In his mind, in the final moments before, well, The Moment, an incongruous quiet allowed Franco Harris some space for actual reflection. In his home, 333 miles away in Mount Holly, N.J., quiet had just been shoved out the front door by his mother and her recording of "Ave Maria."
"She was blasting it, my brothers told me," Harris said of that dank afternoon 40 years ago today. "Blasting it!"
Franco's mom didn't watch football that day, never watched football, but her husband and her younger children had made her aware that things were going poorly at the murky cavern known as Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers needed a miracle.
It's said that Franz Schubert, writing "Ave Maria" back there in 1825 -- well before even the earliest American Football Conference playoffs -- never intended that his iconic spiritual melody be immortalized in the Latin lyrics that would become affixed to it, but the English translation of those lyrics includes this miracle-tempting entreaty to the Blessed Virgin Mary:
The murky cavern's heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled.
You gotta be kidding, right? That's some portentous imagery.
So through thy murky cavern came some miracle none thought preordained, and Harris might just remember it most enduringly in his own pre-snap reflections.
"When I knew it was going to be the last play, I did tell myself, 'Franco, you had a heckuva season,' and that's basically all I said to myself," the running back said. "I guess I just reflected for a few seconds there as I was walking into the huddle. I hate to say I was thinking that was the last play. I told myself to play to the end."
On fourth-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 40, with 22 seconds left in a game the Steelers led for most of 59 minutes but now trailed the Oakland Raiders, 7-6, Harris drew a blocking assignment he still chuckles about. Asking Harris to block is like asking Rembrandt to paint the bathroom. But as quarterback Terry Bradshaw began to scramble to pass the ball, Harris began a journey of what would seem pure fable if it weren't so indelibly true, a journey into a metaphorical tunnel he still can't understand or explain.
"I can't remember from leaving the backfield to running down the sideline; I remember leaving the backfield, but I don't remember anything in between," he said. "My mind is completely blank. I can't tell you if I saw the ball, or if I saw anything or if I knew what actually happened. It baffles my mind. What I knew, once I had it was, 'run!'
"As athletes, this is something we all know. You can't think, you train yourself just to react. If you have time to think, it's too slow. If you can think about that, it's done."
So Harris just ran into the tunnel, the tunnel where Oakland's Jack Tatum slammed into Frenchy Fuqua, the intended receiver, the tunnel where the football suddenly sailed backward like a goose in a hurricane, the tunnel where he could not and still can't see any of this, the tunnel where so many people and so many of their stories changed in the span of one heartbeat, or perhaps two.
Larry Fox was in the tunnel, banging out a lead paragraph for the New York Daily News:
Pittsburgh, Dec. 23 -- Sub quarterback Ken Stabler scrambled 30 yards for a touchdown with only 73 seconds left to play to give the Oakland Raiders a 7-6 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first game of the AFC playoffs today.
The Raiders had been thoroughly outplayed to that point as the Steelers, champions of the Central Division, put up a stifling pass coverage.
Oakland, champions of the Western Division, will meet the winner of tomorrow's Miami-Cleveland game in next week's AFC title clash. That game will be held in either Miami or Oakland, unless the Dolphins ...
"Here," Fox barked at Ed Kiely, the Steelers' press liaison, who happened to be walking behind his chair in the press box. "You can have this. It might be some good to you someday." And he ripped his copy off the roller of an ancient device called a typewriter.
Franco had just exploded out of the tunnel, down the left sideline where he stiff-armed Jimmy Warren; he was fully cognizant again.
"I was telling myself, 'Franco, get into the end zone -- don't even chance a field goal because all we needed was a field goal to really win. Don't even chance a field goal, get into the end zone, get into the end zone.
"And then luckily ... I was."
It should not surprise anyone that even when Franco talks to himself, he addresses himself formally. He's so consistently proper, almost regal in his way.
"I thought of him as dwelling somewhere between man and god, like the heroes of Greek mythology" wrote Stephen Dubner in his 2003 volume "Confessions of a Hero-Worshipper." "They, I knew, had begun their lives as mortal men and women, walking the earth just as Franco now walked the earth, before their noble deeds elevated them to the mountaintop. The will to win -- to escape, to beat back the powerlessness of childhood -- was the will to survive, and I learned that not by going to church or by studying history, but, for better or worse, by watching Franco Harris play football."
Pretty much regardless of their station in the culture at the moment, most all the people watching Franco Harris play football in person or on television on this date in 1972 had one thing in common. When you try to find the rhetorical open field for the re-re-retelling of this tale and the re-re-retelling of its myriad Immaculate Reception subplots, one short phrase about Harris' most famous touchdown keeps surfacing:
Everybody went nuts.
