It was his 27th birthday and Ernie Holmes, defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was picking up the meat for his party. Not at the supermarket or butcher's, though. Holmes was personally slaughtering a calf at his father's farm outside Houston. "I gave him a forearm lift," says Holmes, describing his barnyard battle with the beast. "That knocked him into the fence Then I put a full nelson on him." Finally Holmes dropped the animal with a high-powered rifle. "Forty-five minutes later," he says, "we had the calf skinned and dried."
The National Football League is full of quarterbacks who have been shown no more mercy. Not to mention running backs and offensive linemen. Playing with a raw violence that is rare even when judged by the bare-knuckle standards of his sport, Ernie Holmes knows how to slaughter an offense.
On most teams his performance, and personality, would make Holmes famous. Not on the Steelers. With Pittsburgh, he is not even the best-known defensive lineman. There are three reasons: Fellow Tackle "Mean" Joe Greene and Ends L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White, each a prototype of menace at his position and a striking figure off the field. Greenwood, 29 is a brutal tackler, although he says he hates contact and would rather not be known as a football player. Greene, 29, after a season of tossing linemen and runners around like rag dolls, goes home to cultivate his vegetable garden. As for White, 26, it is hard to know exactly what he will do at any time. "There's no question that I'm schizoid," he says. "I might be three or four people. I know I can be evil."
These are the men who make up the meanest front four in football, a half ton of trouble for any offense. Moving like a band of marauding behemoths (average size 6 ft. 4 in., 260 lbs.), they smother runners at the line of scrimmage, flatten passers, and send offensive linemen into disarray. "There are some great lines in the league," says Washington Redskins Head Coach George Allen, architect of one himself, "but the edge has to go to Pittsburgh. They put fear in the heart of a passer."
They do more than that. Dumping quarterbacks a league-leading 40 times last season was only the beginning of the front four's contribution to the Steelers. They set the tone for the entire defense and it was the defense that carried the 42-year-old Pittsburgh franchise to its first Super Bowl championship last year. The creation of patient, low-key Head Coach Chuck Noll, who drafted all but two of the starting defensive players, and Steelers Founder and Owner Art Rooney, who gave Noll the backing he needed to build slowly over the past six years, the defense is the cornerstone of Pittsburgh's leadership in the N.F.L. When Pittsburgh defeated Minnesota 16-6 in the Super Bowl, the defense limited the Vikings to 17 yds. rushing. Minnesota Running Back Chuck Foreman spoke for the league when he pleaded with the Steeler front four: "C'mon, you mothers, give us a yard."