"Wow! Thanks, Mean Joe."
That's what the kid said in the 1979 TV commercial after Joe Greene gulped down a Coke and tossed him his No. 75 jersey after a tough game.
That's what the Steelers, in a break from 50 years of tradition of not retiring jersey numbers, are saying now by officially retiring Greene's No. 75.
They got it right.
Right man, right time, right number. This year is the 40th anniversary of Pittsburgh's first Super Bowl championship season. Greene was the first building block in what is now a flourishing NFL franchise with six Super Bowl titles. If you have to pick one player who set the tone for the modern Steelers era, it was Joe Greene.
When he came to Pittsburgh from North Texas State in 1969 as the fourth pick in the draft, Steelers fans weren't sure who he was. There was little predraft media coverage. North Texas State wasn't on national TV. The Steelers' history was decades of losing and many botched draft picks.
In his first training camp practices at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., you could see Greene was unblockable. He tossed around the vets. The Steelers went 1-13 his rookie year (and he was just as unblockable). More help arrived in coming seasons. The Steelers went on to dominate the '70s.
When Greene was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, then-Steelers coach Chuck Noll was his presenter. Noll noted the city of Pittsburgh was billed as "Someplace Special." Then he said, "It is my pleasure to offer here a guy who is really something special, Joe Greene."
The Steelers had previously retired one jersey number. The No. 70 worn by defensive tackle Ernie Stautner was retired in 1964. So now Pittsburgh's only two retired jerseys belonged to defensive linemen. Even a hard-core Pittsburgh traditionalist has to like that.
Unofficially, you don't see the numbers of other Steelers standouts being worn by newcomers. They haven't used 12 (Terry Bradshaw), 59 (Jack Ham), 32 (Franco Harris), 58 (Jack Lambert) and 52 (Mike Webster).
There is something often called the "Steeler way" in Pittsburgh. The Steelers don't fire coaches at random (Noll was followed by Bill Cowher and now by Mike Tomlin). The Steelers don't have the names of their greats in a ring of honor at Heinz Field. There's no bio of chairman Dan Rooney in their media guide, likewise with his son, President Art Rooney II.
The retirement of Greene's jersey number, which will happen Nov. 2, is a break with tradition. But they picked the right guy, just as they did in 1969.
There will be debate about who should be next. Don't expect a run of jersey retirements. That's still not the Steelers' way.
Besides, they've been fortunate to have had so many outstanding players that numbers would get scarce. As long as they don't decide to put team decals on both sides of their helmets instead of just one, Pittsburgh traditionalists can relax.
Original headline: Steelers rightfully retire Mean Joe Greene's No. 75
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