Mean Joe Greene's biggest hit was also his most memorable 'catch'

March 01, 1992|By Scott Fowler | Scott Fowler,Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- Back when Joe Greene was still Mean, he choked down 24 16-ounce Cokes in one afternoon, tossed a kid his Pittsburgh jersey and created a 60-second memory that gives nearly everyone the warm fuzzies when they recall it.

What became one of America's favorite commercials wasn't as simple as it looked, though.

"Between me belching and going to the men's room, it took three days to film it," Greene recalled, laughing. He almost skipped out on the shoot after one frustrating day at the high school stadium in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where the spot was done, but was talked out of it by his attorney, Les Zittrain.

Seems like you saw it only a few years ago, doesn't it? But the boy who caught the jersey is now 22 and runs a videotape recycling company with his brother in Warwick, N.Y.

"I think what made it so memorable was that it was genuine," Tommy Okon said. "Joe Greene was really one of my heroes -- I was sort of in awe of him -- and I think that all showed up on camera."

The Coke ad, made in 1979, was ingenious in its simplicity. Greene hobbles down a tunnel after a game and is given a Coke by a small boy with a bowl cut who sneaks through security.

After initially refusing any help, including the Coke, Greene takes the drink and gulps it down in one massive swallow. (Think of doing that 24 times in a row.)

"See you around," the kid says, turning toward the exit.

"Hey kid!" Greene says, causing Okon to turn. "Catch!" He flings the kid the jersey and flashes a huge smile.

"Wow! Thanks, Mean Joe!" Okon says, beaming. The music swells: "Have a Coke and a smile."

That commercial, more than any of his four Super Bowl rings, made Greene recognizable. Once, he stood at the Pro Bowl with Roger Staubach, O.J. Simpson and Earl Campbell.

"The glamour guys," Greene said. "The guys who score touchdowns. And a pack of kids comes running right past them, Cokes in hand, yelling for me. That's when it hit me how popular this thing was."

The commercial was so unforgettable that its two-year run spawned one of the most-shown bloopers in TV history and a forgettable TV movie.

In the blooper, which is much easier to catch now than the out-of-circulation commercial, Greene says, "Hey kid . . . ." Instead of throwing the jersey, though, he launches a massive burp.

In the movie, called "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid," the boy stows away on the Steelers' airplane. He is determined to give the jersey back to Joe because he believes it brings Greene luck. They find the kid, of course, and he spends the weekend with Greene, who has a great game wearing his lucky jersey.

"I was as nervous doing that as I have been doing anything in my life," Greene said. "I tried everything I could to get out of playing myself, with no luck."

Although the movie was generally overlooked, its child actor wasn't. Okon was 11 and judged too big for the role by this time, so Henry Thomas -- who later starred in a slightly more successful movie called "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" -- played the Pittsburgh Kid.

Okon worked in commercials part time, from ages 6 to 15, helped by the fact that his father, Theodore, directed commercials. He never bought into the acting business completely, however, always attending public schools and trying live a normal life. By the time he was in high school, he quit acting completely. He graduated from Fairfield (Conn.) University, where he was the rugby team's MVP.

Okon tried to catch up with Greene in a stadium one year ago. From 30 feet away at the 25th Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., he hollered toward Greene, who was being honored as a member of the Super Bowl's all-time team.

Before Greene heard him, a security guard pitched Okon out. "But I know Mean Joe Greene!" Okon pleaded.

"Sure you do, kid," the security guard growled.

But the Greene-Okon story has a happy ending. They saw each other in 1991, for the first time in six years, when Oprah Winfrey did a show on great commercials. They have kept in occasional (( touch since.

And what happened to the original jersey?

"After we filmed the commercial, somebody made off with it," Okon said. "Joe heard that I didn't have it."

Six months later, right before Christmas, Okon got a package from Greene. When he opened it, he found a note from Joe. And

a new, autographed Steelers jersey.

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