December 1972: The Most Momentous Month in Pittsburgh’s Sports History

Regardless of what happened in sports I was going to have powerful memories of 1972. During much of the late fall I was commuting from Philadelphia, where I was attending college to Pittsburgh and Ohio attending to my gravely ill mother. Her struggle ended less than two weeks after my 20th birthday in late November.

Steelers football provided a welcome distraction from my family’s troubles. Nearly a year earlier my brother and I presented my father with a Christmas gift of Steelers season tickets. At the time the process simply required me to walk up to the Steelers ticket office at Three Rivers Stadium, peruse the seating chart of the stadium and make the purchase. 1971 would be the last time that such a thing was possible for Steelers fans. The one game I personally attended in ’72 was a big one; we were hosting the Minnesota Vikings.

 

The Vikings were one of the elite teams in the NFL. They dominated their division and would make four trips to the Super Bowl in an eight year span. Unfortunately, like the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s they lost in each of their championship appearances. Consequently, the lasting impression of their influence is not as great as other dominant teams of that time such as the Cowboys, Dolphins or Raiders. But they would serve as a huge test for an upstart Pittsburgh squad that was showing signs of successfully making the transition from abysmal to mediocre to elite under the leadership of fourth year head coach Chuck Noll. The defense, led by future Hall of Fame players such as Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Mel Blount was already championship caliber. What was new and exciting was the addition of rookie running back Franco Harris from Penn State. Because he had labored in the shadow of his better known backfield mate, Lydell Mitchell at PSU, Franco’s emergence as an elite NFL back came as a pleasant surprise. He began to cement his position as an all time Steelers favorite when he took an inside handoff in the fourth quarter, bounced outside and fled down the sidelines for the score that would cement a 23–10 victory. A jubilant crowd left the stadium buzzing about something that was new and exciting for Pittsburgh fans. In its 40th year of existence the Steelers had a young, talented, disciplined team that could go toe to toe with the big boys of the league and prevail. This was the proof that a new era was dawning, something very different from the frustrations of the past.

 

December 23rd 1972 dawned grey and unseasonably warm in Philadelphia. It was a weird, sad time for me. For the first time in my life I would not be spending Christmas at home in Pittsburgh. I left my apartment on the empty Temple University campus and rode my bicycle down Diamond Street, through gang country, past the projects and the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philly and then through Fairmount Park to my brother’s home in Wynnefield. My father was in town spending Christmas with my brother’s family. On this day the intention was to put aside our grief for a few hours and witness the rarity of a Steelers playoff appearance against the Oakland Raiders.

 

The game was a tense, defensive struggle that Pittsburgh led going late into the fourth quarter thanks to two Roy Gerela field goals. Disaster struck when Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler eluded the Steelers pass rush and scrambled into the end zone giving Oakland a 7-6 lead. Pittsburgh didn’t have much of an air attack in those days, though third year quarterback and former number one draft pick Terry Bradshaw had the potential, in theory, to move the team in the dying seconds within range of a winning field goal.  Things looked bleak when Pittsburgh faced a fourth down, still in their own territory with about 22 seconds remaining in the game. I began to prepare myself mentally for disappointment after a tantalizing couple of hours where I actually entertained fantasies of witnessing something no one had ever seen before; a Steelers playoff victory.

 

I can’t imagine that any of you hasn’t seen what happened next. Running for his life, Bradshaw launches a pass to running back Frenchy Fuqua. The ball, Fuqua and Raiders safety Jack Tatum all arrive at the same spot at the same time. The ball flies out of view, game ov-… And then there’s Franco, who was last seen blocking for Bradshaw in the backfield, running toward the end zone with the ball. As he scored our reaction was a bit muted. To be sure, we were overjoyed, but also stunned and somewhat confused. You have to understand that nothing like that had ever happened before. Not only was it the greatest football moment of its type ever, but it occurred before anything that could have possibly rivaled it in the public imagination. This was before the Hail Mary pass; before Doug Flutie; before the Miracle at the Meadowlands; before this year’s Wisconsin v. Michigan State game. If anything like it happened in sports it was baseball and it would have to involve New York teams; Bobby Thomson’s homerun; Mazeroski’s homerun.  Now it would have made sense for something like this to go against the snake bit, hard luck, woebegone Steelers, but for them to be the beneficiaries of such a thing. Are you kidding? As Harris is mobbed in the end zone by his teammates and hundreds of fans storm the field it begins to sink in; the Steelers win. Younger fans accustomed to and somewhat spoiled by over forty years of high competence and relatively frequent mastery of the game by the Black and Gold might have a hard time grasping how delightfully bizarre that concept was at the time.

