Steelers Immaculate Reception: The play that changed a city
The Steelers' Franco Harris, right, eludes a tackle attempt by the Raiders' Jimmy Warren on the way to scoring on a play known as the "Immaculate Reception."
The Steelers made several draft picks in the early 1970s that produced Hall of Fame talent. Among them was the popular Franco Harris, who inspired his own army and had an immediate impact carrying the ball.
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They walked with heads held high, harboring dreams imagined in black and gold, marching to the peculiar orders of the times.
A movement was beginning. That day, 50,000 people passed through the doors of Three Rivers Stadium, the massive concrete structure looming just west of the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, this time hoping that the Steelers, after 40 irrelevant seasons, were finally taking them somewhere worth going.
Each person in the stadium had his or her own dramas outside of it. There was the war that seemingly would not end, the intensifying of racial tensions across the city and, for those who were paying close enough attention, the fear that those hulking mills that lined the rivers were not going to be needed forever. But, the Steelers were host to the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the NFL playoffs, and such pressing matters could be thrust to the back burner for the good of Pittsburgh.
On Dec. 23, 1972, at 1 p.m., the clock stopped ticking.
It suddenly wasn't important that Jim Palochik, who sat next to his wife, Karen, near the 45-yard line, had just returned to his hometown of Arnold, Pa., from a one-year stint as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, followed by two years of duty in Germany. Palochik, whose father was a welder in the mill, never questioned whether he should fight for his country when his name was called, and his loyalties didn't waver even after his co-pilot died in battle. He was glad to be home, and he would settle in the neighborhood where he was raised. He called it his "Linus blanket syndrome."
The real soldiers were joined by fictional ones. Although Al Vento had fought in Korea, he was now one of the leaders of Franco's Italian Army, the boisterous fan club born in East Liberty to honor Steelers rookie running back Franco Harris in the name of their homeland. Vento, a pizza shop owner, and the boys would whip up two-dozen sandwiches for each home game and sneak in two bottles of wine. The security guards never caught on, or, maybe, they just didn't care.
The Italian Army, wearing army helmet liners and waving their country's flag, filed into their seats near the 28-yard line for the biggest game in Steelers history. Lord knows, they'd seen enough ugly football over the years that they'd earned this.
"They were so bad," Vento recalls, "every once in a while we cheered the other side."
As enthused as the fans were for this game, nobody wanted a win as much as Art Rooney Jr. His father, Art Sr., the founder of the Steelers, had entrusted him with the scouting of collegiate players years earlier, and Art Jr. had put this team together through careful calculation. Still, as he took his seat in a press box suite, he was keeping his expectations low.
"I was worried we were going to make fools of ourselves," Art Jr. recalls. "It was not General Patton-like."
Across Western Pennsylvania, though, people already felt like winners. At the mills, steelworkers listened to the game on the radio as they worked an unfortunately-timed Saturday shift. Because of the NFL's blackout rule, which took the game off Pittsburgh television sets, thousands of diehards drove to Ohio and Northern Pennsylvania to watch.
Steeler Mania was starting to take hold, but in 1972, it was hard to escape the darkness of reality. That morning's Pittsburgh Press told of a hostile leadership takeover of the United Mine Workers, bombings in North Vietnam, the growing peril of Communist superpowers Russia and China and a catastrophic earthquake in Nicaragua that would, just days later, bring unexpected pain to Pittsburgh: While delivering aid to the country on Dec. 31, star Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente died in an airplane crash.
But on Dec. 23, there was a football game to be played. By the end of it, hearts would be broken and put back together, the movement would be salvaged, and the clock would start ticking again.
Early in the fall of 1972, a young man from Chicago named Larry O'Brien got a surprising phone call from an older gentleman named Bernie Armstrong, the program director of Pittsburgh's WTAE radio.
"Would you be interested in making a move?" Armstrong asked O'Brien, then a radio host in Chicago.
"To where?" O'Brien asked.
"To Pittsburgh," Armstrong said.
"I don't know about that," O'Brien said.
Nobody knew much about Pittsburgh, really, other than it was a relentlessly gray place that produced a lot of steel and every once in a while had a World Series-caliber baseball team in the Pirates. O'Brien liked living in Chicago, but Armstrong convinced him to come check out the Steel City nonetheless.
During the taxi ride into town, O'Brien wasn't seeing much of interest. Then, the cab entered a tunnel.
"We came through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and I said, 'Woah! What's that!?' " O'Brien recalls. "I was quite taken by the natural beauty, the rolling hills, the view of Downtown from the tunnel. There's nothing in the country like it, and I said, 'Jesus, I could live here.' "
O'Brien couldn't believe that was Pittsburgh. He agreed on a dollar amount with Armstrong, and soon, he'd have his own morning drive time show. What he'd learn, from talking to those who had come before him, is that Pittsburgh's reputation as a dreary place had been well-earned.
