The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Good Guys: Defensive Tackles and Nose Tackles
The good, the bad and the ugly; three dissimilar personalities. Yet as different as they are, they share qualities that go beyond team and position. Each had a great passion to excel and to win. Each was admired by their teammates, not just as players, but as teammates and as men.
They are: The Good – Chris Hoke. The Bad – Mean Joe Greene. The Ugly – Ernie Holmes. If you’re scratching your head, allow me to explain.
3. The Good – Chris Hoke
Chris Hoke is one of the nicest men to wear a Steelers uniform. An undrafted free agent from Brigham Young, Hokie was a reserve nose tackle, spending eleven years with the Steelers. He had sixteen career starts, all in place of injured Casey “Big Snack” Hampton.
Hokie played his college ball at BYU. He completed a two year missionary service in Brussels, Belgium. He was named to the Academic All- Mountain West Conference team in 1999.
As a reserve, not much has been written about Hokie during his career. In 2004, Chris started the last ten games in place of Hampton, who went down with a season ending knee injury. Hokie, barely hanging on to a roster spot was determined to do his best to fill the large shoes of the all-pro Hampton.
That year, the Steelers defense ranked No. 4 against the pass and No.1 against the run, finishing 15-1 and losing to the Patriots in the AFC championship game. Hokie cemented his spot on the roster for the next seven years. Hoke stayed with the Steelers, even though he might have had shot to start with another team.
No portrait of Hoke is complete without a mention of his sideline dance, the Hokie-Pokie, a team favorite. Alas, I could not find a video his famous dance, so you’ll have to settle with Hokie’s jig, performed at training camp which you can view here.
Here’s a great description of Hoke in an article in the Deseret News, Ex-Cougar Steeler Chris Hoke Turns Hard Work Into 11 Year Career, written by Dick Harmon.
Hoke has the attitude of a cage fighter. He doesn’t know what it means to quit. He’s never let anyone define how good or bad he is and never allowed a hurdle to trip him up or keep him down. He lives to prove people wrong. He knows himself and his abilities.
He’s patient as a Swiss watchmaker, grateful as a Christmas elf.
Hokie earned good guy status with his commitment to “the Steeler way.” When Chris suffered a neck injury which ended his career, Jim Wexell wrote a wonderful piece which you can read in full here.
Wexell’s article focuses on the reaction of Steve McLendon, who had passed Hokie on the depth chart. Steve is now the starting nose tackle. McLendon said:
Since Day One, Hoke has been like a mentor. He has helped me tremendously, like my eyes, what to see, how to see things before they happen, quick hands, just using technique. He took everything that the coaches gave him and he passed it along to me. He’s been in my ear (chuckles) the whole year, last year also. No matter what, he’s always been in my ear, and today was one of the (pause) toughest days for me, because I’m in the meeting room and he’s not there.
Steve disclosed that Hokie helped him with his game, but also his family life too. Hoke told McLendon how to be there for his family, how to plan trips and advised him on how to become a good father.
Hokie was a real big brother for me. Honestly, people think that you’re playing the same position and that there would be fighting against each other, but not one time did Hokie turn on me. He never told me anything wrong. He always gave me the right path. Like I said, he’s been on me more (laughs) than ever. When he was hurt, and he got hurt against Jacksonville, he was still on the sideline with me. He stayed in my ear the whole game. Arizona – stayed in my ear the whole game. No matter what he’s always in my ear. That’s what I n-e-e-e-e-d. He’s going to tell me when I’m right or he’s going to tell me when I’m wrong, no matter if it hurts my feelings or not he’s going to tell me, and that’s what I need.
Helping a player with whom you are battling for playing time, maybe even a roster spot, is utterly selfless. I have little doubt that Stevie will pay it forward. He’s probably coaching up Dan McCullers right now.
As for Hoke, he retired and in 2011 and served as a coaching intern for the Steelers the following season. He is now a the pregame co-host for the KDKA Steeler broadcasts.
Chris is the type of player every good team needs. He may have been a career backup, but he was a jewel and a valuable guy to have around.
2. The Ugly – Ernie Holmes
I do not mean to suggest Ernie was an ugly dude. He was not. If he were alive, it might even be dangerous. But “Fats,” as he was lovingly known, led a messy life, possessed a complicated personality and a checkered history. Ugly—unless you know the whole story.
Fats played next to Mean Joe Green for six years. Though he was an dominating DT, he was the only starter on the 1974 Super Bowl team not to be selected for at least one Pro Bowl. Many of his contemporaries swear that, at least at times, Fats was even better than Joe. He was a beast. Many a blocker was frightened. Quarterbacks, if they had any sense, were terrified.
Though he was a defensive stalwart on two Super Bowl teams, he he did not get his due because he was seen as well, crazy. Actually, by most accepted standards, Fats was crazy.
In March, 1973, Ernie snapped. His wife was seeking a divorce and he was afraid of losing his sons. He was broke and needed money.
He drove all night from Texas to Pittsburgh, only to miss a meeting with Dan Rooney to talk things through. In a panic, he drove into Ohio. Out on the highway, he had delusions that truckers were closing in on him. The police chased him at speeds approaching 90 mph. He fired at trucks and at a police helicopter, wounding the pilot in the foot. He was taken into custody and gunpoint and charged with several felonies, including assault with a deadly weapon.
Art and Dan Rooney stood by Ernie, hired an attorney to represent him and paid his $45,000 bail. Ernie was very lucky to have drawn a merciful judge who sentenced him to five years probation and 30 days in a psychiatric hospital. He was diagnosed with acute paranoid psychosis. The Chief regularly visited Ernie, who ended up spending 60 days at the hospital. Holmes recovered and was in training camp the following summer. A more detailed account of the incident by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne is linked here.
