First Person / How I saw the Immaculate Reception

Selling Cokes in the stands, I turned my head just in time

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Forty years ago tomorrow, I witnessed what may be the most famous play in NFL history.

I was 18 and home from my freshman year at college. My cousins, some friends and I worked as vendors at Three Rivers Stadium during high school and during college breaks.

It wasn't a bad job at the time. As vendors, we were Teamsters. Newly hired vendors made a 15 percent commission on what they sold. After a vendor worked 40 events or so, the commission jumped to 20 percent.

Cokes at the time sold for 25 cents. (We were too young to sell beer.) So for every Coke I sold, I made a nickel. On very good days, a vendor could make $30 or even $40, which was good money then for an afternoon of work.

To make $40, a vendor would have to sell 800 Cokes. If your product was moving, it was hard work, but it was fun. The most lucrative days were hot, summer doubleheaders before big crowds. (If memory serves me, the Cubs, the Mets and the Reds drew the biggest crowds at the time.)

Hard to believe now, as I carefully negotiate steps with my creaky knees, that 40 years ago I ran up and down that steep upper deck of Three Rivers with two fully loaded trays of leaky Cokes, yelling "Hey, Ice Cold Coke Here!" and not really watching where I was stepping.

Anyway, it was a fun job most of the time, in part because I got to see some fantastic sports. The Pirates and the Steelers were both very good then. It was the beginning of the Steelers dynasty.

As a vendor, I learned to turn away from the fans at times to watch the play on the field unfold if the noise of the crowd rose -- indicating a good or big play was possibly at hand. If the noise started to increase, I would turn my head to catch the play. And that's what happened during the Immaculate Reception.

I don't remember watching the beginning of the play (which I have since watched many times on video). I don't remember Terry Bradshaw (what a great arm he had) eluding tacklers on that play. But I do recall the ball bouncing in the air, it subsequently being caught on the rebound and then that leading to a winning playoff-game touchdown against Oakland.

I think the single most vivid memory I have from that play was that for a split second, there was near quiet in that stadium as it concluded. I swear to it. The play was so bizarre and so unlikely, it was as if 50,000 cranial computers were all simultaneously processing what had just happened. The place, of course, erupted after that.

Three Rivers Stadium was an unattractive sports venue, a dull reflection of the uninspired sports architecture of the day, a concrete and artificial turf monstrosity with next to no personality, especially when compared to the likes of Forbes Field -- perhaps my all-time favorite sports venue.

But there were loads of great sports moments at Three Rivers and, because I was a vendor and I was there a lot, I saw some of them in addition to the Immaculate Reception.

I saw the great Bob Gibson's only no-hitter. I was selling in the upper deck, behind home plate, and I wasn't selling much. Seems to me that it was either a cool or rainy night, though I could be wrong about that. About the sixth or seventh inning, I took a seat and watched the rest of the game.

I also had the high privilege of not only watching Roberto Clemente play, but seeing his 3,000th -- and final -- hit. It was a double. They stopped the game and gave him second base. I have a photo of his 3,000th hit. He was, without a doubt, the greatest baseball player I have ever watched on a regular basis. A gifted player with many tools, he could hit in the clutch, he had some power, he was a great base runner, he was an excellent right fielder and he had a great arm.

I very much liked living in Pittsburgh, but I don't live there anymore. I live in Cleveland now. And yes, I like it. And yes, I am a huge Browns, Indians and Cavaliers fan.

But I will always cherish my days at Three Rivers Stadium. I didn't make much money, but I made a lot of fantastic memories.

Steelers - opinion_commentary

Steve Luttner is vice president of Lesic & Camper Communications in Cleveland, where he worked for The Plain Dealer for 23 years.


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