 

What a Christmas gift. For one afternoon, at least, the gloom had lifted. There were smiles that were not forced. There was something to look forward to. Next was the AFC Conference Championship. Was it possible that we could actually go to the Super Bowl? That night I returned to my apartment traveling through what was arguably the most dangerous neighborhood in America without a care in the world. Merry Christmas.

 

The following Sunday was New Years Eve. I looked forward to the day like few others in months. George Constantinidis and I had played together as walk-ons for Temple’s freshman football team and were roommates during our sophomore year. His response to my personal tragedy was an invitation to spend New Years Eve with him in New York City, his hometown. The day was full of possibilities. I felt the Steelers had a really good chance of beating the Miami Dolphins at 1pm. Though undefeated, I feared them less than the Raiders. We were playing at home, though that advantage was somewhat negated by the fact that the weather was still Indian summer like in late December. Hopefully, the Steelers would take care of business, then on to the Big Apple for what would amount to a double celebration; a Steelers trip to the Super Bowl and good riddance to a difficult year. But that was not to be.

 

The game turned on a fake punt of all things. As the Steelers turned their backs on the Dolphins punter to set up a return, he simply followed them down field, undetected for an agonizingly long time. Miami would prevail 21-17 and would go on to make history two weeks later when they completed their undefeated season with a victory over the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl.

 

I didn’t like the result, of course, but it wasn’t that bad. Disappointed to be sure, but I wasn’t saddled with the curse of high expectations that makes falling short such an ordeal for fans in the present day. And besides, I had a train to catch. I remember as I walked to the North Philly train station that I was just grateful to have the opportunity to get away. At the time that part of Philadelphia was dismal, squalid and dangerous. The prospect of a celebrating in New York was exciting. And I figured that the worst part of the day was over. I was wrong.

 

It started out as a great evening. George’s girlfriend surprised me by providing me with a date for the night. The four of us were having a great time party hopping. We were driving along

Queens Blvd with the radio on providing a background soundtrack to good conversation. The news came on and what had been background noise suddenly assaulted the foreground of my consciousness. A plane that was carrying Roberto Clemente had crashed into the Caribbean Sea.

 

What!

 

It didn’t register with the other three occupants of the car in the way that it impacted me. They were New Yorkers, this was New York City, they understood it as being tragic in a generic kind of way, but no big deal. For my part I hid the extent of the shock and disbelief I felt from them, otherwise the evening might have been completely spoiled. Good company, food, drink and music got me through the night. Around 8am the next morning I emerged from Penn Station in Philly to bright sunshine and temperatures approaching 80 degrees. Next door the Philadelphia Bulletin building had an electronic scrawl giving the days headlines. I read the Clemente story and continued to watch as the story cycled through a few more times. I guess I was hoping that it would change. Or maybe I needed the multiple readings to finally believe it. I then descended down to the Market Street Subway and went home to get some sleep.

 

It wasn’t until I got the opportunity to compare notes with some of the folks in the BTSC community that were around at that time that many others had been just as devastated as I had been by Clemente’s death. For my generation of Pittsburghers and me in particular Clemente was a transcendent figure. Sometimes misunderstood and castigated by the local press, underexposed and undervalued in the national consciousness, those of us who had the privilege of watching him play day to day fell in love with his incredible talent and character. He was my first hero. Over the years he has become something of a cult figure in some quarters. Think of the reference to him in the movie Grand Canyon, surprising in the sense that the movie is about characters that live in Los Angles with no logical connection of any kind to Pittsburgh. In my fragile emotional state at the time, Clemente’s death was particularly impactful. I had weeks to prepare myself for my mother’s passing. Clemente was a shock and compounded my grief. Two people who defined my life were now gone. The world I had left in Pittsburgh was now altered and empty in many ways.

 

But more was happening beyond my personal feelings. The eight day period bracketed by the Steelers playoff victory over the Raiders at one end, and Clemente’s death at the other marked a change in the tone and landscape of the Pittsburgh sports scene the repercussions of which are being felt to this day.  Always a football town, nevertheless, the Steelers was not the dominant professional sports franchise in the city prior to the Immaculate Reception. While the Pirates would continue to play quality baseball for years and would win a World Series in ’79, an era came to an end when Roberto left the scene, just as one began when Franco plucked that pass out of the air and carried it into the end zone. The Pirates and the Pens have had their championships and their stars (Stargell, Mario, Sid), but since December ’72 the Steelers have dominated the NFL and owned the heart of the city of Pittsburgh. Has there ever been a more influential series of events occurring in a more condensed time frame?  

 

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