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Iconic Sports Commercials: Mean Joe Greene's 'Hey kid, catch!'

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.

Mean Joe Greene’s ‘Hey kid, catch!’ | Michael vs. Larry | Chicks Dig the Long Ball | Lil’ Penny | Tiger Woods’ ‘Hacky Sack’ | Charles Barkley: ‘I am not a role model’ | Bo Knows | Mars Blackmon | Grandmama

How it came about

The author of one of the most beloved commercials of the 1970’s laughs sheepishly as she tells the story of how she cast its starring role.

Penny Hawkey hardly ever watched sports at that time, so she didn’t know Joe Greene from Joe Frazier or Joe DiMaggio.

It was 1979, and Hawkey’s advertising agency was under pressure to help Coca-Cola freshen up its image. The soft drink giant’s once-massive lead in its market was eroding as rival Pepsi touted itself as the choice of the younger generation and introduced an ad campaign built around a head-to-head blind taste test.

Fearful that the cheerful jingles that characterized its previous commercials were getting stale, Coca-Cola asked McCann Erickson to come up with something new. Among the ideas that Hawkey and partner Roger Mosconi proposed was a spot that told the heartwarming story of a scowling football star and a timid little boy.

As the football player limps down a stadium tunnel, he’s initially too tired and disgusted to make time for his young fan until the boy offers his bottle of Coke. Spirit restored after a long, refreshing swig, the player smiles warmly at last and in a heartfelt display of gratitude tosses the boy the jersey he had slung over his shoulder to keep as a souvenir.

When it was time to choose an NFL star as the commercial’s headliner, Hawkey didn’t recognize any of the famous names her colleagues suggested. She only pushed for Greene over fellow contenders Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Tony Dorsett because his intimidating nickname matched what she envisioned as the ideal foil to the wide-eyed little boy.

“I said, ‘Mean Joe Greene? Is there actually someone named Mean Joe Greene?’ ” Hawkey recalled. “A big, menacing guy with that nickname was exactly what we wanted.”

Greene was initially reluctant when his agent informed him Coca-Cola wanted him to appear in a commercial. The heralded Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle actually passed on the gig at first because he feared he didn’t have the acting chops to credibly deliver his lines.

“Maybe a day later my agent called me back,” Greene said. “He told me, ‘Joe, this is Coca-Cola, one of the most famous brands in the world. You've gotta do this.’ I said, ‘Well, when you put it like that, I guess I need to.’ ”

From Mean Joe to Sweet Joe

For most of his football career, Greene was known as a cornerstone of Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain defensive front, a hulking 6-foot-4, 275-pound giant with a reputation for tossing aside smaller men and never backing down from a fight.

After he drank a Coca-Cola, America realized Greene wasn’t so mean.

There was more poignancy in Greene’s 60-second commercial than in most full-length dramas. It was the most popular commercial of its time, an instant hit when it debuted during the Major League Baseball playoffs in October 1979 and a sensation by the time it aired a couple months later while Greene’s Steelers serendipitously were winning Super Bowl XIV.

Tens of thousands of viewers sent letters to Coca-Cola expressing their admiration for the ad, leading the soft-drink giant to repeat the concept with sports stars from other nations including Thailand, Italy and Brazil. The commercial’s popularity also inspired NBC to create a 1981 made-for-TV-movie called “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid.”

“We expected it to be a popular spot among sports fans, but in fact it was the general public that responded to it,” Hawkey said. “Moms, in particular, loved it. It had the right mix of contrasts — fame and anonymity, black and white, adult and child, shy and intimidating. This little boy ends up making this big bear of a man feel better.”

Even though Greene had already established himself as one of his era’s most dominant players before the spot aired, the Coca-Cola commercial broadened his appeal and dramatically altered his public perception.

Strangers seldom recognized Greene before the commercial and those that did were often too intimidated to say hello. Once the ad elevated his stature, Greene could hardly venture out in public without being assailed by kids, many of whom were quick to give him a hug and offer to share their Cokes with him.

“It made me more recognizable and more approachable,” Greene said. “When you look at it, the football player and the little kid, it's such a contrast in persons. I think that was what really captivated the audience.”

Forty years have passed since Greene filmed the commercial, yet somehow it has remained relevant. In 1994, The Simpsons parodied it. In 1999, so did Family Guy, albeit with Greene’s last name misspelled on his jersey.

Coca-Cola remade the ad with a twist for the 2009 Super Bowl, this time promoting Coke Zero and starring Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. In 2012, Greene starred in a Downy parody that ends with him tossing his game-worn jersey to actress Amy Sedaris only to have her give it right back after taking a whiff.

The longevity of Greene’s Coca-Cola commercial has made it as synonymous with him as any of his accomplishments on the football field.