At a back table inside Redbeard's on Mount Washington the other day, former Steelers public relations ace Joe Gordon repeated it, and then qualified it.
"That's right, everybody went nuts," Gordon said. "Everybody except him.
"That's why he was the perfect guy to make that play, not only to handle it, but to do so much good from it. He was perfect because he's always just so modest about everything. But I'd go into the dressing room sometimes, maybe if someone was really sick, a child dying at Children's Hospital or something, and I'd ask if some guys could stop over there on their way home, and all Franco would have to do is overhear me. He'd say, 'Hey, Joe, I'll do that.' He'd get all the details from me. You never had to ask him twice."
Gordon has watched Harris' many life adventures now for more than 40 years, and even as one of the official chroniclers of the enormity of his football heroics, from the Immaculate Reception through four Vince Lombardi Trophies to the Hall of Fame, Gordon says Harris has done more for Pittsburgh as an ex-player than as a near-mythological athlete.
Fact is, when the Steelers drafted Harris out of Penn State University, he was easily as likely to be a successful community catalyst as an All-Pro.
"I feel that came from a couple of things," Harris, 62, said in a conference room at the McCandless office from which he runs his myriad business ventures. "In my hometown of Mount Holly, in elementary school, during the holidays, we were asked to bring cans of food for people and I remember thinking, 'Wait a minute, there are people poorer than us?' It was a surprise to me. They don't have cans of food?
"Then in seventh and eighth grade, we had a teacher, Mr. Thurston, and he was always getting us involved in the community, doing things to raise money. Sometimes we did it just to help ourselves, like if we were having a dance for our class, we all raised money so that we all could go.
"And then when I got to Pittsburgh, seeing Art Rooney [Sr.] and being with him my rookie year, you heard about all these things that he does for the community, the kind of guy he is and that he gives back. That he gave back. He always gave back, and I just thought, 'Well, this is what you do in Pittsburgh. This is what the owner does, and so, get involved.' "
Harris' impact on a city to which his initial indifference soon melted into his own kind of ambassadorship is almost too vast for measurement. He has been on so many boards and advised so many agencies and agitated for so many outposts in need of social justice that Pittsburgh either takes him for granted or forgets that he would have done it even if he hadn't caught that ricochet a couple of inches above a wet carpet 40 years ago today.
That, of course, is not his view at all.
"What the city has done for me is IN-credible," he says, and just that way.
"IN-credible. I tell people we're a small city, but I don't know of a bigger city."
Yet neither in the totality of his actions nor in the reliability of his words has Harris ever minimized the Immaculate Reception. If you estimate to him that he has talked about it 50 million times, he'll correct you.
"Probably more like a hundred million."
But he knows what it means, which is why he never lets a significant anniversary of the Immaculate Reception pass without a major blowout.
"What I've done since the 20th anniversary and then the 25th and every five years is to have a big affair, a big to-do" he said. "I'd buy out a restaurant, invite all the players from the '70s; we always have a dining experience where we have many courses, great food, usually a jazz band, we sing Christmas carols. We all get together and have a wonderful time. I always have a video of highlights from 1972, 1974, 1976. I think after the 40th I'm going to have it every year and invite players from other decades. We'll have such a great time and make it part of the holiday season for our entire football family.
"This 40-year anniversary has been very special with so many different relationships to the events of that time that, I have to admit, it has brought to light so many things that I didn't even know about at all, all the things that surrounded. Things that have surprised me. Things that, when I read about them every Sunday in the Post-Gazette, I just say, 'Wow.'
"It's amazing as time goes on, you know what they say, the fish gets bigger. But in this case the fish really does get bigger, so much bigger than we ever thought it would.
"I don't think there was one person in Pittsburgh who thought the decade of the '70s was even possible. People didn't know what to think [after the Immaculate Reception], and it kept getting better and better and better."
Typically, Franco wasn't even around to see this fish start to swell.
He went straight to the airport, heading home for Christmas.
"I wonder if he took the bus to the airport," said Gordon.
"Seriously, he used to ride the bus from East Liberty to practice when he was a rookie. The Port Authority eventually gave him a bus pass."
Franco flew to Philadelphia, then went straight to the house in Mount Holly.
"Just kind of enjoyed the peace and quiet of my mother and father's house," he remembers. "Just relaxing with my younger brothers. I came back the day after Christmas, but while I was there I never saw a paper or anything about the play on television. But I remember sitting there that night thinking, 'I wonder what's going on in Pittsburgh?' "
Well, basically, everybody was going nuts.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published December 23, 2012 5:00 AM