Fats was less was only slightly less dangerous on the field. Gary Pomerantz relates a funny but classic Fats story:
In the huddle, Lambert makes the defensive call. Eleven Steelers prepare to break—no, wait! There are only ten players. Holmes stands at the line of scrimmage, over the ball, pointing a finger at the guard opposing him, interrupting whatever is being said in the offensive huddle. Greene shouts for Holmes to come back to the huddle. Too late. Lambert, sneering, says, “Just leave him out there!” The defensive signal called doesn’t matter to Holmes because he will run his own stunt anyway. Holmes hollers to the offensive guard what the Steelers’ defensive line will do on the next play. “Don’t check off,” Holmes warns. “I’m coming right over your ass! YO’ MAMA GONNA SEE YOU!!”
Fats, Mean Joe, Hollywood Bags (L.C. Greenwood) and Mad Dog (Dwight White) terrorized NFL offenses together for six years. Ernie was traded to New England in 1978, his last year in the league. By any measure, they were historic.
Ernie was a man of huge appetites. After retirement, Fats lived up to his nickname, reaching 688 lbs., due primarily to copious amounts of barbecue and Courvoisier. Ernie did some acting on the television series “The A Team” and was a professional wrestler. Eventually, he reconnected with his faith, settled down and became an ordained minister.
To dismiss Fats as merely a whacko, a crazy man who happened to be a good football player, is facile, but incomplete. Randy Grossman likened him to Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.” Ernie’s teammates accepted him, even with all his quirks, because they also knew him as a great guy. According to Joe Greene, Fats was “just different people.”
He was loved, especially by Greene, White and Greenwood, who often did autograph shows together. Several times a year, there were dinners and to discussions of future Steel Curtain appearances. Much like brothers, they groused and fought, laughed and told stories. Theirs was a permanent bond, forged in the football trenches. Unfortunately, Ernie died too soon, taken in a car wreck at age 59.
As Mike Prisuta wrote in a Tribune Review article:
Greenwood described Holmes as a strong-willed player who loved the physical aspect of football. He wants people to remember Holmes not as the character whose off-field escapades generated headlines but as a friendly, generous person. “Holmes,” he said, “loved his fans.”
Greenwood said ‘Ernie was a very good person, … Ernie was a people person. He always liked people…. It was so good to hear that Ernie had become a preacher and had turned his life around. That was pretty much an inspirational thing for all of us to see.’
I just wish he could have gotten more recognition for the job he did,’ Mr. White said. ‘The positives far outweigh the negatives of Ernie Holmes. For all the things and stories and antics that went on 30 years ago, Ernie ended up being a very, very inspiring person, one you could respect and admire.’
Joe Greene, quoted at steelers.com, said:
It’s sad news. We never know when we’re going to be called.
Ernie came through lot of struggles, and it looked like he was out ahead of it and living the way he wanted to live his life. Ever since I’ve known him, Ernie always a guy who read the Bible and wanted to be close to God. In lieu of all of his actions that we’ve experienced with him, Ernie was always a good man. He overcame a lot of those life struggles — just last year he had a knee replacement and was coming along good with that. He lost a lot of weight and was looking good and feeling good about it.
He never missed an opportunity to pray for us and wish the best for us and our families.
Ernie Holmes was one of a kind. With the help of his teammates and the Rooney family, he overcame the demons. There was far more to Ernie than the caricature. Ask Joe Greene.
1. The Bad — Mean Joe Greene
Bad. Not as in bad boy. More like badass (sorry, Momma). I really don’t think there’s another word to describe Joe on the field.
Mean Joe Greene cannot be defined by statistics. He was physically dominant and punishing in a way which is no longer permitted in the NFL. Head slaps were permitted until 1977. Helmet to helmet hits on the quarterback weren’t banned until 2002. Joe every means available to subdue an opponent, legal or otherwise.
If you are too young to have seen the Steel Curtain in the 1970s you cannot imagine the the violent, brutal majesty of Joe Greene and the Steel Curtain. In an era where you had to run the ball to be successful, you could not run, inside or outside, against them. For instance, in the 1974 season, the Steelers allowed Oakland 29 yards rushing in the AFC title game. The Vikings managed just 17 rushing yards in the Super Bowl.
Lambert led the linebackers, due mostly to his fearless, maniacal passion. Blount lead the DBs. But make no mistake, Joe was the leader of the defense. He was a born leader and his size, determination and superior strength added the exclamation point. Retiring Greene’s number (75), only the second number ever retired by the Steelers, is a recognition his place in history for the storied franchise.
Early in his career, his temper was often out of control. He famously kicked the Browns’ Bob McKay in the groin when he was on the ground. He jumped ugly with Dick Butkus, who at the time, was considered by many as the NFL’s toughest player.
Joe Greene got really mean about losing. He detested it, he would not abide it. He pushed his teammates HARD to avoid it. Greene coerced his teammates to go beyond themselves, to leave it all out on the field. The intensity of Greene was infectious and made the Steelers defense legendary.
The untimely deaths of Greenwood, Holmes and White have left Joe Greene the last man standing from his front four. To appreciate the bond of these great players and Joe’s sadness at their passing, check out Joe Greene, and the Three Who Aren’t There, by Gary Pomerantz, linked here. It’s a great read about the Steelers’ best player ever.
By the way, he might just be the best football player ever. Yeah, he was THAT good.