Behind the lines…In the shade of a tree

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    We were at St. Vicent’s College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a town known more for motor oil and legendary golfer Arnold Palmer than football. The Pittsburgh Steeler had taken over the dormitories, gyms, and the three football fields the NAIA Bearcats competed on for their annual fall training camp.

    It was August 2008, Rashard Mendenhall was the talk of camp. The running back was the 23rd pick overall in the NFL draft earlier that year and the Steelers first-round pick.


    Hanging out with “professional” sportswriters is often an eye-opener. Many of these make you wonder how they made it through the security checkpoint, much less how they were ever hired by any media outlet, but I diverge.

    As Mendenhall came out of the locker room after an early afternoon practice he was mobbed by several dozen men and women.

    Standing off to the side was an older man, with two pre-teen boys next to him. I walked a little closer and was delighted to see Joe Green, yes, “Mean Joe Green” standing in the shade of one of the trees beside the campus cafeteria.

    He was older than his playing days obviously, with solid white hair, and a cane in each hand, the type that wraps around your forearm with a grip below. The two kids were his twin grandsons who looked to be about 12 years old. Tall, athletic boys who were wide-eyed as they watched their grandfather speak briefly and shake hands with professional football players and coaches. None of the sportswriters bothered to stop.


    I thought it was strange, how a man of his stature, a true legend of the game could be so invisible, but his era had passed in the eyes of these 20 and 30-something reporters. They were anxious to glom onto the latest bit of gossip or team trivia and become the first one to write or broadcast the news.

    My son-in-law Adam was with me and suggested I go to talk to Joe.

    “Why not?” I said. “How often do you meet someone who is in the NFL Hall of Fame?”


    I walked up and said, “Mr. Green?”

    “It’s Joe,” the big man said.

    I introduced us, told him I was from Wyoming, and that I was in camp to interview Brett Keisel.


    Brett was a man after Joe’s heart, “Keisel is a great football player,” Joe said. “Quick, strong, and reads well.”

    The grandsons were a bit fidgety, so Joe let them go off on their own for a few minutes.

    “Wyoming, you’re probably a Bronco fan,” he said.

    “No, I’ve never been a Denver fan,” I replied, “My team’s a little further out west.”

    The comment had Joe thinking for a bit, “Seattle?” he asked.

    “Nope a little further south,” I said.

    “The Niners?” Joe asked again.

    “Now you’re getting close, the other side of the bay,” I said with a grin.

    “The Raiders!” Joe gasped with fake disgust, “Man anyone but the Raiders.”

    He was now engaged and started to laugh.”

    “Who was the toughest Raider you ever lined up with,” I asked. “Gene Upshaw, Art Shell? (both of which are also in the Hall of Fame)”

    “No man, I never tangled with those two,” Joe said as he straightened up as much as his football-ravaged body would allow him. He was wearing shorts that hot afternoon and both of his knees were covered with bumps that looked like a half-golf ball, reminders of hits taken long ago.

    Joe is 6-4, and looked down a bit at me and said, “It was a little white dude, a guy about your size. He cut me, hooked me, and was like a little piece of steel.”

    “Jim Otto?” I asked.

    “That’s him, double-zero. The dirtiest player I ever lined up with,” Joe said.

    That sounded like an insult, but to a professional football player, it was a compliment.

    I couldn’t resist and said, “Dirtiest player? You pushed the limits a few times Joe.”

    He laughed at this and became a bit professorial, “I just played within the boundaries of the game. Maybe I challenged those boundaries, but that’s how we played back then.”

    That comment followed with a booming laugh.

    We talked for around 20 minutes about football, life, the change in the game and shared stories. Adam secretly recorded the entire interview on his cell phone. He’s good that way.

    Besides being thrilled to meet and converse with a player I hated and admired as a kid, it was refreshing to shed away the media image and learn who the person was.

    Yes, you can hate and admire someone at the same time. It’s easy to do in athletics. You might call it the reverse of the “worthy opponent.” Its someone you respect on the opposing team, who you sometimes hate to see, but would love to have on your team.

    The media lemmings who chased Mendenhall and all the other current players on the Steelers roster were just doing their jobs.

    Sports media today is like walking down the detergent aisle at the grocery store, everything is “New and Improved” in bright orange or green packaging. Sports are the same way, it has to be catchy, trendy, and able to get our over stimulated society to pay attention for the requisite 20 seconds.

    The national media jumped on the Caitlin Clark story and has ridden it with unexpected results. The dead-eye shooting Iowa guard has brought women’s basketball to the forefront in an age when women and girls are under attack by those supporting the mentally deranged guys who think they are female. The equally twisted types that support them in their quest to compete against girls and women are even worse.

    Sometimes it just takes one person to stem the tide of ridiculousness in the world. It could be something heroic and futile like standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, or coming forth and saying you don’t want men in teenage girl’s locker rooms. With the first you face prison and with the second a flood of insults from groups of people who constantly demand free speech. (as long as it agrees with them)

    The world is a bewildering, yet wonderful place.

    Social media has made it harder to meet people, to find friends, and to discern the real from the ridiculous, but the truth is out there if you put down that small screen in your hand and bother to take a look.

    You might find a legend someday taking a break in the shade and create your own memorable moment.


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