“Mean” Joe Greene, one of the most formidable defensemen in NFL history, nearly lost his nickname after appearing in a 1979 Coca-Cola commercial that softened his tough-guy image.
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 Coca-Cola. After initially declining the offer, Greene accepts and downs the bottle in a single gulp before continuing down the tunnel. Just when it looks as if the boy will walk away empty-handed and heartbroken, his hero tosses over his #75 jersey and delivers the now-famous line: “Hey kid, catch!”
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.
“I was suddenly approachable,” Greene recalled during a presentation at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. “Little kids were no longer afraid of me, and older people – both women and men – would come up and offer me a Coke.”
“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.”
Pomerantz moderated the program at Coca-Cola, which also featured Penny Hawkey, the former McCann-Erickson copywriter who crafted the iconic script. She explained how the concept – which marked a sharp departure from previous Coke ad campaigns – came together.
“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 Coca-Cola. But after a few dozen takes – and 2.25 gallons of Coke down the hatch – they wrapped production.
The commercial was screened during a Coca-Cola bottler meeting in San Francisco, drawing a standing ovation. Even Greene’s Steeler teammates, a notoriously tough bunch to please, approved.
“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.”
Coca-Cola later produced local versions of the spot in several other countries featuring popular soccer players. And in 2009, Coke Zero invited Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Palamalu to star in a tongue-in-cheek remake, of sorts. Greene, who admires Palamalu’s no-nonsense game and humble off-field demeanor, offered his stamp of approval.
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.”