December 22, 2012 might have been the shortest day of the year, but for Homer and hundreds of other Steeler faithful, it was one of the most memorable.
It was a family reunion, a Rooney Family Picnic, and an ingathering of exiles. We all met at noon at the Heinz History Center on Smallman Street in Pittsburgh's Strip District.
Today, December 23rd, is the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, and there were a number of ceremonies and celebrations yesterday, including the dedication of a marker and sculpture on the exact spot (determined by GPS satellites) where Franco caught the deflected and an rambled into history.
But it all began with the sweetest two hours this side of heaven - at the History Center.
Sharon Lavosky - who called into Myron Cope with the idea for the name of the play - was there.
And so was Elizabeth Cope, representing her dad. Art Baker, who owns the ball and keeps it in a bank vault the he has built, was there. And so was Al Vento, the pizza guy who came up with the idea for Franco's Italian Army.
Bill Hillgrove was Master of Ceremonies, and was joined on stage by Art Rooney Jr, Joe Greene, Andy Russell, Jon Kolb, Mike Wagner, Moon Mullins, Frenchy and Franco. Phil Villapiano was there representing the Raiders. They came to share their memories, tell stories, and celebrate a very special bond
they all have.
The crowd fill the large conference room at the History Center, and they came from as far away as California, Oklahoma, Brazil, and even Blaw-Knox. The Brazilian father, who was there with his son, assured me that they didn't fly up just for the afternoon. "Oh, no," he said, "we came up mainly for tomorrow's game." And no, they weren't former Pittsburghers now living in Sao Paulo or Rio. They were Brazilians, complete with Brazilian accents, freezing their butts of on a cold Pittsburgh weekend.
Hillgrove began the program by noting that three of the guys on the stage were also part of the SOS days - the Same Old Steelers - who bottomed out in Chuck Noll's first year at 1-13. He asked them to talk about those days and the transition from worst to first.
Art Rooney Jr, the Chief's son, said it started with the hiring of Noll and the drafting of Joe Greene, but a pivotal moment was the drafting of Terry Bradshaw. He mentioned that one team offered the Steelers a package of at least seven players for the first choice in the 1970 draft, and how he lobbied and argued with his dad that every time in NFL history that such a trade was made, the package always included a bunch of guys who were over-the-hill or injured, and a couple of trouble makers.
Art Jr also mentioned how the 1972 draft pick was between Harris and Robert Newhouse, and how Noll was leaning toward picking the smaller and quicker by still powerful Newhouse. Rooney admitted recording phone conversations with other scouts - illegal at the time - and playing back for Noll all the positive things they had to say about Franco. Eventually, Noll agreed to pick the kid from Penn State.
Art Jr, who headed scouting in those days, was in charge of the group that assembled the Steeler dynasty, and had the greatest single draft class in NFL history in 1974, when they picked four future Hall of Famers in five rounds. You probably remember guys named Swann, Lambert, Stallworth, and Webster.
Joe Greene - the greatest Steeler of them all - recalled how the team practiced in South Park prior
to the opening of Three Rivers Stadium, how awful the team was his first year, and how much he hated to lose. Greene noted that there we often overlook the great drafts of 1969 (Greenwood, Kolb, etc) and 1971, and said everything came together in 1972 with the drafting of his great friend Franco.
Andy Russell, who was with the team when they were good in 1963, then spent two years in the Army, and came back to an awful team, recalled Noll's no nonsense attitude, including the Emperor's famous critique where the new coach told his players that "most of you aren't any good, and I'll have to get rid of you."
Andy also told us what happened on Stabler's touchdown in the Immaculate Reception game.
L.C. Greenwood had been shaken up on the previous play, and was replaced by rookie Craig Hanneman. Oakland came out in a specific formation, and the Steelers' defensive game plan called for an automatic blitz whenever the Raiders showed that formation. "We didn't call signals to tip them off," he said, "it was automatic. And I had an inside blitz. Hanneman was right in front of me, and I should have told him to watch containment, because I was coming up the middle, but I didn't. And Stabler got to the outside and no one was there."
Jon Kolb then took credit for the Immaculate Reception, saying if you carefully study the film, you'll see that he kept his man off Bradshaw just long enough for the special deflection play to work. "We had saved the play especially for such a moment," said Kolb, "even though it had never worked in practice." The crowd roared with laughter.
