Kevin Greene: Steel City Superstar
An exclusive interview with the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker and newly inducted Hall of Fame member honored by Styx with a brilliant show at the Benedum Center on October 1.
by Mike Mettler
“I think I may just have to name this guitar ‘The Greene Monster’ in honor of Kevin Greene,” said Styx co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young as his trusty guitar tech, Greg Mandelke, handed him one of his most recent acquisitions, a sparkling green customized Strat. And with that official pronouncement, Young stepped directly out onstage to sing “Miss America,” the classic cut from 1977’s The Grand Illusion that opened the second set of Styx’s triumphant two-hour performance at the Benedum Center in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh on October 1. The show was officially billed as being a “celebration” of the aforementioned Greene’s recent induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 6 — and what was also going to happen in town the very next day.
The Steel City still harbors much love for Kevin Greene, the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers left outside linebacker (1993–95) and the NFL’s third all-time sack leader (with 160.0). Although Greene had also spent time during his storied 15-year NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams, Carolina Panthers, and San Francisco 49ers, the man who wore number 91 had specifically requested his official Hall of Fame ring-presentation ceremony be held in Pittsburgh at nearby Heinz Field during halftime of the Steelers-Chiefs game on the night of October 2.
Not only that, but Styx, along with Greene’s classically trained wife, Tara, got to sing The National Anthem together before that game, and then Styx returned to the field prior to the ring ceremony itself to sing the opening stanzas of “Renegade” (their harmonies accompanied only by guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw’s acoustic guitar) before giving way to the studio version being pumped over the Heinz Field P.A. system to serve as the soundtrack for a highlight reel comprised of Greene’s greatest hits and sacks on the field. And Steelers fans, of course, all know just how important Shaw’s indelible “Renegade” is to their team in general (more on that in a bit).
“It was incredibly moving. I’m so proud of the man we met all those years ago,” Tommy told me the following day about playing for and supporting his good friend (and for the Steeler Nation at large). “I still think of Kevin as ‘that guy’ because that’s who he is, now seasoned by parenthood and other life experiences.”
Having also been a fan of Styx ever since he was a kid, Greene, who’s 54, was both humbled and honored to have the previous evening’s concert performed in his honor. “It’s so awesome to be back in the Steel City,” he said to the Benedum faithful from center stage, having been brought out there by JY himself to thunderous applause and chants of “Let’s go Steelers!” — right after Styx had finished their first set of the night. “I love Styx’s music,” Greene continued. “I’ve personally kicked a lot of ass to their rock & roll!”
The man and his family had arrived at the venue earlier that evening during Styx’s already underway soundcheck around 5:31 p.m., and the four of them stood waiting in the wings on Tommy and JY’s side of the stage. Greene, sporting his boss Hall of Fame jacket and a pair of killer snakeskin boots, air-drummed along with drummer Todd Sucherman’s flourishes during the run-through of “Fooling Yourself” before JY spotted them from his onstage position, and he briefly came over to say hello after the song had finished. Ever the taskmaster, JY excused himself to rejoin the 31-minute soundcheck, this time for a go at Tommy’s earliest showcase track, “Crystal Ball,” a song that also happened to be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its release on October 1, 1976. (Hardcore fans will also recall the last time Styx played the Benedum — back when it was still known as the Stanley Theater — in support of The Grand Illusion on December 9, 1977.)
Soundcheck came to an end around 5:49 p.m. after “Suite Madame Blue,” and the entire band came over to say their hellos to the family. Greene and I adjourned to JY’s private dressing room to sit down face to face and exclusively discuss why Styx music continues to mean so much to him, when he first met the band and where, and why he feels teamwork is a vital element for the success of both some of the sports teams he’s played on and of the band itself. There’s no doubt that Greene, a lifelong Renegade in his own right, has officially got it made.
Mike Mettler: Tell me about when you first became aware of Styx while you were growing up.
Kevin Greene: It must have been freshman year of high school [at Granite City High in Illinois] — the 1976, 1977 timeframe. It was the year The Grand Illusion came out, so it must have been 1977. My brother and I had that album on 8-track. We had it in the car, and it would click over at a certain point to the third or fourth track — you know how they do it, those 8-tracks. So, yeah, I’ve been a Styx fan for a long time.
