PHOENIX -- He's a football legend. “Mean Joe” Greene is one of the best to ever play in the NFL. At one point, he lived in Phoenix and left a piece of his life behind.
Michael Levine uncovered the boxes of treasures belonging to Greene. He was curious about a warehouse full of large vaults and ended up saving some pieces of NFL history that were almost lost forever.
Greene starred in one of the most famous commercials to hit the airwaves.
“Want my Coke?” a kid said to “Mean Joe” Greene in a stadium breezeway.
“No,” he replied, exhausted and injured.
“Really,” the kid said. “You can have it.”
“OK,” Greene said as the music came up.
The details of that Coca-Cola commercial are seared in to the memories of millions of people who grew up in the 1970s and '80s. Especially kids like me who watched too much television.
It used to be rare to see football players endorsing products, especially linemen. But “Mean Joe” Greene transcended the sport as he and the Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls.
“Everyone liked him no matter what it was,” Levine told me. “If you were a kid and guys, Mean Joe… every kid mimicked that.”
A Phoenix artist and businessman, Levine remembers Greene and his legendary defensive play as part of the Steel Curtain. Later, Greene was an assistant with the Arizona Cardinals. But their lives never intersected until 2005, when Levine had to evict a moving company from a leaky, 100-year-old warehouse he owns on Second Street.
When Levine finally went into the warehouse, he found 100 to 150 large wooden boxes, each 8 feet tall. He found a lot junk, but in two of those boxes, his workers came across items bearing the name, Charles Edward Greene.
“I knew they moved stuff for the Arizona Cardinals,” Levine explained. “So I wasn't that naïve about it. I said, ‘Keep your eyes open, if you see anything.’ Thinking maybe a cool jersey. I wasn't expecting really anything.”
Under an old grill that still held petrified hot dog buns, Levine found a box of footballs, many covered in signatures of NFL legends.
“It looked like most of the stuff in there came out of the garage,” Levine said.
Levine made sure the boxes were spared, and after a few months, he was able to get Greene's number from the Pittsburgh Steelers office.
“I called Mr. Greene up and explained the situation and he hung up,” Levine said. “I called back and explained this isn't a crank phone call. I have a bunch of footballs. I have photographs I haven't opened this stuff, it is musty and smell. He said just send UPS and hung up the phone.”
To be fair, Levine figures Greene gets solicited all the time. But he wasn't about to ship hundreds of pounds of stuff on his dime. He pushed it into a corner and there it sat until last year.
“Professional Football Hall of Fame, Joe Greene, on August 8, 1987,” Levine read off one framed document he pulled off a set of rolling shelves. “How that ends up in a box, I don't know.”
Levine soon realized he was sitting on more sports treasures than he could have imagined. Pictures of Greene's induction into the Hall of Fame, piles of football cleats, practice pants, board games and T-shirts bearing Greene's name, and miles of film.
Levine also found boxes of fan mail, much of it still unopened and clearly a lot of it is from children.
“What do you want to do with it?” I asked. “Would you like to get it back to him?”
“That's a tough one,” Levine said.
Levine owns these things now. He's stored them for years. And very likely, a lot of it has more than just sentimental value.
“I would like to give him back his personal effects,” he said. “His personal films, his personal photographs, the other stuff. I gave him his shot at doing it. He's known about it for eight years.”
For the moment, Levine is waiting just like the kid in the commercial, wondering if “Mean Joe” Greene will make the next move.