Super Bowl Sunday: Mean Joe May Be Greene, but His Opponents Are Likely to Be Black and Blue

updated 01/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Joe is the nicest person I've ever met in terms of considering other people's feelings," says Mrs. Mean Joe Greene. "But he's basically kind of shy, and sometimes he doesn't meet people well." No, ma'am. Sometimes Mean Joe can be downright brusque. Like the time he punched out Denver Bronco guard Paul Howard in a National Football League playoff game two years ago. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle fined him $5,000 for that minor gaucherie, presumably because the commissioner was still a little touchy over Joe's threat, made earlier in the season, to knock down some officials and "cleat 'em in the spine."

Whatever their opinion of Mean Joe's sociability, however, observers around the league agree that the 6'4", 267-pound tackle is the heart and soul of the intimidating defensive unit that has brought the Pittsburgh Steelers to their fourth Super Bowl in the last six seasons. "At first we played for the money," says Joe. "Then it was for the Super Bowl rings. Now it's for the glory." His inspired savagery in the final playoff game against Houston won him a game ball. "Joe and the rest of his people had great enthusiasm," marveled a Steeler coach afterward. "It's like a guy going into a burning building and moving furniture around. The next day you don't know where your strength came from."

In Greene's case, his strength, and fearsome anger, came early. Born in Temple, Texas, he was raised by his mother, a domestic worker, after his parents were divorced. He played his first football game at 14 and became the scourge of enemy quarterbacks—as well as anyone else who chanced to get in his way. Later, at North Texas State, he acquired his unwelcome but euphonious nickname. "I took it personally at first," he says, "as me being thought of as less than a person. I started getting pictures from kids. They didn't mean no harm, but they always drew me with blood coming out of my mouth, or with long teeth. Now I figure 'mean' just rhymes with Greene. I don't feel mean."

At 33, after 11 punishing seasons as a pro, Greene is aware that there is more to life than stomping quarterbacks. "Until I turned 30," he says, "I could do anything I wanted on a football field. I used to take too many things for granted." A shoulder injury, plus a back problem, changed all that, and he has begun to look seriously to his future. He has taken courses in accounting and marketing, and he and his wife, Agnes, a part-time real estate agent, have invested in rental properties and shopping plazas in the Dallas area, where the Greenes live off-season. In addition, his Coca-Cola commercial, in which a battered Joe is offered a post-game Coke by a small boy, is expected to be nominated for a Clio, and Greene hopes to sign on as a company spokesman. "I've been drinking a lot more Coke than before," he points out.

On another level, Greene is determined to become more religious. "I've conducted my life in a decent manner," he says, "but I don't read and pray the way I should, and I'm not going to put it off any longer." Although he concedes he has not always been easy to live with ("Sometimes on a road trip I wake up and feel like throwing my roommate at the wall," he once told a startled reporter), Greene is striving to be a more accommodating husband. "I've been kind of domineering at times," he admits. "Now I'm trying to go 50-50." Joe also wants to be a better father. "Once I neglected my kids because of my football celebrity," he explains. "Now they're getting involved in a lot of activities and they want attention—not from a celebrity, from their father." Still, he finds he is rarely allowed to be merely Joe Greene, parent. "If I go to a Little League baseball game, I'll be there the whole damn seven innings and never see a single play," he complains. "Sometimes I put on a look that says, 'Leave me the hell alone.' I know in my heart I'm a nice guy, so I don't have to feel bad if I'm not nice all the time."

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