By Jason Keidel
To the highbrow types, the red wine and wind chimes crowd, who think sports are little more than “pituitary cases stuffing a ball through a hoop” (to quote Annie Hall), the idea that millions of boys grew up in the ’70s worshiping men dressed in black and gold uniforms hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles away, is silly, if not stupid.
I am one of those boys. Though I was born and raised in Manhattan, I was imbued with my father’s hardscrabble, Western Pennsylvania roots, a place of poverty and coal mines and steel mills and football.
He raised me a Steelers fan and, frankly, it was a good deal. They won four Super Bowls during six years of my childhood.
I thought that’s how life would be. Little did I know it would be a quarter-century before we – yes, I still speak in the collective – would win another Lombardi Trophy.
So those Steelers, particularly the Steel Curtain – four rugged linemen who anchored the best defense in NFL history – held a sacred place in our souls. Not only because they were so good, but because they were the last of its kind. They stuck together for the best part of a decade, before the winds of free agency blew dynasties into dust.
Now, one major thread in that curtain is gone. L.C. Greenwood, he of the height and heft and six Pro Bowls and four rings, as central to the dynasty as anyone not named Joe Greene or Jack Lambert, died of natural causes. Though it’s hard to fathom anything natural about a man dying in his 60s.
Many remember Greenwood for his gold sneakers, which he painted because he wasn’t getting credit for tackles, often confused for the other luminaries on the line, like Dwight White or Ernie Holmes or the legendary Mean Joe Greene.
Unlike many of his decorated peers, Greenwood did not make the Hall of Fame. Since I am so biased, I could not objectively judge the matter. But just ask his teammates how essential he was to the most essential team of the 1970s.
During the post-game show on FOX, Terry Bradshaw had some lovely words for Greenwood, whom Bradshaw said was as decent off the field as he was vicious on it. Always as quick to smile, joke and jump on a quarterback, Greenwood had a style on and off the field that was all his own, often caught on camera in the flamboyant garb of the freestyle ’70s. And he stayed in Pittsburgh until the end.
To so many of us back in the day, football was a language, a ritual, a religion. Those who didn’t spend Sundays in church worshiped at the altar of the NFL, where the mythmaking of NFL Films was so hypnotic that it was quite common to see a bunch of kids on the concrete playgrounds of NYC, throwing a faded football around, each of us pretending to be a different, dynastic Steeler. We thought they would live forever, win forever, and we would be there to watch.
There is a twin pall over Greenwood’s death. Not only because of what he meant to millions of boys who are now middle-age men, but also as a reminder that we will someday join them. With Greenwood gone, joining fellow stalwarts Holmes and White, only Greene the iconic, Coca Cola-swilling star is left.
Most of us never met L.C. Greenwood. But we didn’t have to. What matters is what he represents. Symbolism is important. Elections are won, wars are waged, and Gods are worshiped because of it.
And kids are raised on it. Just ask a million kids on the NYC playgrounds, or in some farm in the Midwest, or in any other nook of the American Dream, where football players were kings. And L.C. Greenwood was unquestioned royalty.
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