Kolb and fellow offensive lineman Jerry "Moon" Mullins and Defensive Back Mike Wagner regaled the crowd with stories about Chuck Noll and his stubborn insistence that certain plays should work.
Kolb told how Noll called one play four straight times from the Cleveland one yard line. The first three times,
the same result. It lost one yard each time. The fourth time, even though the Browns were expecting it, the Steelers scored from the four yard line.
Mullins talked about what it was like being an offensive lineman on a team that featured the Steeler curtain defense. He said guys on his unit looked forward to game days, because they would be facing lesser competition on Sunday. It would be easier than going up against Greene, Greenwood, White, Lambert, and Company in practice.
No Italian - or Irish - family picnic is complete without the in-laws, so Oakland's dapper former linebacker Phil Villapiano spoke next. Phil put forward his conspiracy theories, and told everyone that it was all a big plot by the Steelers and the refs to cheat the Raiders out of the victory they had earned. Villapiano, of course, was clipped on the play. Just ask him. He'll tell
you. It was all in good fun, and Phil then spoke of the intensity of the rivalry and the respect the two teams had for each other.
Villapiano is a Jersey guy, like Franco, and he told how his parents went to an Italian-American sports banquet back home, and sat next to Franco's mom. They not only all spoke Italian, but Franco's mom spoke the same regional dialect. They couldn't get over it. Every year, just before Christmas, Franco calls Phil just to rib him.
In the Green Room, Art Jr told Phil that he had scouted him at Bowling Green and really wanted to pick him, but the Steelers had taken Jack Ham. Phil said he would have loved to have been a Steeler, and even though he was proud to be a Raider, had come to really enjoy his time with former Steelers, because they all share so many memories. Phil's tireless efforts on behalf of Muscular Dystrophy and ALS are also supported by many of his Steeler friends.
Frenchy Fuqua was next. Dapper and always ready with a quip, the Frenchman told his story of the play, leaving out the critical details, and then took off his jacket to reveal a black t-shirt. He turned around to show the audience that back of the t-shirt, that read in huge gold letters, "I'll never tell." Frenchy then passed the microphone to Franco.
Franco said so much of what happened was a blur, and he doesn't remember all the details of the play. He was modest and gracious, he spoke of how that moment led to so many other great things. Franco pointed out Al Vento, who was seated in the second row,and asked Al to stand and take a bow. I first met Al Vento almost fifty years ago, and I can tell you with some certainty that he must have thought he was in heaven, and hasn't been so happy since that afternoon when he met Sinatra in Palm Springs and inducted the Boss into Franco's Italian Army.
Then Bill Hillgrove mentioned that there were several other people in the audience with connections to the play. He mentioned that someone interviewed Franco on the sidelines right after the catch - and the 17 second interview was played over the sound system. He mentioned that the person who did that interview was the person in the elevator who informed the Chief what had happened on the play. He mentioned my name and asked me to come up on stage.
I told the crowd how the Chief and Bob Prince had been on the elevator during the play and how they reacted to the news. How Prince was speechless, shrugging his shoulders once and shaking his head. And how Mr Rooney had an unlit cigar in his mouth, and said, almost under his breath, "Well, I'll be. How about that."
I recalled how I went onto the field, because the few police were clearing the crowd from the end zone, and how I went over to the Steeler sideline and did the brief interview with Franco, watched the last five seconds of the game from behind the end zone, took the take back up to the press box, fed it to ABC, and then went down to the locker room.
I took the locker room pass from that day out of my shirt pocket and showed it to the crowd.
I then repeated the immortal Chuck Noll Immaculate Reception Lecture, wherein he spoke to the assembled media as though we were his students. "When you are on the ground or just standing there, you cease to be a football player," he told us. "You get up, and you play until you hear the whistle. Franco made that play because he didn't quit on the play. He kept hustling. Good things happen to people who hustle."
I stopped talking and sat down, and that's probably why the crowd applauded.
Bill Hillgrove then introduced Sharon Lavosky, who called Myron Cope on the night of the play to suggest that he used the term Immaculate Reception on the air.
Sharon's boyfriend at the time, Michael Ord, had come up with the phrase. Sharon filled us in on the details of how it all happened and how she got directly through on the phone with Myron and convinced him that it would be okay to use the phrase.
