Monday, August 13, 2012

Vol. 2 No. 82 Joey Greene, Long Jumper

Greene finds his charisma, if not his medals
One of the last times his uncle came back to Dayton, 8-year-old Isaiah Greene studied him with wondrous fascination and finally announced:“You got to be really rich.

Greene finds his charisma, if not his medals
One of the last times his uncle came back to Dayton, 8-year-old Isaiah Greene studied him with wondrous fascination and finally announced:“You got to be really rich.
  • This article appeared last week in the Dayton Daily News, my hometown.  Joey Greene grew up in this area and competed with the Kettering Striders Track Club before high school years, then went on to Ohio State and medaled in two Olympics.  ed.

Greene finds his charisma, if not his medals

  • Greene finds his charisma, if not his medals photo
Bill Lackey
Two time Olympic bronze medalist, Joe Greene, from Dayton, outside his workplace in Columbus. Staff photo by Bill Lackey
One of the last times his uncle came back to Dayton, 8-year-old Isaiah Greene studied him with wondrous fascination and finally announced:
“You got to be really rich. Only rich people get streets named after them.”
And Uncle Joe certainly does have his name paved for posterity. Joe Greene Way runs from Airway Road to Linden Avenue in Riverside. Once called Spinning Road, the thoroughfare was renamed after the 1996 Olympics when Jumpin’ Joe won a bronze medal in the long jump in Atlanta.
It was the second straight Games in which he had medaled in the event. He also took bronze in Barcelona in 1992. After that effort, he and four other Olympians with local ties were honored with a parade through downtown Dayton.
For a while that parade seemed as if it would never end for Greene. He lived part of the year in Berlin with his new wife, Susen Tiedtke, the photogenic German long jumper, often trained in South Africa and competed all across Europe, down in Rio and over in Tokyo.
Stebbins High School, his alma mater, renamed a track meet after him. AT&T; featured him in a national TV commercial. Companies in Japan sponsored him. Eventually he was ranked No. 1 in the United States and No. 2 in the world.
After winning bronze in Atlanta, he recognized the select fraternity he was in:
“The Olympics are a stage that only comes around a few times in your life. It’s about as special as it gets. When I think of the Olympic Games, I think of people like Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens … and I feel good to be a little part of that.”
And while he remains very much a part of that, he did give away a couple of its symbolic pieces.
Three years ago the popular cable show Pawn Stars debuted on the History channel. It is set in the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas that is run by Rick Harrison and his dad. The opening episode featured Greene’s two bronze medals.
They were on display there along with the Dayton Daily News article I wrote from Barcelona the day the animated, ever-smiling Greene won the hearts of the Estadi Olimpic crowd.
The Aug. 8, 1992 column was headlined:
“Amazin’ Joe Steals the Show: His medal’s bronze, but charisma gold.”
But as it would turn out, all that glitters is not gold … or bronze either.
Harrison remembers Greene showing up at his shop with his ‘96 medal. As he told an ESPN The Magazine writer last year:
“I think it’s all he had.”
Charming the world
Although he was a track standout at Stebbins and then Ohio State, where he had an All-American career, was a two-time NCAA champion and eight-time Big Ten champ, Greene didn’t really make a splash on the international stage until the 1992 Olympics.
Right before the Games, he had jumped a wind-aided 28 feet, 5 inches in Italy, but once in Barcelona he saw the interest was all on Carl Lewis — who already had six Olympic gold medals on his resume — and Mike Powell, who held the world record.
“It was the Carl and Mike Show, but to be honest I thought I had a chance to mix it up with them,” Greene said earlier this week. “I wanted to say, ‘Hey, I do exist.’ ”
With 63,000 people watching the long jump finals, Greene faulted on the first two of his six attempts, then went an unimpressive 25-10 ¼ on his third.
But before his fourth jump — with his dad James, a retired Air Force sergeant in the stands — Joe stood at the top of the runway, raised his hands over his head and with a big smile lighting his face, he began a slow, rhythmic clap and soon the crowd took its cue.
Folks loved the young charmer from America and soon everyone was clapping to his cadence. It fueled him the way spinach used to power up Popeye and he roared down the runway and then sailed 27-4 ½, good enough for bronze behind Lewis (28-5 ½ ) and Powell (28- 4 ¼.)
In the press conference afterward all the initial questions were for the other two. Finally a query came Greene’s way and that’s when he showed he certainly did exist.
“I want to get back to the weight room. I want to beat these guys. Every pump I’ll think of them,” he said before pretending to lift weights.
“Mike uuungh,
“Carl ooomph.
“Mike uuungh,
“Carl oomph.
“Mike, Carl…Mike, Carl.”
The media from around the world roared with laughter.
A year later he turned the charm on Tiedtke, proposing in Italy and then marrying her in Dayton. But soon after he was diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder and got very sick. Then, following the world championships, Tiedtke, who was trained by her ever-present father, had a much-debated positive drug test.
Through the distraction and medical debilitation, Greene pushed himself to compete and even topped Lewis at the 1996 Olympic Trials.
But on a steamy night in Atlanta with a crowd of 85,000 — including his dad and most of his seven brothers and sisters — all watching, Greene struggled until he had just one jump left.
