The Steel Curtain.
It’s an iconic title used in many ways to describe the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s.
Some use it as a reference to the entire team that became an NFL dynasty with four Super Bowl titles in six years. Others refer to the stifling defense that long has been the hard-hitting identity of those teams.
But the Steel Curtain name at its core was about the four men who anchored the defensive line: ‘Mean’ Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie ‘Fats’ Holmes.
They left in life much the way they left the Steelers. Holmes was traded in 1978 and passed away in 2008. White retired after the 1980 season and died just a few months after Holmes in 2008 after complications from back surgery. Greenwood retired in 1981 along with the only Hall of Famer in the group, Joe Greene.
Greene also retired after the 1981 season and has taken on the unfortunate task of eulogizing all three of his deceased linemates over the last five years as the only remaining member of the Steel Curtain defensive line.
Recently, in an exclusive interview with KDKA-TV from his Dallas-area home, Greene opened up about facing the reality of losing his teammates in recent years. It turns out one of the main things he uses to get through these tough times is the encouragement of Steelers fans. One fan letter forwarded to Greene from the Steelers offices spoke volumes.
“The crux of the letter was that he was very saddened by L.C. (Greenwood)’s passing away, and he wanted to thank him for all that he did and the sacrifices he made for us and for him because he enjoyed watching him,” Greene said of the letter from a 47-year-old fan.
“He wanted to thank us for being who we were, and the reason I’m telling you this … it was probably the nicest letter I’ve ever gotten that didn’t say at the end, ‘Can you please send me an autograph?’” He said. “He didn’t want anything other than to say he appreciated our team. That was special.”
It was Greene’s leadership, intensity and attitude that made so much of the success and image of the ’70s Steelers possible. To many, he is the face of one of the greatest teams in NFL history, but he wasn’t always so eager to take on the challenge.
When Greene was chosen as Chuck Noll’s first Steelers draft pick in 1969, the franchise was known for nothing but tough teams who lost much more than they won.
“Oh my goodness,” said Greene of his thoughts upon being selected by the Steelers. “I did not, did not want to be a Steeler.”
Those feelings were validated by the Steelers ramshackle practice accommodations in South Park.
“Being out at the football facility in South Park … I think it was the first aid building and we were in the basement and the field we practiced on had a slope to it,” Greene remembers.” When the weather got really bad, we went into the barn — it was a barn and it was dirt — it wasn’t my idea of playing in the National Football League.”
The early teams he played on probably fell into the same category. The Steelers were 1-13 in Greene’s 1969 rookie season, and they combined for a 12-30 record over his first three seasons before finally breaking through to make the playoffs in 1972.
Noll and the Steelers drafted Greene as much for his attitude as his playing ability. The defensive lineman from North Texas hated losing to the point where he would get ejected from games at Temple Dunbar High School.
“It was an immature reaction to losing — I’m talking about the fights and all the other antics that I did,” Greene recalls. “I started thinking about it, you know, when I was in high school, we didn’t win. I think I got thrown out of about ten ball games my junior year, maybe nine because my senior year I got thrown out of every one of them.”
Greene’s temper carried into the NFL through the Steelers struggles in his early career including some ejections. Finally, Noll was able to get through to Greene about channeling that hatred of losing in a more productive way.
“It hurts your football team, it’s a distraction,” Greene says of the advice he received from the Steelers Hall of Fame Head Coach. “You’re giving up free extra yardage. If you want to be a championship football team, you can’t do those things.”
The temper early in his career earned him the nickname “Mean Joe,” but as he learned to control it, his distaste for losing helped change the culture of the Steelers franchise. As they drafted more players who shared Greene’s intensity and extreme talent, the franchise completely changed its image.
“Joy, just joy,” Greene says was the motivation for playing football. “My joy was at the end of the season, victorious seasons, Super Bowls, when I could look back and have a smile with myself or with someone else who understands what we’re talking about.”
It’s that sense of accomplishment and those memories that help Greene get through tough times and the recent loss of former teammates. Along with the support of the Steelers and their fan base, Greene realizes the tough times early were worth it for the lifelong connection he has to the City of Pittsburgh.
“Rolling back the clock,” Greene says, “I am so grateful I went to Pittsburgh.”