Our series on ASN’s 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 4 Joe Greene, originally published on Feb. 7.
In the days after the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Oakland Raiders for the 1974 AFC championship to earn a trip to the first Super Bowl in franchise history, Joe Greene took a pencil and notepad and made a list of people he wanted to invite to the game.
The Steelers’ All-Pro defensive tackle settled on about two dozen names: family, friends, former coaches and teammates, men and women who helped shape him into the person and player he became.
“I wanted those people that were important to me to be a part of it,” Greene said. “There was no guarantee that you would get another opportunity to go back to the Super Bowl, so it was important to include the people who meant so much to me.”
“I have a strong appreciation for that accomplishment, because I know how hard it is,” Greene said. “It’s easy when you look back and you’re no longer playing. But nothing is easy when you’re going through it, except for maybe the five hours on Sunday night and Monday morning after you’ve won a game. After that, it’s getting ready for the next game.”
Greene, a first-round draft choice from North Texas State (now the University of North Texas), was a transformative figure in Steelers history and a cornerstone of the famed Steel Curtain defense. He was a 6-foot-4, 275-pound blend of power and quickness, a 10-time Pro Bowler and Pro Football Hall of Famer who commanded double-teams and made those around him better.
The Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls twice, after the 1974 and ’75 seasons and again in the 1978 and ’79 seasons. Their first two Super Bowl teams featured a dominant defense, their last two a high-flying offense.
Greene said that the first Super Bowl team was special because of the franchise’s dismal history and his own experiences from a 1-13 rookie season to building toward a championship contender.
As the Steelers prepared to play the Vikings in Super Bowl IX in New Orleans, he recalled telling iconic Los Angeles Times sports writer Jim Murray how delighted he and the team were to be playing for the championship.
“But my words were misconstrued,” Greene said. “He thought we were just happy to be there and didn’t necessarily expect to win, but that wasn’t the case. We just knew were going to win the ball game. You never know the outcome of a game, but we were confident that we were going to win.”
Indeed, the Steelers gave up just nine first downs, 119 total yards and no offensive scores in a 16-6 win.
“To win that championship for Mr. Rooney was very special,” Greene said, referring to Hall of Fame owner and franchise founder Art Rooney Sr.
The following year, the Steelers faced NFL royalty in the Dallas Cowboys. They overcame a 10-7 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 21-17 behind Lynn Swann’s receiving heroics and a defense that limited the Cowboys to 270 yards and sacked quarterback Roger Staubach seven times.
Two years later, the Steelers and Cowboys again met in Super Bowl XIII. The Steelers won 35-31 behind Terry Bradshaw’s 318 yards passing and superb games from receivers Swann and John Stallworth.
“To beat the Cowboys twice helped elevate the franchise,” Greene said. “That really started a rivalry between the two teams.”
Pittsburgh closed out the decade by winning Super Bowl XIV, defeating the Los Angeles Rams 31-19 in the Rose Bowl. Though the Steelers were heavy favorites, they trailed 19-17 in the fourth quarter and the Rams had momentum.
Greene said that it seemed like they were playing a road game and were uncharacteristically flat at times. But early in the fourth quarter when the Rams had the ball, he said that a huge swath of the crowd of 103,000 rose and began screaming: “De-fense! De-fense!”
“It was like a sea of black and gold,” Greene said. “That gave us some energy. We stopped them, and then Bradshaw hit Stallworth for a 75-yard touchdown reception. That’s what I recall.”
Greene’s memory is only two yards off. Bradshaw-to-Stallworth went for 73 yards and a touchdown, putting the Steelers ahead for good.
Four Super Bowl wins in six years qualified as dynastic and cemented the Steelers as an elite franchise, more than fulfilling the goals that Greene had set for himself and his team.
“Anybody who’s ever played in the National Football League, or even in their backyard, they all had dreams of playing in the Super Bowl,” Greene said. “Being there, especially the first one, was far, far better than anything I had imagined. Being there superseded my dreams. To accomplish what we did, I was very fortunate that reality surpassed my dreams.”