Mettler: How did you come to interact with the band personally?
Greene: Well, I retired from playing after the 1999 season, and in 2000, I worked for ESPN. I believe the Super Bowl was down in Tampa that season, in January 2001. [Note: It sure was — Super Bowl XXXV was held at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on January 28, 2001, where the Baltimore Ravens beat the New York Giants, 34-7.]
So I’m down there, and I had a little break in my ESPN commitment. I said to myself, “You know what? I heard Styx was playing locally.” [They were, at the USF Sundome in Tampa, along with REO Speedwagon and Survivor, on January 27, 2001.] I didn’t have a ticket, but I said, “I’m gonna go. I gotta find a way to get a ticket — outside, or whatever it takes — so I’ll finally have a chance to see Styx in concert.”
I walked out back where it looked like roadies were bringing in kegs of beer and other stuff like that. I walked up to one of them and said, “Hey, excuse me a second. Can I ask you a question?” I was basically going to ask if they were still selling tickets for the show, and he goes, “Kevin Greene! What the hell? What are you doing here?” I go, “Well, I’m a big Styx fan.” He goes, “Come on, man! They’d love to meet you!” So I said, “OK!” He took me up to a security guy, and I said, “My name is…” and he said, “…Kevin Greene!! Come here! This is where you need to be!”
Mettler: Wow. That sure worked out perfectly, didn’t it?
Greene: It was awesome! The next thing I know, I’m hanging with Styx in their locker room. I got to meet Tommy and JY and everybody, and I’m thinking, “Oh, this is so cool.” I said, “I’m a big fan of you guys.” And they said, “Well, we’re big football fans. We know who you are, Kevin — you were a helluva player. Where’s your hair?” (both laugh) By then, I had it cut back. But I’m thinking of growing mine back and keeping it longer, like yours.
And that’s how it happened. JY and I have maintained contact over the last 16 years or so, and I’ve gone to a couple more Styx concerts in that time. I go whenever they’re close. I’m still a dad, so I can only get away so much, you know? (chuckles)
Mettler: Your wife Tara got to sing The National Anthem with the band at Heinz Field before the Steelers-Chiefs game. How did that come about?
Greene: She always sang The National Anthem for all the teams I played for and she did really well, so they kept asking her to come back! She’s trained classically. She’s about 14 hours shy of her master’s degree in music and everything, but I married her away and made her a football wife! (both laugh)
I let the Rams know she sang The National Anthem. She went and auditioned, and they had her sing. She also sang with Carolina, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. And she’s 9-1 when she sings. That’s pretty good. That’s a damn good record!
Mettler: Not too many people have a record like that. A team could be heading for a bye week in the playoffs with that kind of record.
Greene: Seriously! But I had great games when she sang. I had more sacks and recovered fumbles; all those deals. [Tara is now officially 10-1, as the Steelers trounced the Chiefs on Sunday night, 43-14.]
Mettler: Since we’re in Pittsburgh, there’s one specific Styx song that carries extra weight with Steelers fans: “Renegade.” I know the tradition of playing it late in a game started in January 2002, a few years after you left the team, but what does that song mean to you now?
Greene: Yeah! Obviously, I’m a fan of every one of their songs, but as far as “Renegade,” specifically — that’s a Steelers song. I hate to “claim” that one, but it is a Steelers song. It’s an ass-kicking song, and it just really speaks to the Steelers and the steel-mill town mentality. You know, we arerenegades, we are long hair, we’re out there being wild and free and having fun and kicking people’s asses. (Both laugh) What can I say?
Mettler: And how nice that it has become such a rallying cry for the Steelers defense.
Greene: Yeah, it’s neat.
Mettler: I talked with Jerome Bettis about “Renegade” last year, and it was great to hear how the guys on the offensive side of the ball are just as invested in the song as the defense is.
Greene: Generally speaking, I think it’s a defensive song, but it’s neat to hear that from the offensive perspective. Jerome’s a good dude. I’m glad you had a chance to talk to him. He gave me some pointers on my Hall of Fame speech.
Mettler: Those must have been some good pointers, then. Do you have any other favorite Styx songs?
