It was 1972 and I was 7 years old. To that point the Steelers had played in two playoff games in their 39 year history, winning neither. This year, however, they didn’t seem to be the Same Old Steelers. We had an exciting new rookie first rounder out of Penn State. It was my first season paying attention. I had taken my newly acquired skill of writing cursive and sent a letter to Franco asking to be inducted into his Italian army. He didn’t write back, so I figure I was 4-F.
My father had been a lifelong fan, having grown up in Pleasant Hills, just off Rt. 51. He had played at Clairton High (alma mater of Tyler Boyd) and earned a football scholarship to Westminster College. He found himself, fifteen years after matriculating at Westminster, listening to the divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders on a transistor radio in the kitchen. Steeler Nation wasn’t prepared that year for the playoffs so the game didn’t sell out, and therefore wasn’t aired live locally.
I’d like to say I was parked right next to my dad the whole game. But I wasn’t. My older sister had roped me into playing “School” with her. Each time, however, she, as the teacher would announce that it was time for recess I would race to the kitchen to check the status of the game. The last time I went in my father gave me this glum report:
“It’s not looking good, son. It’s 4th and long. There’s almost no time left. And we’re behind.” Now I loved and respected my dad. He certainly knew more about the Steelers than I did. But he lacked something I had an abundance of — child like faith. So I corrected him and said, “Don’t worry Dad. Franco will do something great, and the Raiders won’t have time to come back.”
And then, the immaculate reception.
I can’t tell you that I knew in advance what Franco would do. I didn’t. I just knew he would do something. And with that one play, the trajectory of our beloved franchise changed forever. I can’t either provide audio or video tape of that conversation. I can tell you it actually happened, when I said it happened, just as I said it happened. Disbelieve me if you wish. It won’t change what happened.
The last thing I’m able to do is to draw a causal connection between my youthful assurance that Franco would find a way, and Franco finding a way. Maybe it would have happened had I not been paying attention to the game. Maybe it would have happened if I had been worrisome and pessimistic like my father. But maybe, just maybe, my confidence in my hero is what kept the ball from touching Frenchy Fuqua. Maybe my confidence in my hero is what kept the ball from touching the turf at Three Rivers. Maybe my confidence in my hero is what kept Franco in bounds all the way to the end zone as the clock ran out. Or maybe it was some other kid with the same hope. Maybe it was you.