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Never meet your heroes, unless your hero is “Mean” Joe Greene

“Steeler fans are spoiled” is a phrase I hear thrown around a lot. It’s said by the talking heads on national sports shows that have only see highlights of games for years and then criticize the fanbase that watches every snap…win, lose or draw. It’s said by the people that follow other teams that don’t have any need for a trophy case when you walk into the facility. It’s one of those stock comments repeated by people that have no original thought or actual fact based discussion points. We all are aware of how long it’s been since the last playoff win, yet the terrible towels still take over not only in Pittsburgh, but across the nation at away games. No, we aren’t spoiled. We are there regardless of the record.

However, we are incredibly lucky in one way that most other fan bases are not. While other team rosters of the 70’s are mostly lost to time, Steeler Nation still loves and knows by heart enough players from fifty years ago to fill a starting line-up. Not only because of the success of those legendary teams, but because of the culture fostered by the Rooney family and the men on the team. The sudden loss of Franco Harris in 2022 and now the passing of Andy Russell is a stark reminder that these legends won’t be with us forever. I’m a firm believer in flowers for the living. When I heard the news on Mr. Russell, it reminded me of the time I had a personal interaction with Joe Greene, and how much it meant to me.

When I moved to Arkansas at eight years old, the small school I attended was not exactly welcoming to outsiders, which is to completely undersell the bullying and fights I suddenly found myself in. With very few friends, I turned to books for company. My parents were not sports fans so I wasn’t aware of the Steelers, but looking through the scholastic catalog to order books one day, something caught my eye. It was a book with one chapter dedicated to every Super Bowl played up to the current year, 1980. That wasn’t important to me at the time. It was the cover. Franco Harris wearing the black home jersey, running the football, superimposed over a white background. He looked so tough and determined in that uniform. I wanted to feel like that, instead of the lonely scared kid that I was at the time. I read all the chapters, but it was the Steelers four Super Bowls that enthralled me. The stories made them seem like superheroes. The way the writers described Mean Joe Greene and that defense inspired me to be as tough as them when the boys at the school would gang up on me. Suddenly I was requesting every piece of clothing and every gift to be Steelers gear. I had a black Steelers windbreaker that made me feel like no bully could touch me when I wore it. And this was without ever even seeing them play. Imagine my surprise when I finally did see replays of those games and reality lived up to those stories.

Fast forward to September 4th, 2018. My friend David Bazzel, who runs the Arkansas Touchdown Club and founded the Broyles Award program, had landed Joe Greene as the speaker for that week’s event. I arrived early with my terrible towel in tow, nervous with anticipation. I watched Joe enter the building and immediately become swarmed by a crowd of people, all trying to shake his hand while shoving items in his face to sign. It looked exhausting to me, but he handled it with grace and patience, interacting with everyone that gathered around him. I watched in wonder, thinking of the time he angrily started towards the Denver Broncos sideline and the entire team took a step back. I had a moment where I hoped that version of Joe would come out. That never happened, and he gave every one of them some of his attention. I decided it would be a good time to hit the bathroom so that I wouldn’t be in danger of missing a moment when he spoke. It was empty, which is always a plus. I heard the door open but I didn’t look around as I attended to my business, because you know, guy code, no eye contact. However, there was no way not to notice when the 6’4″ Joe Greene suddenly was standing right beside me. I faced the wall, frozen in panic. All the things I had ever wanted to say to him suddenly rushed through my mind at a million miles an hour. How he had given me the inspiration and strength to face all those bullies, and come out better for it. The life lessons I learned reading about those teams, and then seeing them walk the walk all those years later, being outstanding members of their community. Luckily, having seen what Joe had just went through, the one last sane functioning part of my brain screamed at me “DO NOT BREAK GUY CODE! NO TALKING!”

I completed my business, zipped up, and headed to the sinks to wash my now shaking hands. I could not get the damn sink to turn on, no matter how much I waved at the sensor. Now Joe was one sink down, and he couldn’t get his faucet to work either. We shared a look in the mirror and both laughed. He said, “I never can get these things to work.” We tried different ones and I finally found one that would turn on, so now I WAS SHARING A SINK with Mean Joe Greene. We took turns washing the soap off and then getting towels, and we joked about how difficult it had been to clean up. As I walked out, I said “It was nice meeting you.” He nodded and smiled, then said, “Yeah, you too, thanks.”

I floated more than walked back to my table, and sat down with eyes still swimming at what had just transpired. My wife looked at me and laughed, told me I looked crazy and asked what happened. “I just took a leak next to Mean Joe Greene,” I said weakly. She burst out laughing and asked a ton of questions, but Joe took the stage and entertained the crowd flawlessly with his life story and wild tales of play on the field. Afterwards, I went through the line for a picture and a handshake, where he gave me a knowing nod and a big smile, happy that at least one other person had washed their hands that day.

So maybe we are spoiled as Steeler fans, because we don’t just root for the laundry. We get to root for the men inside the uniform, not only for what they did on the field, but for their life’s work off of it. The march of time may be taking them from us, but their memory will not be lost, not as long as Steeler Nation is around.


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