Sunday marks an important day in the life of Steeler Nation. And no, I'm not talking about the big game against the Bengals.
There is a remarkable symmetry embodied with the upcoming 40th commemoration of the Immaculate Reception.
For a franchise that is celebrating it's 80th anniversary of existence, this event provides a clear line of demarcation between a first 40 years of unrelenting futility and and the last forty of unparalleled excellence. Some of us have been blessed to have been witness to elements of both eras. And there is a special appreciation for the accomplishments of the Steelers organization in light of knowing first hand where it has come from that later arrivals to the party seemed to have difficulty grasping.
But for me the Immaculate Reception goes even deeper, its impact more personal than just the mere outcome of a football game.
Last month I observed another 40th anniversary, that of the passing of my mother. Had it not been for her death and its timing I am not sure if I would have seen the game. On the morning of December 23rd, 1972 I stepped out of the brownstone I resided in on Broad Street in Philadelphia, part of the ghost town that was the campus of Temple University two days before Christmas. The day was grey and sunless, but unseasonably warm, so much so that I didn't bother to wear a jacket as I set off on my bike down Diamond Street, past the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philly, through Fairmount Park and on to the Overbrook section and my brother's home.
I arrived to greet my brother, his wife, three year old daughter and my father. We were in the midst of doing something that was unprecedented in my life also disorienting and sad. For the first time I was going to celebrate Christmas somewhere other than my home in Pittsburgh.
It made sense. Who wanted to face the ghosts in that house, or all of the well meaning sentiments but cutting reminders of such a crushing loss. One of the great lessons I learned from that time was about the tremendous lengths one could go in order to not to confront what you did not want to face. Earlier in the fall my mother's decade long struggle with Multiple Sclerosis was winding down to a terminal conclusion. She was being cared for by her parents in her hometown of Xenia, Ohio (a few miles away from the hometown of Coach Dad (LeBeau), London). Over the final weeks my father would commute in from Pittsburgh and my brother and I would make a number of nine hour drives from Philly. In spite of the disruption that represented I posted a 4.0 GPA that semester; academics being a welcome distraction from reality.
And what could be more diverting than a playoff game. Playoffs! (Cue Jim Mora here). The concept was so alien at that time for Steelers fans. It has to be hard for some younger fans to conceptualize. I mean, even the Pirates have a history of competence. You could learn about Clemente, Honus Wagner, the Waner brothers, Willie Stargell, even Barry Bonds. But the Steelers in 1972? This was the very definition of the term 'virgin territory'.
We (Steeler Nation as it existed at the time) could see it coming. Chuck Noll's building project was in its fourth year. Things moved more incrementally in those days. Even though they failed to qualify for the playoffs the first three seasons, they were clearly getting better.
In the fourth season they were still two years removed from being fully loaded with the likes of Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. The big addition that year was an unexpected delight. Franco Harris was part of the powerful Penn State juggernaut that should have been declared national champions at least once in the late 60s. (Whether it was pro-South or anti-East bias or both that was the factor I'll let you decide).
Members of those teams such as Jack Ham, Mike Reid and Ted Kwalick were coming into the NFL and launching All Pro caliber careers. Harris was a relatively minor player in this group, being the lesser of a running tandem that featured Lydell Mitchell who would go on to star for the Colts. But Franco quickly established himself as something special. A fact that I was able to witness firsthand that season.
The family had started with grander ambitions about following the Steelers that year. The previous December my brother and I decided to pool our relatively meager resources and purchase our father season tickets to the Steelers. Nothing better encapsulates the difference between the pre-Immaculate Reception and the post period than describing the process by which I obtained these tickets (What I am about to share may be difficult for some of you to believe but absolutely true).
I walked up to the Steelers ticket office at Three Rivers Stadium. There may have been one staff member, no more than two and me. I shared that I wanted to buy a pair of season tickets. They showed me a seating chart of Three Rivers Stadium. I selected two seats. I purchased two seats. Everybody went away happy. No waiting lists, no seat licenses, no selling of internal organs or offspring. With my mother's illness those tickets would go largely unused, with one notable exception.
One Sunday when I was either enroute to or from Xenia I took in a game against the Minnesota Vikings. This was a big game for a number of reasons. The team was pursuing a playoff spot (Playoffs!) of course. But at least as important was simply that this would be a test against an NFL power. The Vikings were part of the league elite, like the Steelers are today.