“I was very surprised one day when he said during an interview how much it changed his life,” said Tommy Okon, who played Greene’s young co-star in the commercial. “As a football player, he was never recognized. Even though he was Mean Joe Greene, he had a helmet on all the time. After he did the commercial, he was constantly recognized and kids were coming up to him. I got a kick out of hearing that.”

Why filming ‘broke some child labor laws’

Before Greene agreed to participate in the commercial, Coca-Cola assured him it would only take a half day to film the entire thing.

Turns out that estimate was wildly optimistic.

Since the setting for the commercial was an aging 4,000-seat high school stadium in the New York City suburbs, its tunnels didn’t exactly resemble those of a massive NFL-caliber venue. The crew spent most of the first day of the shoot building out an enclosed tunnel in an effort to control the lighting and make it look more realistic.

Filming fell further behind schedule the following day because neither Greene nor his starstruck 9-year-old co-star Okon could consistently deliver their lines to the standard that director N. Lee Lacy demanded. The hot-tempered director called for retake after retake in order to get the camera angles, lighting, facial expressions or tone of each line just right.

Greene improved dramatically over the course of filming as he learned to stop trying to act and to just be himself in front of the camera. Even so, none of the cast or crew left the stadium until the wee hours of the morning on the third and final day of the shoot.

“I think they probably broke some child labor laws because we were shooting until 2 or 3 in the morning,” Okon recalled. “It was crazy. We finished so late at night that I think I was carried into the car by the time it was over.”

Mean Joe drank how many bottles of Coke?

The number of retakes required during filming had another unintended consequence besides dragging the shoot out longer than expected.

Greene downed an unhealthy amount of Coke in a single day, about 18 16-ounce bottles he estimates. That’s 2.25 gallons, about 4.5 times the recommended amount of water an adult is supposed to consume each day, let alone soda.

“They had a container for me to dump all the Coke in as I was practicing my lines, but being so naive, I didn't want to spit it out because this was a product I'm supposed to like,” Greene said. “By the time we got to the end, I swallowed so much Coke that my stomach had probably grown a couple inches.”

Greene recalls frequently having to excuse himself to use the restroom that day. On one take, he opened his mouth to say his line after chugging his soda, only to let out an enormous burp instead, an outtake that has since been immortalized on numerous blooper shows.

“After downing 18 Cokes one after another, that’s gonna happen,” Okon said.

Three fun facts

1. She may not have been football-savvy at the time that she co-authored the Coca-Cola spot, but Hawkey’s interest in the sport has grown since then. She’s now a Steelers fan thanks to her respect for Greene and a daughter-in-law with Pittsburgh roots. “Now most of our family is very into the Steelers,” Hawkey said.

2. In 1994, Pepsi took a jab at rival Coca-Cola with a modern spoof intended to make the Mean Joe spot seem mawkish. Finding a courtside cooler empty, Shaquille O’Neal asks a seemingly starstruck little boy for his Pepsi only to be rebuffed. “Don’t even think about it,” the boy says sternly.

3. Hawkey’s favorite parody of the Mean Joe Greene commercial? A decades-old one involving a massive sumo wrestler and Pee-wee Herman. “At the end, the sumo wrestler throws that nasty loincloth right in Peewee’s face,” Hawkey said. “That was pretty funny.”

One last behind the scenes story

The most touching aspect of the commercial’s legacy might be the unlikely lifelong friendship that it inspired.

Co-stars Greene and Okon remain close despite the 23-year age gap that separates them.

Since his mother was a weather woman and his father produced and directed commercials for an advertising agency, Okon was thrust into appearing in some ads as a kid. The Coca-Cola spot was especially exciting for the child actor because it meant spending time with a football icon who happened to play for one of his two favorite teams.

While the crew built out the tunnel on the first day of shooting, Okon and Greene stayed busy by practicing their lines or throwing a football back and forth. They built enough rapport that Okon would joke that Greene “fumbled” anytime he flubbed a line.

At the height of the commercial’s popularity, one of the questions Okon commonly received from reporters was whether he got to keep Greene’s jersey after the shoot. He said that filming ended so late that he left without it, a story that eventually got back to Greene.

“The next Christmas, I got a package from Joe with a game jersey signed with a little note on it to me,” Okon said. “Obviously, I still have it to this day.”

Okon grew tired of acting in middle school and never again pursued a career in show business. The 49-year-old life-long New Yorker now has a wife, four children and a stone fabrication and installation business in the Bronx.

While Okon and Greene live in different parts of the country, they still stay in touch, Usually, it’s by phone or text, but every few years they get to catch up in person at events commemorating their legendary commercial.

“It's been a special relationship over the years,” Greene said. “One of the best moments I've had since the commercial was when Tommy and I were presented an award in Pittsburgh at Heinz Field [in 2009]. They showed Tommy's family on the giant jumbotron. At that time, Tommy's oldest son was pointing at Tommy in the commercial and they looked so much alike. It was pretty cool to see.”