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Harris: 'Joe brought out the best in me'

*The Steelers will retire Hall of Fame defensive tacjle Joe Greene's No. 75 jersey when the team plays the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Nov. 2 at Heinz Field. During the week will bring you some Joe Greene memories from former teammates and opponents, including the latest on what made Joe Greene the player he was.

*I had to watch it twice, okay maybe three or four times, until I realized, yes, that is what I saw and oh, how appropriate it was. 

There it was on video, former Steelers' defensive tackle Joe Greene making a tackle in vintage 'Mean' Joe Greene style, bringing down former Houston Oilers running back Tim Wilson in the Astrodome before he could he get started. It was the type of tackle Steelers' fans were accustomed to in those days, an absolutely effortless play by Greene.

But what caught my eye was the irony on the sidelines. A lone figure, likely one of the Oilers cheerleaders, stood watching the play in front of a sign that read 'Go Steelers' wearing a head-to-toe Raggedy Ann doll costume. Could it have been more appropriate, as Greene brought Wilson to the turf like a rag doll?

"Joe was the type of player you had to respect, game plan for and if you didn't, he would be very disruptive to anything you were trying to do," said former teammate Lynn Swann. "It's why Joe became the cornerstone of the defense from the 70s. You had to account for him. He could do things other players hadn't done. He had quickness and strength and size all combined in one at that position."

Mel Blount, Greene's teammate for 12 seasons, remembers a game against those same Houston Oilers in 1972. Greene dominated in that game like only the greats can, with five sacks, a blocked field goal attempt, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery en route to a Steelers win and a few weeks later their first division championship.

"He was a tremendous player," said Blount. "We all have witnessed him dominating games. We were down in Houston and he took over a game and dominated it. Probably one of the greatest games I ever witnessed a player play."

Blount knew he was lucky to play in the secondary behind a front four that included Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes, as well as linebackers Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Andy Russell.

"It made our job easier," said Blount. "They made it so much fun to play in the secondary and behind them. It was special. 

"When you look at it, Joe Greene was the guy who anchored that whole football team. Not just on the field, but Joe Greene was a stabilizer. He kept everything in the locker room even keeled. He was a great leader. Joe Greene was a tremendous guy for the Steelers."

Franco Harris is one of the lucky ones. The Hall of Fame running back never had to play against Joe Greene, but instead only had to face him in practice.

"Joe is lucky I didn't play against him. I couldn't wait to practice against him. Once in a while I took it easy on him," laughed Harris.

Harris enjoyed being on the sidelines while the Steelers' defense was on the field. He would marvel at it, seeing the damage they did, and how difficult it was for opposing running backs to find a hole against the formidable defensive front. It motivated him, and other offensive players, to go out and hold up their end of the bargain.

"Joe brought out the best in me during games," said Harris. "I watched Joe, I watched our defense. First of all I felt sorry for the other running backs. The way Joe played, our defense played, it inspired me. It helped me when it was time for us to go out on the field because we saw the attitude and what these guys were giving.

"I love a defensive game. Watching our defense just control the game and being able to determine the outcome of the game. It was an inspiring feeling, a comforting feeling. It was also a great feeling to be a part of that team. A defense can set the tone of a game and ours did that many times."

Greene played in an era when sacks weren't an official statistic, but ask any opposing quarterback and they are likely to tell you that Greene sacked him. His game, though, wasn't just about numbers. It was about making a difference on the field on every snap.

"Joe changed the direction of a game many times, with a big third down play or a stop," said Harris. "Those plays, not only determined the fate of the game depending on the time frame, but the momentum of the game. As we all know that big blow is important.

"Sometimes the defense made a big hit or stop, a fumble recovery, and once or twice he tried to run with the ball and it was funny."


The battles between the Steelers and the Oakland Raiders were epic in the 1970s, with no love lost between the two teams. And those battles began were many do, right in the trenches between Greene and Raiders offensive guard Art Shell.

The greatest photos of Joe Greene from the archives.

"I have the ultimate respect for Joe Greene," said Shell. "He was a great player. He was the catalyst for that football team. Joe was a great player. I think he was the best Steelers player ever. The battles were always fun, a lot of pushing and shoving, a little trash talking afterwards. We had a lot of banter, a lot of fun.

"His play was intimidating. You would see him walk on the field and he would give you that little sneering smile he had, and he would get a little laugh. Once that ball was snapped, you knew it was a war. He came and brought it every time. You knew you were in a physical battle the whole game."

Shell is a firm believer that Greene's play earned him the honor of having his jersey retired, and like many others appreciates the fact that nobody will ever wear No. 75 again for the Steelers.

"He respected guys that played hard and fast," said Shell. "Now he didn't respect guys that went down around his knees. If you did that, you might get a foot, a fist, just about anything. He would tell you stay away from my knees. He loved to play the game clean and hard. After the game he would walk up to you and say good game.

"There is no doubt about it, No. 75 has gone down in history and it will be immortalized. Nobody else will ever wear No. 75. As long as the Steelers exist, nobody will wear No. 75. Nobody is deserving of that number except Joe Greene."

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