They had stars like the Purple People Eaters (Eller, Page, Marshall and Larson) and Fran Tarkenton at quarterback. They were in the playoffs every year. They would make it back to the Super Bowl the following year. This was one of those teams that the Steelers would have to prove they could go toe to toe with if they had any hope of being anything but pretenders. And that Sunday the Steelers did just that with the deciding play being a Harris run that started with him running inside, bouncing outside and fleeing down the visitor's sideline for a touchdown. The fans at the stadium, the entire city was in ecstasy. We had never seen greatness wearing black and gold but we knew it was on its way.
So on December 23rd we would be distracted for a few hours by a playoff game. It was a tense, riveting game. The Steel Curtain defense may not have peaked yet, but it was awfully close. They shut the powerful Oakland Raiders offense out for almost the entire game. They were clinging to a 6-0 lead courtesy of two Roy Gerela field goals. Late in the fourth quarter it seemed like enough. The Raider quarterback Kenny Stabler scrambled for a touchdown that seemed illegitimate and out of place; like how I'm sure Ravens fans felt when they saw Byron Leftwich waltz into the end zone a month ago.
There was still time left, but offense had come at such a premium that day. Pittsburgh did not have a high octane attack. Terry Bradshaw was still trying to find his way. The Steelers generally was not a polished battle tested playoff team that could be counted upon to pull greatness out of their behinds on cue. We could hope, of course. But was a big finish really in the offing? Hadn't we used up all that mojo with Mazerowski's homer in the 1960 World Series? It looked like all the world that we were done. In and of itself that wasn't all that bad.
Afterall we had no idea what actually winning a playoff game would feel like. I mean, what would it be like to marry Halle Berry? Pretty good I guess. Not going to happen? Oh, well. Next. What I dreaded was that with the loss there would be no more distractions and then what?
Then it happened. The first reaction was one of cautious, somewhat giddy disbelief. Let's be clear about this. Maz's homer was unlikely but plausible. This? Nothing had ever happened like this before (or since).
This was one of those things that you might see in a Bad News Bears movie, but not in a real life game with real life people in a truly high stakes circumstance. We didn't start to celebrate until after the referee got off the phone with whomever he was consulting for guidance and declared it a touchdown. It was a joyful moment if still muted. And then it was over. There were a few replays, but this was well before the era of ESPN and other sports networks where you could turn for endless replays, interviews and analysis. There was an NFC game that I recall nothing of the opponents or the result. There was enthused but brief mention in the Philadelphia sports media. And then I got on my bike and rode home in the darkness.
But I didn't mind that I was riding through the most dangerous gang territory in the country. Did not mind that I would be spending Christmas Eve alone in a cavernous three story house. Did not mind Christmas in Philadelphia. I did not mind anything for a week. That was the personal gift I received from the Immaculate Reception.
Eventually you do have to face reality, and reality came with a vengeance. The following weekend on New Years Eve my Super Bowl hopes were taken away in the afternoon, and then that evening my childhood hero Roberto Clemente was taken away as well. This left me on New Years Day sitting alone in that big house mindlessly staring at bowl games and dealing with an exponential level of grief.
Postscript. While my brother and I would come to terms with out loss my father never really did. His health took a serious turn for the worse in the weeks following my Mom's death and the playoffs and though he lived on for several more years he was never really the same. He got to see the Steelers win three of their first four Super
Bowls and I am grateful that he did. One of the last times the three of us were together was to see Pittsburgh prevail in Super Bowl Thirteen over the Cowboys. We watched the game in Reston, Va, a place where my brother had just moved to and where, today, we both now call home. Though what home feels like and represents has never been the same.
The Immaculate Reception keeps on giving. Because of its long term effects the holidays of many of those who read this will be absolutely ruined if the Steelers don't defeat the Bengals and then the Browns and make it into the playoffs. And for all too many it'll be just as bad if they make it into the playoffs or even the Super Bowl but come up short. There was a time when there was joy in just being relevant at this time of the year. But because of what was set in motion with the Immaculate Reception Steeler Nation has the luxury of skewed priorities and a dulled sense of appreciation. We could be Jacksonville. Indeed, at one time we were Jacksonville. Maybe even worse.
This weekend I will be spending time with my daughter, son in law and grandchildren, none of whom ever met my mother or father. If the Bengals game is not playing in their television market I'll find a nearby sports bar and take in the game. If we lose I'll be pissed just like the rest of you.
But not for long. We're still blessed.