Joe DeNardo, WTAE's meteorologist, arrived in 1948 from Ohio as an undergraduate at Duquesne, when the mills were overloaded with work during post-war expansion.
"Let me tell you something: You could not wear a white shirt for a full day without having to have it laundered when half of the day was over," DeNardo recalls. "It was bad. You had black flecks of dirt like a light snowfall. Everybody was breathing it, but that's how people earned their living, in those mills."
Of all the places for DeNardo to choose to work as a weather man, why a place where it was all so predictable? There was a saying around town that "Joe said it would," and it was too often that Joe was saying it would be cloudy. But there was something about Pittsburgh that he couldn't shake. He wanted to plant roots here.
"We were constantly being put down by the rest of the country," DeNardo recalls. "We walked around with a chip on our shoulder and rightfully so."
The billowing smoke may have been bothersome, but most welcomed it because it meant the mills were going. Pittsburgh had helped to build a nation and arm its front lines, and the expectation was that the effort would be repaid in full with steady work and a respectable pension. Thing was, as early as the 1950s, when tens of thousands of mining jobs were lost, and certainly in 1962, when U.S. imports of steel surpassed exports for the first time, the signs could be seen that trouble was coming if one was willing to look past the next pay-check.
In 1972, the world was growing quickly. President Richard Nixon had made his weeklong trip to China, which he dubbed "the week that changed the world," the first step toward a business relationship with the budding superpower in two decades. Japan was already surpassing the Pittsburgh mills in efficiency through new technologies, and Europe was able to offer government-subsidized steel.
But, each day in Pittsburgh, the mills were churning along just fine, protected by ever-stronger unions that were a safeguard for their way of life.
"They had no clue about it whatsoever," recalls Frank Giarratani, a professor of economics at Pitt. "If you graduated from high school here, in 1972, even if you came from a family that had aspirations their children might go to college, working in a steel mill was a great alternative."
In that way, the Pittsburgh that greeted Larry O'Brien was essentially the same as the one Joe DeNardo met 24 years prior, with one notable exception: The Pittsburgh Renaissance had happened.
Mayor David Lawrence, who served from 1946-59, knew that he had to clean up the city's air and rivers for it ever to become a place outsiders like O'Brien and DeNardo would want to raise their families. Lawrence viewed sport as a vital part of his renaissance, the civic cement that would keep the city together. The problem was, Art Rooney Sr.'s Steelers simply wouldn't cooperate.
With four forgettable decades in the books -- coincidentally, the same period marked the zenith of Pittsburgh's power in manufacturing -- the Steelers appeared ready to emerge from the gray with a formidable lineup of exciting young players that would give a skeptical nation something else to consider about the rusty old mill town.
All over Western Pennsylvania, the game of football was thriving. Well, everywhere except for Forbes Field, Pitt Stadium or Three Rivers Stadium, or wherever it was the Steelers happened to be playing.
On Friday nights, in small towns and blossoming suburbs, boys represented their families and their neighborhoods under bright lights with great pride, turning the region into a recruiting hotbed for colleges and the act of cheering that talent into ritual.
For the rest of the week, though, aside from an occasional heartbeat at Pitt, Pittsburgh was a dormant football town that had fallen for a baseball team that had won championships in 1960 and '71, led by the great Roberto Clemente. The Steelers had a sad-sack following, with fans who couldn't help but acknowledge their own self-loathing on Sundays. If only they could join the Pirates in lifting their city.
"Just as most boys historically have grown up using sport as a way to tell a story about who they are, certain groups of people also use sport to project a collective identity," says Rob Ruck, a professor of history at Pitt. "Kenyans in running. Brazilians in soccer. Dominicans in baseball. There is no city that has used sport in the United States as much as Pittsburgh to tell its story to the world."
Who better than the Steelers to tell that story? Their name alone embodied the ethos of the region, and the team's owner, Art Rooney Sr., was born and raised on the North Side, the son of a saloon owner.
Around town, Art Sr. was known for being an exceptional athlete, a whiz at football, baseball and boxing. He excelled as a spectator, too, gaining a feel for handicapping horses at the track. In 1933, he bought what were then the Pittsburgh Pirates of the NFL for $2,500, renamed them the Steelers in '40 and subsidized the losing team for decades through his uncanny ability to pick the right horse on race day.
The prevailing feeling in Pittsburgh was that the Rooney family wanted the Steelers to be a winner but were either too cheap or too dumb (or both) to make it happen. Still, Rooney Sr. was their dead-beat owner, he hadn't moved the team, and he was viewed as a positive force in the community. Even as he built his fortune, he didn't leave his modest North Side home, and, into his later years, he could often be seen walking to the stadium through the streets that were crumbling around him.
One of his five sons, Art Jr., had been working as a promoter in the Steelers ticket office, which was not the easiest job in those days. When his father asked him to take over the team's scouting department, Art Jr. had a feeling who had hatched the idea.
