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Labriola on Joe Greene's 75th birthday

Ready or not, here it comes:

There is no debate that Joe Greene is the best and most influential player in the history of Pittsburgh's NFL franchise. Not that it's necessary, but in the interest of being thorough, I first offer this testimonial to Greene's abilities as a player.

In 2013, the Pro Football Hall of Fame selected its 50th Anniversary team, and players had to be members of the Hall of Fame even to be considered. In addition, there were no extra players added; there were only 11 on offense and 11 on defense, just as it would be on a real team. Players from all eras were considered, and the most vivid example was that Mel Hein, who played for the New York Football Giants from 1931-45, was the 50th Anniversary Team's center, instead of more well-known, contemporary players such as Dwight Stephenson, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, and Jim Otto.

Of the 11 players selected for the defense, there were four linemen: two ends and two tackles. The defensive ends were Reggie White and Deacon Jones: the defensive tackles were Bob Lilly and Joe Greene. The following is what was written by the Hall of Fame in explaining the selection of Greene:

"The most famous of all the 1970s Steelers didn't take long to become the team's best player. Despite the fact that Pittsburgh went just 1-13 in Greene's rookie season of 1969, he infused some attitude among his peers and earned first-team All-Pro honors. By the time the Steelers won their first division title ever in 1972, Greene was a 26-year-old team leader. Over the first seven years of his career, he was absolutely dominant, commanding double teams and creating gaps for teammates to attack. He was named Defensive Player of the Year twice (1972 and 1974), quite a feat for a defensive tackle. Injuries and age prevented Greene from being the best in the biz in the late 1970s, but he still finished with 10 Pro Bowl selections and five first-team All-Pro nods."

Take a look at photos of Joe Greene's career to celebrate his 75th birthday

Dan Rooney, in his memoir: "Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL" portrayed Greene as a selfless superstar, an individual willing to sacrifice the "me" for the "we," and how that also set a tone for his teammates.

"Joe Greene could not abide losing," wrote Rooney. He took it personally. It's what made him great, both as a player and a team leader. Everyone who came in contact with him felt the heat of the competitive fire that burned within him … Bill Nunn saw the Joe Greene who sacrificed himself on the field to make the team better. 'Joe Greene was a unique person. He was a mean player; Joe was an intimidator,' said Nunn. 'He had the quick first-step move, and it kept being effective even when defensive line coach George Perles put him in the Stunt 4-3, which effectively made him a nose tackle who always had to take on the center and get double-teamed. That took a toll on him, because he was getting hit from all angles, but he was making everyone around him a better player. I think Perles did that to keep blockers off Jack Lambert, to allow Lambert to be free to roam the field, which was his most effective way of playing middle linebacker."

As to why Greene deserves to be recognized as the most influential player in Steelers history has to do with the way he commanded respect in the team's locker room where he served as the de facto sergeant-at-arms. Greene was the player extension of Coach Chuck Noll, and he made certain everyone in there stayed on point when it came to Noll's message.

To illustrate this, I turn to Myron Cope, who related the following anecdote in his memoir, titled, "Double Yoi!" It begins with a introduction/portrait by Cope of Ernie "Fats" Holmes, and then what follows is Holmes' interaction with the Steelers' unquestioned team leader.

"Fats weighed about 300 pounds in an era when 300-pound football players remained rare. He favored Courvoisier, a French cognac, and was known to swill it down like beer. Also, players throughout the NFL knew him as, well, temperamental and no man to trifle with … From his right tackle position in the Steel Curtain, Fats half-defeated his opponents before they threw their first block. He lined up and straightaway announced to the man opposite him, 'I'm gonna kick your ass' …

"Greene, who had come from college football nicknamed Mean Joe Greene, was the only Steeler Fats feared. On the morning of home games, a stereo blared music through the locker room, but Jack Hart, who carried the title of field manager, routinely turned off the stereo a half-hour before the squad took the field for warmups. On one Sunday morning when Hart switched off the stereo, Fats lumbered across the room and switched it back on. Hart said, 'Ernie, you know it's orders the stereo is turned off' – and once more turned it off. Fats again turned it on. At this point, Joe Greene arose from his stool. He tore the stereo's wiring out of the wall. That was that.

"Another time, in the midst of a game played on a cold, winter day, Joe became exasperated at Fats, for Fats had taken to freelancing instead of playing the prescribed defensive schemes. 'You're not playing the defense,' Joe screamed at him. 'Get off the field.' Fats sheepishly retired to the bench. (Defensive line coach George) Perles hollered at him above the din of the crowd, 'Why aren't you on the field?'

'Joe told me to get off,' Fats replied. 'I'm not gonna go back in till Joe tells me it's okay.'

"When the defense came off the field, Joe was steaming. Perles gingerly approached him. To calm him, Perles put his left hand on Joe's shoulder and with his right hand rubbed his belly as one might caress a dachshund that has flopped on its back with its legs in the air. 'Now, Joe,' he said, 'we need Fats on the field. Tell him it's okay.' Joe relented. Fats returned to the action."

Today is Joe Greene's birthday. His 75th birthday. Whether or not you're old enough to have seen Joe Greene play, or your exposure to his career only has been through NFL Films and books such as Cope's memoir and Rooney's memoir, take a moment today, Sept. 24, to remember him on his 75th birthday.

And if you are a Steelers fan, understand that when it comes to players, Joe Greene is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Period.

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