bowl rings, four earned during a playing career for which he's acknowledged as the greatest in franchise history. He was a first-ballot entrant into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He won a Clio Award for his Coca-Cola commercial.
Joe Greene has received a lot of honors during his professional career, but being honored by the Fritz Pollard Alliance was special to him because of who Fritz Pollard was.
Frederick Douglas "Fritz" Pollard was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl (1916) and the second to be named All-America in college football. In 1920, Pollard signed with the Akron Pros and led the team to the American Professional Football Association championship. In 1921, he was named Akron's coach, and so when the APFA was re-named the National Football League in 1922, Pollard became the NFL's first African-American coach at the same time he was one of the league's premier players.
In 1926, the NFL segregated, and Pollard spent many years after that lobbying the league to open its doors and integrate. Pollard died in 1986, three years after the Oakland Raiders hired Art Shell as the NFL's first African-American coach since him. Pollard was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
On Friday, Joe Greene was awarded the Fritz Pollard Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award.
"I stand here grateful to Frederick Douglas 'Fritz' Pollard for paving the way for me and all these people here and all of those who came before," said Greene from a dais at the Downtown Marriott here. "He gave me an opportunity to participate in a game I did not take for granted. I loved it and enjoyed it. It's definitely an honor for me to receive this Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fritz Pollard Alliance."
The Fritz Pollard Alliance was born in 2002, and its purpose always has been to promote diversity and equality of job opportunity in the coaching, front office and scouting staffs of NFL teams. Its most well-known initiative is the Rooney Rule.
"When Dan Rooney introduced me, and I came up to the podium, and when everyone stood up and applauded, I don't know if that was for the achievement, or if it was for me," said Greene. "But I took it as being for me, and I felt pretty good about it, because that tells me my participation in the National Football League as a player and a coach and a scout, those years totaled meant that I did something good.
"As for the achievement, it's not the first time I got a Lifetime Achievement Award. I know it's a sign of appreciation. I don't take that lightly. But when they put 'lifetime' in it, that means you're getting old. That's what I thought, 'Boy, I'm getting old.'"
Greene's age is reflective of his lengthy NFL career. It spanned 13 years as a player, six years as a Steelers assistant under Chuck Noll, four years as an assistant under Don Shula, eight seasons as an assistant for the Arizona Cardinals, and then nine seasons as a scout for the Steelers.
"He really did the whole thing, was involved in all the different facets," said Dan Rooney of Greene. "That's why it's so meaningful to present him with this award, and so meaningful that he received this award. This is a prestigious award. The Pollard Alliance is an organization that's doing a lot for diversity in all sports, but in the NFL particularly."
Joe Greene did a lot for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he still means a lot to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dan Rooney introduced him for this award, and two tables filled with members of the organization, including Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, and Dan's wife, Patricia, were on hand to see Greene accept.
"Dan signed me to my first contract, and I don't know if he knew what he was getting into," said Greene during his acceptance speech. "He paid an awful lot of fines for me for getting tossed out of ballgames, not once or twice, but you know …
"There was a game we played in Philadelphia my second year, and we were winning for the first three quarters but then it flipped. They were on the 1-yard line and going in for the score that would make it a double-digit margin, and I reached down and picked up the ball, turned around and threw it out of the end zone. Many years later, when I was going to retire, I went into Dan's office and I told him that this next ballgame would by my last. He said, 'Joe, remember that game back in Philadelphia when you were just a kid?' I thought, here it comes, because back when it happened nobody said anything to me about it. I thought, after all this time he's going to bring that up now? Dan just said, 'Joe, I felt just like that.'"
When Greene retired after the 1981 season, he said, "I came to Pittsburgh as a boy, and I'm leaving here as a man." After accepting this award, he explained how that was allowed to happen.
"Chuck Noll had a lot of patience with me, he gave me a lot of room to grow," said Greene. "He knew that my bad actions on the field were motivated only by my extreme desire to win. I didn't know quite how to get that done, because at that time, winning to me was a fight. Chuck knew about my love of the game, and that's why he hired me as his defensive line coach having had no previous experience as a coach at any level. Another example of what it is to be a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Then, Kevin Colbert. This was my stint in the scouting department. It was such an eye-opening experience. I thought I knew enough about scouting because I did a little bit of it while I was coaching. Kevin is a special person, he created an environment that was very, very conducive to learning, open to opinions. The work place was just a special place, because we all enjoyed one another."
Long before the Rooney Rule, the Steelers believed in the principle of the best man for the job, regardless of race or ethnicity. Bill Nunn is a charter member of the Black College Football Hall of Fame for his work as a scout in bringing players from traditional black colleges to the NFL. Chuck Noll embraced those players from places like Arkansas AM&N, Southern, Grambling, Texas A&M-Commerce, Texas Southern, Tennessee State, and Alabama A&M. And Art Rooney Sr. and Dan Rooney created the environment that allowed it all to happen. Into that work place was Joe Greene added as the No. 1 pick of the 1969 NFL Draft.
"There wasn't anything out of the ordinary to make me notice, and so that meant that everything was going well," said Greene. "In hindsight, I don't believe (race) was an issue in the locker room, an issue with the coaching staff, or with Chuck, or with anybody in the organization. When Joe Gilliam was the starting quarterback it became an issue in the newspapers and in the community, but Chuck just wanted football players. He never stated that from the standpoint of a black football player or a white football player. He just wanted a football player.
"Our first Super Bowl was for the Chief. If you ask anyone who participated in it, they'll say it was for the Chief. It was universal among the guys, 'win one for the Chief.' If anyone had detected any kind of lack of humanity to one's fellow man, we couldn't have felt that way. Wouldn't have felt that way.
"From the standpoint of diversity, I don't know if that was the Steelers' goal, but they were just trying to find the best people for the organization and the football team."
If you talk to Dan Rooney, he'll tell you the best guy for the organization and for the football team was the first player Noll ever drafted.
"I felt so strongly for Joe that I had him present me when I went into the Hall of Fame," said Dan Rooney. "I don't think I can say anything that's much more meaningful than what that meant to me, to have him do that. There are a lot of funny stories, a lot of serious stories, but it all comes down to Joe Greene is a special guy. A friend."
And based on Greene's remarks upon receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fritz Pollard Alliance, that feeling is mutual.
"One thing I failed to say at the podium was that based on the way I was when I started playing, if I didn't come to the Pittsburgh Steelers there's a pretty good chance I wouldn't have played very long," said Greene after the ballroom had emptied. "I never would've realized a full career and the opportunity to coach, because I wouldn't have been with Chuck.
"This organization is very special to me. When Dan asked me to be his presenter when he went into the Hall of Fame … that superseded me getting into the Hall of Fame. Other than being married for 46 years and having three kids and seven grandkids … that's probably the highlight for me."