Joe Greene made a slew of big plays throughout his NFL career -- the Hall of Fame defensive tackle and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Greene was a significant piece of a Steelers' team that won four Super Bowls in a six-year span during the 1970s. But it's the Coca-Coca commercial that Greene took part in 40 years ago that continues to be one of the biggest components of his post-football life. Four decades after the commercial aired during (Pittsburgh's 31-19 win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV), it continues to be regarded as the most memorable commercial in Super Bowl history.
"To this day, I'm still rather amazed," Penny Hawkey, a former copywriter who crafted the commercial, said during an NFL Films documentary on Greene. "It's the commercial that will not die."
Hawkey, who at the time worked for the McCann-Erickson global advertising agency network, revealed how Greene was selected to take part in the commercial.
"We were asked to do an exploratory, that is to take the Coca-Cola brand and see where else it could go in its communications," Hawkey said. "The guys were sitting there saying, 'Who could we get? We could get Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene.'
"And I said, 'Wait, there's a guy named Mean Joe Greene? Is he mean?' And they said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well, that's perfect. We want the most intimidating human being we can find, and boy, did we get it."
The role of the child who would star alongside Greene went to Tom Okon, a 9-year-old who had appeared in 30-40 commercials prior to the Coca-Cola spot. Okon, during the NFL Films documentary, said that he and Greene immediately developed a bond.
"Of course, I had brought a football (to the set)," Okon recalled, "and (I) went over to Joe and asked if he would throw the football around, and he said sure."
"He developed a sweet little relationship with Tommy," Hawkey added, "and made Tommy much more comfortable."
While leaning his lines wasn't too difficult, Greene's biggest hurdle during production was being able to deliver his lines after drinking an excessive amount of soda.
"We started to shoot," Greene said, "and the first thing out of my mouth is a big burp."
"The legend of course that he drank 18 16-ounce bottles," Hawkey said. "Equivalent to 2.25 gallons."
Eventually, Greene, Okon and the rest of the staff completed the commercial in time for it to make its debut on Super Bowl Sunday. To the delight of everyone involved, the commercial aired during the Steelers' fourth and final Super Bowl win of the decade.
"Talk about absolutely perfect timing," Hawkey said. "The commercial ran on the Super Bowl, and then they won, and the rest is history. What could be better."
While the commercial was an instant success, it also had a significant cultural impact.
"Joe Greene was probably the first black male that was cast for a national brand," Hawkey said. "It was the fact that he was black and the little boy was white. It was a shock at that time, and people experienced it and really resonated to it."
The commercial helped shift of narrative that Greene was still mean when he was off the football field. Greene said that, immediately after the commercial aired, he saw a positive change in the way the public viewed and treated him.
"Doing the Coca-Cola spot did change the image," said Greene, who appeared on several children's shows in the months that immediately followed the commercial. "I enjoyed it. I liked it. It made me more approachable."
"It changed our lives a lot," added his late wife, Agnes Greene. "It changed Joe's personality a lot because so many kids were looking up to him, he decided he really wanted to be a role model for the kids."
The success of the commercial also helped increase the spectacle surrounding the Super Bowl. Instead of fans just tuning into the Super Bowl to watch the NFL's two best teams, fans now turn on the game to also view the commercials, something that was certainly inspired by the success of the Coca-Cola commercial.
One question did remain nearly 40 years after the shooting of the iconic commercial: What happened to the jersey?
"I don't know where that jersey went," Okon said. "I do know that that Christmas I did get a package, and it was a signed Mean Joe Greene jersey that I still have to this day."