Sports Aren’t Just Important, They Provide Memories for a Lifetime
Phillip B. Wilson
As a kid, my mom was told rather enthusiastically that I was going to be “Mean” Joe Greene.
Excitement about getting the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle’s player card turned into a body-shaping life goal. He stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 275 pounds. I couldn’t help topping out at 6-2, but the weight soared past 300 pounds thanks to an ill-advised no-carb diet and has teetered on that well-nourished line ever since.
It’s one thing to be a young fan of Greene and the famed “Steel Curtain” defense, but there have been so many sentimental moments tied to sports, starting childhood. Do you know how a young kid escapes from several men who failed to be ideal father figures, the alcoholic, the manic depressive, the wife batterer, the temperamental terror consumed by rage?
When reflecting on those early years, you can’t help but smile at an old clip of Franco Harris pulling off the “Immaculate Reception” for a last-minute playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders in 1972. A few minutes after that famous play happened, mom walked in with my first puppy, Prince, a German Shepherd.
As a deliriously obsessive Ohio State fan in the Buckeye State, losses to Michigan meant tears for hours in the seclusion of the bedroom. That was the safe haven. Inevitably, in an attempt to take the mind off troubles, a growing player card collection that expanded from the NFL to MLB afforded a welcome deviation. Hundreds of cards would be spread out everywhere in the bedroom to help those tears dry up.
As a 14-year-old Jack Nicklaus fan, there was an unforgettable escape to the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, for the final round of the 1979 U.S. Open. Dropped off at the gates before any of the players teed off, I camped out on the locker room steps to get as many autographs as possible. Nicklaus arrived and had so many people surrounding him, my program initially didn’t get signed.
An attendant knew why I was there, saw that sad face, and took the program into the clubhouse, where Nicklaus signed it.
As much as that meant everything, all these years later, what resonates more is how I walked those 18 holes following Nicklaus in that final round. At one point early on, he was between holes and stopped ever so briefly to have a word with his wife, Barbara. I was but a few feet away, just taking it in, as he gave her a kiss and continued his round.
Kinda cool, being so close to greatness. I still recall how Nicklaus shot a 68, which tied for the low round of the tournament. He didn't contend, and it didn't matter. When he was finished, that ended my day, too. After watching the leaders tee off on the 10th hole, I departed. Hale Irwin won that day. But I thought I won, too.
That’s how a sports-writing career is born. And who knew a job in journalism would provide opportunities to meet childhood heroes such as Nicklaus (at a Colts game), A.J. Foyt, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Magic Johnson.
And who knew sports would be there for final moments with loved ones. The last day I spent with beloved older cousin Michael T. Murray, when he was dying from cancer, we shared a couch watching his Notre Dame Fighting Irish, then took turns with naps while keeping an eye on whatever college football was on the TV. The last day spent with my father David E. Wilson, when he was dying from cancer, we watched British Open golf from early morning to late afternoon. Then he died a couple of hours later.
Colts fans who have taken the time to read 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die realize how much effort went into finishing that 2013 book in 10 weeks. It's an honor to have copies signed by owner Jim Irsay, Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, Geno Marchetti, and Raymond Berry.
Imagine being a Foyt fan and growing up to cover 24 Indianapolis 500s, and writing countless stories about the legendary four-time Indy 500 winner. A.J. would remind, “first” four-time winner. Those May chats became such a part of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" routine, I teased him in recent years for not being typically gruff at times, which amused the icon I call “Grizzly Bear.”
The only sports memories to rival the Foyt chats were with Greene.
In January of 2006, The Indianapolis Star sent me to Pittsburgh to advance the Steelers' preparations before visiting the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC Divisional Playoff game. An introductory chat with the media relations contact included the mention of how I grew up a “Mean” Joe Greene fan.
As fate would have it, Greene showed up at the Steelers complex one day. And he stopped to chat for about five minutes. You remember that smile, how even at an advanced age, he still seemed to tower from above, and how the man’s huge hand swallowed mine for that handshake.
Like that kid in the Coke commercial, saying farewell had to include a “Thanks, ‘Mean’ Joe!” Yeah, that prompted a modest grin, not necessarily amused, probably because he had heard that line too many times through the years.
When Super Bowl XLVI came to Indianapolis in 2012, a second opportunity to chat with Greene presented itself. The eyes got wide when he showed up at the J.W. Marriott media center.
Greene recalled glory days, and it was incredible. This time, the conversation lasted about 30 minutes. He shared what he remembered about that Coke commercial, too, the famous ad where he's hobbling in a hallway, and after taking the kid's Coke and drinking it all, he throws his Steelers jersey to that boy, who excitedly says “Thanks, ‘Mean’ Joe!” They filmed so many takes for that commercial, Greene estimated chugging 14 or 15 Cokes during those shoots. At one point, after cameras started rolling, Greene couldn’t help himself and let out a big burp.
He laughed hard about that. I’m pretty sure I laughed harder.
A few years ago, the Mrs. surprised with a cherished Christmas gift, a Greene No. 75 black Steelers jersey with a picture of the legend signing it. That jersey is encased in a glass-covered frame in the Man Cave.
It's a treasured reminder of our special time together.
Yeah, sports are important. They are missed, and can’t return soon enough, when all is once again safe in the world.
Fortunately, while missing what’s been so irreplaceable in 2020, sports have already provided enough memories for a lifetime.
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)