Remembering Franco Harris
No question, more than one attendee prayed harder for a Steeler miracle than they had ever prayed before.
Last week was bittersweet for football fans, but especially for Pittsburgh Steeler fans. Legendary Steeler running back Franco Harris passed away on Tuesday, and Friday marked the 50th anniversary of Franco’s Immaculate Reception, the play that the NFL designated the greatest in its 80-year history.
I was lucky enough to be at Three Rivers Stadium in my hometown 50 years ago to see the game on the afternoon of Dec. 23, 1972. But my memory of the game — and the catch — are only one of many from that weekend.
First, it was the Steelers’ first playoff appearance in the team’s long (40-year) history. One of the original franchises in the NFL, the Steelers had been, for most of the years since 1932, one of the league’s worst — they had never before reached the playoffs. So, for long-suffering Steeler fans, and especially for longtime season-ticket holders like my family, this game was a very special event.
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Game day was also a very special occasion for my family. It was the day of my brother Ken’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Shalom. Ken did a great job leading shacharit, the preliminary prayers, and reciting his haftarah. I am sure that no 13-year-old ever had to manage the clock with the precision Ken demonstrated that day; there were more than a few in attendance who were keeping close watch, given the 1 p.m. game time. And, no question, more than one attendee prayed harder for a Steeler miracle than they had ever prayed before.
My father was able to obtain extra tickets for the game from his friend and client, Jack McGinley, brother-in-law of the Steelers’ founding owner, Art Rooney. So immediately following services, a dozen or so male family members (and probably one-third of the rest of the synagogue) had a quick kiddush and headed to the stadium. “Lucky” Ken got to stay behind for lunch with the “ladies,” glued to his radio as home games were then blacked out on television.
One of the reasons Ken has ascribed for his all-star performance that day was the autograph of (none other than) Franco Harris that I slipped into his hand before services. I had obtained that autograph the day before when my father and I went to the airport to greet some out-of-town family and met Harris there; he was there to meet his parents, and graciously penned his signature for us.
I must admit that my memory of the play exists mostly from the 1,000 times I have watched replays. I suspect that, like me, most fans in the stadium that day looked down in disappointment when Raider Jack Tatum violently knocked the ball away from Steeler John “Frenchy” Fuqua and missed seeing Harris’ miracle catch live. I will never forget the joy I felt, however, as I watched Franco sprint into the end zone for the Steeler win, and the excitement we felt when my cousin Cary and I stormed the field with thousands of others to embrace Franco and the other players as they celebrated the victory.
Last week, however, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Ken’s bar mitzvah, we mourned the loss of the great football player — and man — who turned a special day for our family into a sports history day for the ages. May the memory of Franco Harris be for a blessing. PJC
David Eisner is a former assistant secretary for management at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He grew up in Pittsburgh. This column first appeared on JTA.