The wall Street Journal  |  Oct. 2, 2013

The Curtain Falls on the '70s Steelers

By Gary M. Pomerantz

Mean Joe Greene was watching the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday when he got a call from Mel Blount, one Hall of Famer to another. Their old teammate L.C. Greenwood had just died from kidney failure two weeks after back surgery.

Greene went silent. Images flashed through his mind: Three months ago, seeing L.C., so jovial in his Santa Claus hat at Franco Harris's 40th anniversary celebration of the Immaculate Reception. Then, talking with L.C. by phone, just before his surgery, his old teammate describing his acute pain, saying that he'd been getting around with a metal walker.

Suddenly, Greene felt alone.

In the 1970s, when the Steelers built a football empire, Greene and Greenwood teamed with Dwight White and Ernie Holmes to form the original Steel Curtain front four. They were masters of mayhem with interlocking skill sets and the colorful nicknames of Mean Joe, Hollywood Bags, Mad Dog and Fats. They helped limit the Vikings to 17 yards rushing in Super Bowl IX, an average of just 2.4 feet per carry.

They made the cover of Time magazine. They did commercials, Greenwood for Miller Lite ("Dear Quarterback, I apologize for the way I treated you…") and Mean Joe in the 1979 Coca-Cola spot in which he tossed his jersey to a boy.

Greene played with rage, Holmes radiated danger, White never stopped yakking and Greenwood remained calm, cool. White yowled about his opponent, "He's gonna have a bad day!" And Holmes screamed across the line of scrimmage, "I'm comin' right over your a--! Yo' mama gonna see you!"

Once asked who hit harder, Greene or Holmes, Steelers running back Reggie Harrison said, "It all depends on what you prefer: Excedrin or Motrin. If you can find the rest of your body after they hit you, that's good."

The Steel Curtain front four became the point of the Steelers' sword, the first dominant all-black starting four in league history. Southerners all, and raised on the burrs of segregation, they were like Tuskegee Airmen in cleats.

And now Greene is the only one left.

The four stalwarts long ago moved on to their life's work. Holmes became a professional wrestler, a bodyguard, a bit actor and then a Baptist preacher who, before gastric bypass surgery, weighed 688 pounds. He died in January 2008 when his SUV bolted from a road near Beaumont, Texas. Months later, White, who worked in the investment business, underwent lower back surgery, after which he died from a pulmonary embolism. Holmes was 59, White 58.

I spoke with Greenwood, a delightful Mississippian, several days before his recent back surgery. He couldn't recall how many previous back surgeries he'd had: Was it 14 or 15? He moaned in pain, put the phone down and on his return apologized.

We know what football takes from players. With the game's violence under scrutiny, the attention now is on brain injury, surely football's highest cost. But many former NFL players suffer daily debilitating pain in the hips, shoulders, knees and backs.

Less well considered is what the game gives to players. To the Steel Curtain front four, it gave a brotherhood of love and friendship that stretched across decades.

Mean Joe is a 67-year-old grandfather now, a football lifer who retired from the Steelers' player personnel department earlier this year, the only former Steeler player with six Super Bowl rings. In recent years, he often has thought of Holmes and White, and even imagined calling them on the phone to ask, "Rev. Holmes, what's up?" or to White, "Hey, Killer, what's going on?" He did phone Greenwood, who ran an electrical supplies company in Pittsburgh, to ask Hollywood Bags, "Hey, Holly, what's happening?"

And now, preparing to attend Greenwood's funeral, Greene spoke softly about his own emotions: "It's not going too well." He said the four of them had made an everlasting connection.

"It's the game that we all cared a great deal about," he said. "It was the competition, the camaraderie, the struggle to get better…Why were we there? To win. I think about all the things that came with it: the joy of being together, the accomplishments. And the pain came with it, too. But I'm not going to dump on football. Every one of us knew that we could walk off a curb and sprain an ankle or blow out a knee. The likelihood of that happening on the football field increased. Nevertheless, we knew that it was part of the deal."

The Steel Curtain front four joined forces anew in the early 1990s, a decade after their NFL careers ended, meeting on the card show/sports memorabilia circuit. Individually their names carried strong recognition, but as the Steel Curtain front four they were larger than the sum of their parts. They shared breakfasts and dinners and watched Fats Holmes eat, as Greenwood said, "a steak, two steaks, and then everything on the table."

Over 500 people attended Holmes's four-hour funeral in a high-school gymnasium in Jasper, Texas. Greene delivered a brief eulogy about the brotherhood of the front four. "I don't do funerals real well," he told me later. "I'm an emotional person. I care about people more than I let them know."

White returned home to Pittsburgh from Holmes's funeral a changed man, a new and deep spiritualism flowing through him like music. Greene then made occasional visits to White's house where they grilled steaks, smoked cigars and reminisced. They knew it wouldn't be the same at card shows as the Steel Curtain front three. White suggested leaving a vacant chair at future signings to honor Fats.

Then White died. Greene phoned White's wife, Karen, and wept. He asked former Steeler teammate J.T. Thomas, "Do you think Dwight got in?" He meant heaven. More than 1,000 people filled the church in Pittsburgh for White's funeral—bankers, lawyers, politicians and many former teammates, a testament to a full life. Greene spoke a respectful farewell. Thomas smiled and whispered to Greene, "Dwight got in."

Outside the church that day, Greene and Greenwood embraced. "We were the first to come," Greenwood told him, referring to their shared rookie season in 1969, "and we're the last standing." Much later Karen White told me, "Dwight's death is really tough on Joe. He even has trouble talking to me. And I know what it is. He calls me and cries. He loved Dwight—and Dwight loved him—and he misses him."

L.C. Greenwood's funeral is set for Monday in Pittsburgh. As I spoke with Greene this week, his voice caught. He remembered the lanky pass rusher as forever cool. Greenwood would watch the Steel Curtain's boisterous antics, and, Greene said, "His response was to go, 'Wow!'"