“I just kept telling myself I’d regret this the rest of life if I didn’t lay a jump out there,” he said afterward. “We had a big crowd. All of America was watching. My family was there. I just HAD to do something.”
And he did. He jumped 27-0 ½ and took bronze behind Lewis and Jamaica’s James Beckford.
“I realized long ago God gave me a gift and that’s to jump,” he said that night. “The only thing is I don’t know how far it will take me.”
Spiraling downward
Joe’s mom died of a stroke in 1990.
“Even though I wasn’t the oldest in the family, I was the first to have children, so after our mother passed, I kind of ended up taking her place,” said Laura Cox, who is five years older than Joe. “Everybody would call me, especially Joe. He was out in the world and I think he just wanted to hear my voice and some encouragement.”
But Joe’s calls began to take on a different tone in 1997 when he went into a downward spiral that, in a year’s time, included:
• Worsening of the connective tissue disorder — which caused his immune system to break down and played havoc with his vision, his stamina, his circulation and much more — made it impossible for him to train or compete so, he said, he gave up his sport.
• He and his wife divorced in 1998. She moved back to Germany, appeared in Playboy in 2004 and then married former German tennis pro Hendrik Dreekmann.
• The company he invested in ran into serious financial difficulties. “Another guy illegally did business with one of our clients,” he said. “We ended up getting sued for $10.7 million … and I lost. There was no way I could pay that in my lifetime and eventually I had to file for bankruptcy.”
He calls it: “The toughest time in my life, without a doubt. For a while there I was upset. I was angry. I asked, ‘God, why me?’ And then I just got really down. I was very, very sad.”
Laura heard it in their phone conversations.
“It was a rough, rough time for him and I remember times when I was nervous and would shed tears, just thinking of him being out there somewhere. I knew he was walking through some very dark times.
“The Joe who used to be so happy — the one who lit up any room he walked into — disappeared for a minute. He just kind of removed himself from us as a family.”
Living in Las Vegas during part of that time, Greene decided to take his Olympic medals to Harrison’s shop.
“I didn’t pawn them at first,” Greene said. “It was just a loan and I kept paying the fee on them for a year or two. But then my life was pretty bad and I said, ‘I just can’t keep paying this. I have to make the decision.’
“I could have asked somebody for help, but it was embarrassing. And at the same time it was my responsibility, not somebody else’s.”
He gave up his medals and they ended up alongside other Harrison possessions, including Leon Spinks’ heavyweight title belt, the Super Bowl XXXVI ring of Patriots cornerback Brock Williams and Diego Corrales’ world super-featherweight belt.
Greene said Harrison told him he wouldn’t sell the medals so the whole deal wouldn’t have gotten much notice had the shop not soon become the home of that popular reality TV show.
“At first I felt pretty bad about it,” the 45-year-old Greene now admits. “I’ve regretted the decision I made when I was younger and I’d do it totally different now. It would have been better to talk to someone and figure something out. It’d be nice to have the medals so people could look at them and go ‘WOW.’
“The USOC even talked to me about getting them back, but I believe you have to live with the decisions you make. And it’s not really as bad as I thought it would be. I see them as the reward I got for doing something. Not having them doesn’t change what I accomplished. I’ll always be an Olympic medal winner.”
Shedding the demons
It’s been 20 years since his Barcelona glory days, but as Greene shared his story during lunch in Reynoldsburg — where he now lives with his wife Andrea — he occasionally showed signs of his old effervescent self.
“During his dark time he met people who lived there all the time and it made him realize ‘I don’t have it that bad,’ ” Laura said. “He realized he couldn’t live in that place because at heart he is not a dark guy. Slowly he got rid of some of those demons who engulfed him and came back to us
“And when he did it was the same Joe. Although he’d lost his way for a while, he still believed in the goodness of people.”
Some of his beliefs have been put to the test in the past couple of weeks. Laura’s son — 22-year-old Aaron Michael Cox, a Stebbins grad who had become a heralded singer and songwriter in Los Angeles and worked with Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, John Legend, Big Sean, Nas and others — died of testicular cancer a month after diagnosis.
Greene mentioned Aaron often when we talked and Laura believes she knows why:
“My son’s death really affected him. It’s probably a reminder of how bad things, quote-unquote, happen to good people who are trying to make a difference … It’s a little flashback and Joe knows he was lucky he came through it.”
Greene has been married three years now, he has a job recruiting top administrators for nursing homes across the nation and he’s woven himself back into the fabric of his Dayton-based family.
“I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” he said. “I see that now. This made me stronger and more caring. I’ve got family and love and I feel good again.”
So while he never got his medals back, he did get his mettle back. And some of that light-up-the-room smile, too. Like the old headline said, his medal was bronze, but the charisma is gold.
So young Isaiah was right.
Considering everything, Joe Greene is pretty rich after all.

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