Archdeacon: Greene’s roller-coaster Olympic story gets surprise ending

When it comes to feel-good sports combos, there’s none better around here than Marty and Joe.

But I’m not talking about the popular former Cincinnati Reds’ announcers Marty Brennaman and The Ol’ Lefthander, the late Joe Nuxhall.

No, this is the heartwarming story of a Massachusetts dentist turned Good Samaritan and a well-liked Dayton Olympian:

Dr. Martin “Marty” Urban and Jumpin’ Joe Greene.

The other day, as we were talking about the Olympic Games which are winding down today in Tokyo, Greene – the two-time Olympic bronze medal winner who was a star at Stebbins High School and Ohio State – was saying how his glory days were “ancient times.”

Over the past 17 months, he’s been immersed in a more gripping saga. For several years now he’s worked as a recruiter, bringing administrators and nurses to nursing homes across the nation and these days especially to Texas.

When the COVID-19 pandemic laid siege to our country, his job got a lot tougher.

“The situation in many nursing homes was stressful with all the people dying,” he said. “It’s my job to find the nurses and initially a lot of them were hesitant when no one was sure what was going on or if there was enough PPE (personal protective equipment). For a while it was really crazy.”

After going through that it’s no wonder that the Tokyo Games – although still very much impacted by COVID – have provided an escape for many folks.

Greene and his wife Andrea have watched some of the competitions on television and though he distanced himself from his much-celebrated days in the mid-1990s, he admitted: “During Olympic times, when everyone is talking about the Games, some of the old stories are brought up and everything comes to life.”

As for his roller-coaster Olympic story, it got a surprise ending no one could have imagined just a few years ago.

It began, though, at the Barcelona Games in 1992 when he stole the show at the long jump competition and got the entire Estadi Olimpic crowd of 63,000 pulling for him.

Over the years I covered a dozen Olympic Games around the world and, I can honestly say, the way Greene won over the crowd that day – and the international press corps immediately afterward – remains one of my most favorite moments.

The event had begun with 53 jumpers and included a who’s who of competitors, especially Carl Lewis, already the owner of six Olympic gold medals, and Mike Powell, the long jump silver medalist in Seoul four years earlier and the current world record holder.

Although he’d had a wind-aided jump of 28 feet 5 inches in Italy before the Games, Greene had a meager international resume and was not given much consideration.

Only the top 12 jumpers would advance to the finals and Greene ended up No. 12.

The following day he fouled on the first two of his six attempts and then went a non-contending 25 feet, 10 ¼ inches on jump three. By then all attention was on Lewis and Powell.

“It was the Carl and Mike Show, but to be honest I thought I had a chance to mix it up with them,” Greene once told me. “I wanted to say ‘Hey, I do exist!’”

And he proved that in stirring fashion before his fourth attempt.

Standing at the top of the runway, he suddenly raised his hands over his head and with a big smile lighting up his face, he began a slow, rhythmic clap.

Soon the crowd – which included his father, retired U.S. Air Force sergeant James Greene, who had surprised him and showed up in Spain – took its cue. Everyone seemed to fall in love with the young charmer and began clapping to his cadence.

That fueled Greene the way spinach used to power up Popeye.

He roared down the runway and sailed 27 feet 4 ½ inches, good enough for the bronze medal behind Lewis (28 feet, 5 ½) and Powell (28 feet, 4 ¼).

At the press conference, all of the questions went to Lewis and Powell until finally someone addressed Greene, who promptly won over the room the way he had stadium a little earlier.

“I want to get back to the weight room,” he said grinning. “I want to beat these guys. Every pump, I’ll think of them.” He mimicked lifting weights and chanted:

“Mike uuungh!… Carl oomph!”

“Mike uuungh!… Carl oomph!”

“Mike! Carl!…Mike! Carl!”

The media from around the world roared with laughter.

When he got back to Dayton, Greene and the rest of Barcelona Olympians from here – Tonja Buford, Grace Jividen and silver medal winners LaVonna Martin and Steve Bourdow – were given a parade through town.

A year later Greene proposed to German Olympic long jumper Susan Tiedke in Italy and then married her in Dayton. They lived part time in Berlin, trained in South Africa and competed around the globe.

Although he came into the 1996 Atlanta Games dealing with an immune deficiency disorder that had left him very sick and the fallout from a much-debated failed drug test by his wife, he finished second at the Trials and then pulled off another stunner on a steamy night in Georgia.

In front of a crowd of 85,000, he had struggled in the finals and was down to his last jump when he said he gave himself an earnest pep talk:

“I just kept telling myself I’d regret this the rest of my life if I didn’t lay a jump out there.” And that’s what he did.

With a final leap of 27 feet ½ inch, he took bronze.

To this day, in the history of the Olympics, only two men have won more long jump medals than Greene.

Back home, it seemed as if the parade would never end: Dayton had a Joe Greene Day. Riverside gave him the key to the city and changed Spinning Road to Joe Greene Way. Stebbins named its track after him and AT&T featured full-page newspaper and magazine ads of him jumping over the Grand Canyon.

