On January 28, 1969, the day after being hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 14th coach in franchise history, Chuck Noll selected an All-American Defensive Tackle out of North Texas State by the name of Joe Greene. I guess you can say the rest is history. Well, it didn’t start out that way for Joe, but it sure did end that way. The headline in a Pittsburgh news paper the day after the draft read “Who’s Joe Greene?” Little did anyone know on that January day in 1969 that it wouldn’t be long before the nation would know Joe Greene.
He would come to anchor the greatest defense in NFL history to four Super Bowl Championships to go with his 1969 Rookie of the Year Award, 1972 and 1974 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards, 10 Pro Bowl trips and five 1st team All-Pro Selections. He was named to the All-Decade team for the 70’s, the NFL 75th Anniversary Team and the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team. NFL.com ranks him as the 13th greatest player in NFL history. It’s truly hard to believe that there were ever 12 men who played the game better than Greene.
Joe Greene became known as “Mean Joe Greene”, not because of his play on the field, but because of his alma mater. North Texas State’s athletic teams were collectively known as the “Mean Green”. However, those who played against him never would have believed it. He was as fierce of a competitor as there ever was. He hated to lose. His intense desire to win quickly spread across the locker room. If one player deserves credit for turning the Steelers into the greatest franchise the NFL has ever seen, it was Mean Joe Greene.
It’s almost impossible to believe it took the Steelers 33 years to retire the great number 75. In fact, in the first 81 years of the franchises existence, only one number had ever been retired. That was the number 70 worn by Ernie Stautner from 1950 through 1963. Greene’s number, along with Bradshaw’s 12, Harris’s 32, Bettis’s 36, Webster’s 52, Lambert’s 58 and Dawson’s 63 have not been handed out since each left the organization. These numbers are said to be “unofficially retired”. Now 75 is officially off the books. I think they should even go further and do Greene more of a service and retire the number 72, which he wore during his rookie season.
By retiring Joe Greene’s number, a large question now looms over the franchise. Who’s going to be the next to have their number retired? I know what the answer should be to that question, and it’s a very simple one. Nobody. The team of the 70’s had nine Hall of Famers. If you retire another number and then another, were does it stop? Bradshaw was a good quarterback, but would he have been half as good without Swann or Stallworth to throw to or Franco to hand off to? What about one of the best centers to ever play the game in Webster? On defense, Blount changed the way corners played the game. Lambert and Ham are largely considered two of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game. What about Rod Woodson? Dermontti Dawson? Hines Ward? Bobby Layne? If you had to pick one to retire, who’s would it be? Retiring Greene’s 75 was the right thing to do. He was the cornerstone of the “Steel Curtain” defense. He was one of the greatest players to ever play the game. No one who has ever played for the organization, with all due respect to Stautner, deserved this honor more.
I truly hope the Steelers make the difficult decision to not retire any more numbers. The team has countless players who were great enough to deserve such an honor but determining who should and in what order would be a difficult task. There are only 100 numbers, 0-99, for any team to use every year. Retiring the numbers of all the deserving players who have played for the Steelers would eliminate about 20 of them. They could still field a team and not have a problem finding jersey’s for everyone, but take this into consideration. If the Steelers officially retired all of the deserving player’s numbers, how special would it be for someone like Greene to have his retired?
The idea of “unofficially” retiring numbers has worked well for the past 50 years, with Greene now as the exception. I wouldn’t change what works. They did the right thing with Mean Joe, but there doesn’t need to be anymore. If you ask the men from the 70’s teams who their leader on the field was, I bet all of them would say Joe Greene. In respect to him, I hope the Steelers decide not to retire anymore numbers. On the field, he played as if no one would ever be better. He played every play as if it were going to be his last. He played the game with a passion, desire and ferociousness as only he could. It was fitting he was the first player from the 70’s teams to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It seems just as fitting that his number 75 sit alone, albeit with Stautner’s 70, atop the highest mountain in Steeler Nation.

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