Charles Edward Greene was one of the best players the NFL has ever seen. And without question, the meanest — at least judging by his iconic nickname, “Mean Joe” Greene. We caught up with the four-time Super Bowl champion (IX, X, XIII and XIV), Hall of Fame anchor of the “Steel Curtain” defense and star of one of the most memorable Super Bowl commercials of all time — the 1979 Coca-Cola ad in which a young fan offers a Coke to “Mean Joe” and is rewarded with Greene’s game-worn jersey (“Hey kid, catch!”).
Your name is Charles. Where did “Joe” originate?
I was born in 1946. Joe Louis was heavyweight champ at the time. I’ve been told I was a big chunky kid and my aunty said I looked like him and started calling me “Joe.” It stuck.
Did your aunt call you “Mean” too?
Nobody in my family calls me “Mean.” No, the nickname is a crazy story. “Mean Green” was actually the nickname for my college team’s (North Texas State) defense. Somehow it became my nickname when I was drafted by Pittsburgh. I tried to explain it, but no one was listening. Then during my second or third game, I put a nasty, out of bounds hit on Frank Tarkenton of the Giants and the New York press went crazy and called me “Mean Joe.” At that point I gave up. “Mean Joe” it was.
What made your Steelers teams so dominant?
We had great talent and incredible coaching. I believed in (head coach) Chuck (Noll). He wasn’t born with fire and brimstone. He was grounded in fact. He believed if you needed external stimuli you’re playing the wrong game. He always said, “You do what we do, we’ll be alright.” Chuck cultivated the talent.
But you have to start at the top. I give the Rooney family all the credit in the world for allowing everything to stay in place. We won one game my first year (in 1969). It took four years under Coach Noll to get over .500. In today’s climate, I’m not sure he would’ve lasted. The Rooneys had the patience and could see we were improving. Obviously, it paid off.
Talk about the famous Coca-Cola commercial. How did that happen?
In the summer of ’78, my lawyer called me and asked if I had any interest in doing a Coca-Cola spot. I saw the storyboard and got nervous. I actually had to act.
How many Cokes did you drink during the shoot?
There was a bucket for me to spit into after each shot. But I was so naïve I thought I had to drink it every time because I was being paid to like Coke. I probably drank at least twenty bottles. Needless to say, I had a lot of gas.
Do you get more comments about Steelers football or that Coke commercial?
Everybody knows me as a former player, but I definitely get more comments about Coke.
by Lane Strauss