Greene, one of the most formidable defensemen in NFL history, nearly lost his nickname
after appearing in a 1979
The 60-second spot, which premiered during the Major League Baseball playoffs and aired a few months later during Super Bowl XIV, presented a gentler side of the hulking Pittsburgh Steeler. A giant teddy bear in cleats.
In the ad,
Greene limps to the locker room after a hard-fought game when a
starstruck boy offers him his
The commercial – which won both a Clio and a Cannes Gold Lion and has been consistently voted as one of the greatest Super Bowl ads of all time – reshaped Greene’s public persona and expanded his fanbase.
Before it aired, people were intimidated by him. Afterwards, they wanted to hug him.
suddenly approachable,” Greene recalled during a presentation at
“That commercial pulled the mask off the gladiator,” added Gary Pomerantz, author of Their Life's Work, The Brotherhood of the 1970s Steelers. “It stands the test of time as a monument of brisk, effective, dramatic storytelling.”
moderated the program at
“We wanted a boy and an intimidating man – someone who needs and someone who rejects – and to have plenty of tension and relief when the Coke was handed over,” said Hawkey.
She described how the agency eventually landed on the story’s protagonist. “Several names were thrown out – Tony Dorsett, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, ‘Mean’ Joe Greene,” she said, admitting that she wasn’t a big football fan at the time. And I said, ‘Wait, there’s somebody actually named ‘Mean’ Joe Greene? Can we get him?’ And the rest is history.”
Greene, who had never acted before, was reluctant to take the gig at first. But he quickly realized it was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down. “Fortunately for me, it was one of the greatest decisions I made on my own,” he said.
The spot was filmed in May 1979 at a municipal football stadium in Mount Vernon, N.Y. What was originally scheduled as a half-day shoot turned into three days due to weather and a few technical hurdles. Greene and nine-year-old Tommy Okon, who portrayed “the kid,” rehearsed before the cameras rolled and stayed loose with an occasional game of catch. Hawkey was surprised by the soft-spoken star’s aura on the set.
“I came to the shoot assuming we’d be dealing with a brute,” she said. “But not at all.”
The shoot did
include a few, well, hiccups. Greene struggled to deliver the payoff line,
no easy task after chugging a 16-ounce
commercial was screened during a
“Some of us had done local commercials, and most of them were kinda hokey so they’d usually draw a few laughs,” he recalls. “But when I came into the locker room the morning after the Coke ad aired, all the guys were smiling and cheering for me.”
It wasn’t until a few months later, at the 1980 NFL Pro Bowl, when Greene truly realized the impact the commercial had on his image. As the American Football Conference (AFC) squad was finishing up practice at a junior high school in Hawaii and the NFC all-stars were coming on to the field, something strange happened.
“Typically, the guys who handle the ball – the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers – get all the attention,” Greene recalls. “But as we were leaving the field, all these kids ran past great names like Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, OJ Simpson and Earl Campbell, and came up to me. They were carrying Coke bottles, saying, ‘Mean Joe, Mean Joe, will you sign my bottle?’ And I thought, my goodness, times have changed.”
The ad was praised by people from all walks of life – not just football fans – who were touched by its heartwarming message.
“While we didn’t set out to make a great social or cultural statement, we certainly had one,” Hawkey said. “Joe was perhaps the first black male to appear in a national brand commercial, and it had a profound affect at the time. The letters we got were full of gratitude and excitement.”
The 67-year-old Hall of Famer – a father of three and grandfather of seven – credits the Coke ad with keeping him in the spotlight for more than three decades.
“It’s been a special 33 years,” Greene said. “It transformed my personal life in terms of how people looked at me. People would come up to me on the street having no idea I played football… their association with me was from the commercial.”
He concludes, “It means a great deal to me and to my family. Aside from football, it’s been my whole life.”