The Immaculate Reception actually saved his life 39 years ago. Les Banos was one of the most beloved and unforgettable characters in Pittsburgh sports and television history. Les died this past week at age 88 of heart failure.
Known affectionately as the "Little Hungarian" or the "Little Magyar," Banos spent most of his life behind a camera. He was photographer and cameraman for the Pirates and Steelers in the 1960's and 1970's, and - before that - he helped put WQED on the air in the early 1950's, and also worked at WTAE-TV. Nearly all the precious video that still exists of the Great Clemente was taken - and preserved - by Les.
The story of how the IR saved his life is absolutely true. In 1972, Les was working for both the Pirates and Steelers. That December, his good and great friend Roberto Clemente was frantically organizing relief efforts in the wake of the Managua earthquake. Clemente was furious that troops loyal to the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza were confiscating food, water, blankets, and clothing. Clemente said he would personally deliver relief supplies, and Les said he would fly down to Puerto Rico to join him on the plane and film the delivery of supplies. The flight would be sometime the last week of December, 1972.
On December 23, 1972, Franco Harris changed Steeler history forever, and saved Les' life. Because the Steelers defeated the Raiders 13-7, they remained alive in the playoffs for another week. Les would have to work the game the on December 31 against the Miami Dolphins. He called Clemente, and Roberto said the two could meet in Managua. Les stayed behind to film the Dolphins game. Clemente's plane crashed into the sea on New Year's Eve.
Les and Roberto were great friends in life, and Les did much to help keep the memory of Clemente alive.
When David Maraniss was preparing to write his remarkable biography of Clemente, he asked me if I knew any people he should seek out in Pittsburgh for insight and stories about this remarkable and complicated man. The first name I suggested was Les. (The list also included Neal Coolong's grandparents, Tony Bartirome, Nellie King, and Phil Dorsey, among others.) David sought out Les, who became a primary source and was widely quoted throughout the book.
I owe a personal debt to Les Banos. After the radio station I worked for was sold in 1973, I found myself out of work. Shortly after that, a new TV station signed on the air in Pittsburgh, Channel 53. I had the bright idea of doing a local TV talk show, and Les offered to be my producer and director. The show ran into the Arab oil embargo and our sponsors, including an RV dealership, bailed on us. We went under after two months, and Les never asked for a nickel.
Les was honest, decent, gentle, and optimistic to the core. Maybe that's why so many star players opened up to him, and remained friends. Franco Harris - one of those lifelong friends - is quoted throughout the PG obituary.
But the piece in the PG also outlined a part of Les Banos' life about which I knew very little. He had been an allied spy in World War II, and had helped saved the lives of perhaps thousands of people in his native Hungary.
Les made contact with Allied intelligence as early as 1939 - when he was still in his teens - and eventually gained a position of some responsibility with the German SS. He interacted with German officers up to and including Adolf Eichmann, and he often helped save the lives of Jews and others by falsifying orders and passing out safe conduct papers. His family owned a small factory in Budapest, and they used its sewer system as hiding places, and he worked with Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in this effort that saved many thousands of lives.
After the war, Les and his wife Georgina came to the US and - according to the PG - ran out of funds in Pittsburgh. He ended up at Pitt and then WQED and then with the Pirates and Steelers. In his later years, he would speak to young people about his wartime experiences, and he and his family were given honors and medals for their heroism.
To me, Les will always be that little guy with the quick smile, the warm heart, and the thick Hungarian accent. He was the guy in the background that everyone knew - or thought they knew. He was the guy you either liked or loved. He was there when the Same Old Steelers became a Dynasty. He was part of that incredible cast of characters assembled by the Chief.
The world, you see, is full of heroes, large and small. That's especially true of Les' generation. And sometimes you don't even know who they are. Or you find out when they are very old. Or gone.
Les Banos, the guy who filmed the Immaculate Reception for the Steelers, was a hero. And he enriched the lives of the many people who were lucky enough to know him. In my tradition, it is said that he who saves a single life saves the world. Les Banos saved the world, thousands of times.