But within two years a debilitative connective tissue disorder all but ended his jumping and he and Tiedke had divorced. Then a company he had invested his money in was sued for $10.8 million because of someone else’s malfeasance and he was forced into bankruptcy.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The downward spiral left him “very, very sad” and his family back here very concerned for his well-being.

While living in Las Vegas, he said he used his two bronze medals as collateral to get a loan from Rick Harrison who ran the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop. He paid back installments for nearly two years, but when the burden became too much, he lost the medals.

They were displayed prominently on the wall of the Vegas shop along with the column – headlined: “Amazin’ Joe Steals the Show: His medal’s bronze but charisma gold” -- I’d written that glorious day in Barcelona.

There was other sports memorabilia there, too – including one of Leon Spinks’ heavyweight title belts and a Super Bowl XXXVI ring won by the New England Patriots’ Brock Williams – but when Harrison’s shop became the setting for a popular History Channel show, Pawn Stars, Greene’s medals were featured in the first episode

Initially, Greene was wounded. His little known transaction was suddenly viewed by everyone.

One person who saw the show was Dr. Marty Urban and he went to Las Vegas to see the medals.

“I didn’t feel right about it’

When he was 14, Urban – who was a nationally-ranked, age-group breaststroker – met Steve Lundquist, the 100-meter breaststroke gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Urban had brought along a newspaper photo that showed Lundquist consoling John Moffet, who had set a world record in the prelims, but injured his thigh and finished fifth in the L.A. final.

Lunquist signed the photo and later Urban sent that picture to Moffet, who also autographed it for him. That became the inspiration for his memorabilia collection.

But what really moved Urban in that encounter with Lundquist was when the fabled swimmer let him wear his gold medal that day.

Urban became an NCAA Division I swimmer at American University, but soon focused on a career as a dentist and now is well-known in the Boston area, where he specializes in gum surgery and placing dental implants.

He’s also built his hobby into Martin Urban Collectibles -- -- and one part features vintage pro wrestling items, most from the 1980s and 1990s, and especially anything to do with the late, raspy-voiced legend, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, who started his career as a minor league baseball player for St. Louis and the Cincinnati Reds.

Urban’s Olympic collection includes a silver medal from the 1912 Stockholm Games. It’s believed to have been won by British rifle competitor Harcourt Ommundsen, who was killed three years later in Belgium in World War I.

There’s also a bronze medal from the 1960 Rome Olympics and gold medals from the Los Angeles (1932), Moscow (1980) and Barcelona (1992) Games.

When he went to Las Vegas, Urban eventually convinced Harrison to sell him both of Greene’s bronze medals.

“I don’t quite remember what I paid for them,” he said. “The Barcelona one was probably about 10 or 12 grand.”

In an ESPN the Magazine story, Harrison once said Joe’s Atlanta medal would go for at least $20,000.

“But honestly, when I got Joe’s medals, I didn’t feel right about it,” Urban said. “I felt I had to give one of them back to him.

“Normally, a lot of Olympic medals you collect, the person who won them is deceased and family members have passed them on.

“When you get a medal you know someone parted with because they were struggling at the time, that bothered me.

“I was an athlete. I know how hard someone has to work just to get to the Olympics, let alone medal. It was an honor Joe had earned and I felt obliged to get it back to him somehow.”

Urban knew I had written that column on Greene in Barcelona and he eventually reached out to me to help him contact Joe.

Marty and Joe

“I’m doing fantastic,” Greene told me the other day.

He and his wife live at Buckeye Lake, east of Columbus, and while he said he’s never been big about trumpeting the trophies and plaques he won in his career, he said Andrea recently put his “NCAA stuff” – he was a two-time NCAA champ, eight-time Big Ten champ and an All American at Ohio State – on the wall

His nephews – who now compete in track for Northmont High School – have asked about those glory days past, but he’s said he never defined himself by the hardware he collected, including those two bronze medals.

“I’d do it totally different now,” he once told me of his relinquished medals. “But I learned to live the decision and it really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I saw them as a reward I got for doing something. Not having them didn’t change what I accomplished. I’ll always be an Olympic medal winner.

“I’m at peace with things that I wasn’t in the past. The thing that really means something now is in giving back and helping people better themselves. If you do that, the rest doesn’t matter.”

That’s the guy Urban found when he met Greene.

The two became friends – “he’s a great guy,” Urban said – and they now text each other regularly. Greene has gone to Massachusetts to visit him and eventually, Urban said he’s going to take Greene up on his invitation to come visit Ohio.

On one of Greene’s trips, Urban even did some dental work on him.

Then came the special Marty and Joe evening when Urban took Greene to a Rhode Island comedy club where his pro wrestling pal, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, was performing.

When the show began, Duggan called Urban on stage who, in turn, invited Greene to join them.

He then returned the medal Greene had won so many years earlier in Barcelona.

“Dr. Marty is just a super nice guy,” Greene said the other day. “He’s very, very kind.”

And that brought the Marty and Joe comparison to the fore once again.

Marty Brenneman’s trademark phrase after a Cincinnati victory was always: “And this one belongs to the Reds.” Marty Urban channeled that same thought the night he returned the Barcelona medal to Greene: “And this one belongs to Joe.”

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