Bill then introduced Elizabeth Cope, Myron's daughter, who was in the front row, and he told her what an honor and joy it had been to work with her dad all those years and how much Pittsburghers and Steeler fans everywhere loved him.
Franco and the others spent a few minutes posing for pictures, and then we headed up to the seventh floor, for a small private luncheon.
Jon Kolb told me I really nailed Noll, and was dead-on with the story. He told me how he had been with the Steelers 14 years - 11 as a player and three as a defensive coach - before Noll paid him a direct compliment. It was a game where the D had six sacks, and Noll walked passed him as said, "good job." Kolb stopped in his tracks, and turned to watch Noll walk away. "If you hadn't done a good job, you wouldn't be here," said the Emperor.
Kolb said Noll's emphasis on hustle kept him looking for things to do and somehow motivated him to continue his studies in kinesiology. Kolb got his master's degree, and has a clinic that works with hip replacement patients and others in need of physical therapy.
At the next table, J.D. Fogarty - who has been the spotter in the booth for the Steelers' radio team since the days of Joe Tucker - sat with his son Sean. They were in conversation with Mike Wagner. They asked Wags about the NHL lockout, and Mike quickly pointed out that only about half a dozen NHL franchises are consistently profitable, and most of them have tenuous financial situations. With little television revenue, they depend on making the playoffs and going deep into the playoffs to break even. Pressed further, Mike mentioned he had done a financial analysis of the Penguins when Mario Lemieux was considering buying the team.
Wagner, known as the glue who held the Steel Curtain defense together, is not only a great guy and a gentleman, he's a very successful businessman. Wags said he's always been comfortable in Pittsburgh, because he grew up in a small town in the midwest, and Pittsburgh is - to him - a bigger city, but with the warmth and friendships of a small town.
I hadn't spoken with Jerry Mullins in decades, and couldn't help but notice that the California native has picked up a Pittsburgh accent. "Why would I ever
want to move back to California," he asked me. Like Wagner, he pointed out that being a former Steeler opens a lot of doors in Pittsburgh.
There was a feeling of joy and comfort at the luncheon. The former Steelers genuinely enjoy the company of one another. They worked, played, partied, and drank together during the best years of their lives. Bogie and Bacall always had Paris.
These guys will always have the Immaculate Reception.
Before the event, I showed Franco, Frenchy, and Mean Joe my locker room pass from the Immaculate Reception game, and explained that - after the Connecticut tragedy - I wanted to donate it to a Pittsburgh organization that provides housing and care for people with emotional and intellectual challenges. They all autographed it without hesitation, and said they were honored and actually thanked me!
My cup runneth over.
As we prepared to depart, I spent a few moments with Dok Harris, Franco's son.
I told him how much I admired his Dad, and how his Dad was always able to march to the beat of his own drummer, live by his own standards, was always giving back to others, and how cool it was to be able to come to an event like this wearing blue jeans and a sport coat.
"He's authentic," said Dok. "Pittsburgh has always embraced eccentrics, and that makes it easier for everyone to be themselves."
For Franco and Dok, that means you don't have to be buttoned down. You don't put on any airs. It's come as you are. People like you, as another fellow Pittsburgher used to say, just the way you are. And that means blue jeans n'at, if you want.
Something wonderful happened 40 years ago today. When Franco Harris crossed the plane of the north end zone at Three Rivers Stadium it was the first time in the 40 year history of the team that they had even scored a touchdown in a post-season playoff or championship game. It marked the end of forty years of futility. Fate choose one young man for football immortality.
It was wonderful was that it happened to Franco, because - other than becoming older and wiser - he hasn't changed a bit. It's not that hard to explain. He gave his heart to Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers, and we gave him ours. He's our neighbor, our friend, and our hero, in any order you choose.
For 40 years, he's been on every board, every campaign, every concert, every event, visited people in the hospital, and done every good deed imaginable, while running his business interests and tending to his family matters.
Franco has become as much a part of Pittsburgh as our hills, our valleys, and our three mighty rivers.
Joe Greene, a wonderful and charitable man, was probably the greatest Steeler of them all. But Franco will always be the most loved. That's no knock on Mean Joe or anyone else.It just that, after 40 years, Franco has more friends than anybody in Pittsburgh, and such friendships are worth their weight in gold.
So here's to Franco Harris, the richest man in town.