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Labriola on "Their Life's Work"

You are in Texas, and it's the autumn of 1963. The place is Coy Martin's Diner in the aftermath of Waco Carver High's win over Dunbar High. That's the first time the reader is introduced to Joe Greene – in a Chapter titled "Noll & Mean Joe," and over the ensuing dozen pages a portrait emerges of a man fans only thought they knew.

Read them and you learn how Charles Edward Greene came to be known as Joe, and how young Joe picked pecans and cotton to help his mother put food on the family's table. What it was like for him to grow up poor and black in Texas in the early 1960s, the little trick he used to impress the football staff at North Texas State into giving him a scholarship, and how the Mean Joe persona started with him being bullied and picked on until that day when an older high school boy pushed him too far.

There's the factoid of Jess Thompson, a scout for some 42 years and at the time working for the BLESTO combine, describing Greene in a written report as "AGILE, MOBILE & HOSTILE AS HELL," and using all capital letters for emphasis; there's the explanation that while headline writers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Steelers fans may not have heard of Joe Greene before the team drafted him fourth overall in 1969, the NFL's coaches and scouts certainly.

The book is titled, "Their Life's Work," and in it author Gary Pomerantz delves into the lives and relationships of the men involved in one of the great dynasties in the history of professional football. As the subtitle reads, "The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now."

The book really is an all-inclusive look at the 1970s Steelers, and it also delves into the events that had happened to create them. After an introduction that serves to set the tone, Pomerantz really begins with a chapter titled, "The Chief at the Racetracks, 1937."

As Joe Greene's jersey retirement approaches, take a look at some more of his best moments.

But not all of Pomerantz's chapters are about people. Some are about events, such as the Immaculate Reception, and the 1974 draft, and the 1974 AFC Championship Game. Another chapter covered the issue of the quarterback controversy involving Joe Gilliam, Terry Bradshaw, and Terry Hanratty that Chuck Noll faced in 1974, something that wasn't settled once and for all until after Thanksgiving.

With the Steelers set to honor Joe Greene by officially retiring his No. 75 at halftime of Sunday's Steelers-Ravens game, it's worth noting that Pomerantz writes about him in three different chapters – one of which details the arrivals of Greene and Chuck Noll to the Steelers within a 24-hour period of January 1969, another of which profiles each member of the Steel Curtain front four, the last of which relates the process of Greene finding his life's work. In that section of the book, Pomerantz also updates the reader on Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, and the tragic stories of Joe Gilliam and Mike Webster.

The research done for "Their Life's Work" was extensive – the notes and bibliography sections cover almost 60 pages – and it really comes across on the pages of each chapter. In the Acknowledgments, Pomerantz writes, "From the 1970s Steelers, I interviewed 23 players, six Rooneys (Dan, Patricia, Art Jr. John, cousin Tim, and Art II), five coaches, four scouts, two publicists, one trainer, and an equipment manager." And that was just the tip of this research iceberg.

The thing with oral history is that over time, versions of the same event can develop, with some details embellished and others forgotten, with some of the context lost over the years in the constant re-telling. But in "Their Life's Work" Pomerantz found a way to tell the stories without losing the context of the period in which they happened. You get a sense of what Texas in the 1960s was like for Joe Greene. What Bill Nunn saw and experienced first-hand as a black sportswriter for the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier. You're at a dinner at Art Rooney Sr.'s home in the mid-1970s that was attended by a group of players made up of a couple of black guys from Texas, a white guy from Louisiana, and a bi-racial guy from New Jersey.

Through it all, Pomerantz finds a way to make it fresh and revealing. The book is part history, but it never loses sight of the humanities of the people who made that history. There are some funny moments and some sad ones, and both are presented in an unbiased and non-judgmental way that allows the reader to decide.

For someone interested in the 1970s Steelers, or that era of professional football, or in the events that shaped the 1970s Steelers and that era of professional football, "Their Life's Work" is for you. Guaranteed, you'll learn something you didn't know.

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