Greene: You know what? Quite frankly, they just jumped out from the radio at me. One was “Crystal Ball,” about the future, and that karma that goes with it. And it came out 40 years ago today [on October 1] — isn’t that something?
And then there’s another song called “Superstars” [from The Grand Illusion]. Tommy sings that he sees you “calling from the shadow of the 14th row, and I’ve had the same dreams you’ve had a few short years ago.” He’s saying, basically, “I was just like you.” I would listen to that in high school, and I’d be thinking, “Man, I could be like that. I could get on that stage.” But I got on a different stage. (smiles)
I think “Fooling Yourself” [also from The Grand Illusion] is another good one because there’s a part in it that goes, “Get up, get back on your feet, you’re the one they can’t beat.” I’ve always felt that way about myself. Once I set my mind to something, nothing’s going to stop me. And that’s what I did.
And like I said, quite honestly, a couple of nuggets from their songs like those jumped out of the radio at me, and I’d go, “He’s right — what he’s singing about.” I know when I set my jaw and make up my mind — and again, I’m thinking this back when I was 16 and 17 — it’s so true! “If I could just do that and be so focused and so determined, I could be where they are! I could be an entertainer!” — which is what I was, on the field.
Mettler: You felt Styx’s music and lyrics were speaking to you personally.
Greene: Their songs were sung with conviction. To write the songs they were writing — that comes from the heart. When I would listen to the songs like “Superstars” and hear those lines about seeing you there in the 14th row, saying, “trust me — we were just like you a few years ago.” If you tweak it the right way, you could say, “He’s right!”
So what’s the difference from being in the 14th row and being a rock star? Drive, desire, determination, dedication, commitment, love, fire, piss and vinegar, and passion, all rolled up into one. [smacks hand into fist for emphasis] For play after play after play after play. And at the end, you see where the cards shake down. And for me, that just happened to be the Hall of Fame — (pauses) which is kind of cool. (smiles)
Mettler: Was there a crossroads kind of moment where you followed the advice you heard in those Styx songs and said, “Screw it — I’m not letting anything stop me”?
Greene: That’s a good question. It was in my third year of college, and I didn’t play for the Auburn Tigers for the first 2 years. I knew I was going to graduate the following year and move on. I just wanted to play for the Auburn Tigers, and it was either now or never. I didn’t want to get to the point when I was 35 and say, “I think I could have played football — shoulda, coulda…”
So I came to that juncture in my life where I said, “F it — I’m going to walk on, and let the chips fall where they may.” I played my junior and senior years at Auburn, and I also played my fifth year there, and then I slipped into the pros — and now I’m walking tall. (laughs heartily)
Mettler: You’re being quite modest when you say you “slipped into” the NFL, Kevin.
Greene: Well, I had a lot of people around me. I know the Hall of Fame is an individual award, but for me, it’s not necessarily that way. In Pittsburgh, if I didn’t have [linebacker] Greg Lloyd [Sr.] on the other side of me where the other team had to account for him, then they would have double-teamed me, and that would have taken me out of every game.
And not just us two, but we had [inside linebacker] Levon Kirkland and [linebacker] Chad Brown on the inside, and on my corner, who played with me but none other than Hall of Famer [cornerback] Rod Woodson. He helped me. [Defensive back] Carnell Lake helped me. They all helped me. I had a lot of help along the way. Although I do wear the individual Hall of Fame jacket, there are a lot of people who helped me put this jacket on.
Mettler: It’s like that Steel Curtain teamwork from the ’70s — and the kind of teamwork we also see onstage with Styx. They all do something together that they can’t do individually.
Greene: No question, no question. Correct. I think you’re spot on. And I love seeing how they do that. In order to be successful, whether you’re in a band or in a team sport, you’ve got to have that brotherhood, because there’s no other way. When you get people working together, loving each other, and putting their egos and ambitions on the shelf, you can come together and [claps hands] — you can accomplish big goals, and big things.
Mettler: Last thing: Why do you think Styx music endures to this day?
Greene: Styx have really just stood the test of time, haven’t they? And they love it. They’re just enjoying it now — probably more than ever! They respect it, they enjoy it, and they realize just how blessed they are. It comes through in the way they play, and how much fun they have out there.