"I think my mom got me the job," Art Jr. recalls. "I got the job because of nepotism, but I sure as hell wasn't going to have anybody say I didn't work at it."
Art Jr. now spent most of his time in college towns across America. He was away from his family, living out of a suitcase with one clear goal: To find the players that could make his father's name as an NFL owner.
"It became an obsession," Art Jr. recalls.
"As far as Art Jr. was concerned, it was pretty much self-created pressure," recalls Joe Gordon, who worked in public relations for the Steelers. "Your father's a legend, and you're brought in to help salvage what had been an unsuccessful franchise."
In 1969, the Steelers drafted a defensive end from North Texas named Joe Greene. In '70, they took a quarterback from Louisiana Tech named Terry Bradshaw and a cornerback from Southern (La.) University named Mel Blount. The next year, they plucked a linebacker from Penn State named Jack Ham. The next, a running back from Penn State named Franco Harris.
The choice of Blount out of a historically black college was the product of an important change within the organization. The Rooneys had hired local journalist Bill Nunn Jr., who tabbed the Pittsburgh New Courier's black All-America team each year, to join their scouting team. Nunn provided a crucial inroad to colleges like Southern, which were still being sparsely scouted and provided the chance to find diamonds in the rough.
Of all the picks made in those drafts, one player would capture Pittsburgh's collective imagination the most. Harris made an immediate difference in '72, carrying the Steelers to big victories over prominent teams like the Minnesota Vikings and the Kansas City Chiefs. Without even trying, his impact off the field would be just as profound.
For all of his life, Franco Harris had told people he was an African-American. The son of a black father and an Italian mother, Harris had darker skin than most whites and lighter skin than most blacks. Back in his home state of New Jersey, that meant he was considered black.
Al Vento and Tony Stagno didn't know any of this, and, frankly, they didn't really care. When the Steelers drafted Harris, Vento and Stagno and their friends got to thinking. That same year, an All-American running back from Alabama named Johnny Musso had gone by the nickname of the "Italian Stallion." Vento and Stagno were so convinced Harris was going to be a star for the Steelers that they decided they wanted to be his fan club, and they'd call themselves Franco's Italian Army.
Vento and Stagno, who owned an East Liberty bakery not far from Harris' apartment, put out some feelers to see what Harris thought about their idea. He got a kick out of it, this idea that he could be seen as an Italian, and told them to go for it. Little did they know, they were about to jump on the ride of their lives.
"Being Italian was part of it," recalls Al Vento Jr., a teenager then, "but it was more about just being a Steeler fan."
Being Italian was certainly part of it, so much that when local broadcaster Myron Cope reached out to Frank Sinatra about joining the Italian Army in the fall of '72, Sinatra said yes. Vento couldn't believe it when Cope called him late one night in December and said he and Stagno needed to hop a flight to San Diego, where the Steelers were playing that Sunday, to meet Sinatra and sign him up for the army.
Vento and Stagno had their families man their Larimer Avenue shops and headed west. They arrived at Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Steelers were practicing and Cope was waiting for them. They were wondering if Sinatra was actually coming when three limousines rolled up next to the field. There he was, 'Ol Blue Eyes himself.
"It's like kissing God," Vento recalls Stagno saying.
All of this fanfare because Franco Harris happened be half-Italian sure was something. Back in Pittsburgh, as the Italian Army's legend grew, some members of the black community became frustrated. The fact was, Harris was just as black as he was Italian.
"Italians are very proud people," recalls John Brewer, a historian who focuses on black Pittsburgh. "They'd talk about Franco's Army, and they'd say, we're the better genes of Franco Harris. We're the ones that allow him to excel in sports. I remember a resistance by African-Americans who felt that the African-American side of him was in fact the contributing factor to his success."
Tensions never became too hot, though. An article in the Post-Gazette on Dec. 5, 1972, confirms that. It tells of an appearance made by Harris that was attended by many Steelers fans, including, of course, the Italian Army.
"Harris has become such a hot item that arguments have resulted in the tracing of his birthright," the article read. "One black fan at Sunday's game just happened to mingle into the section containing Franco's Italian Army. 'Franco belongs to the black race,' the man was saying to the total stranger on his right. The total stranger, an Italian, was also laying claim to Harris.
"After the game, the two left as friends. The black man even saluted his new-found friend with the Italian Army battle cry, 'See you again, Pisano.' "
The article included this quote from Harris:
"I don't think it's meant to single out any one group," he said. "I think it's supported by everyone and it's just the Steeler fans' method of showing their support."
Still, at that time, the black community in Pittsburgh relished any opportunity it had to be proud of one of their own. Many blacks had been displaced from their homes over the last 15 years, starting with the building of the Civic Arena in the Hill District and continuing with the riots after Martin Luther King's death in 1968.
The Black Power movement was in full swing, with blacks trying to gain traction with the unions to earn more manufacturing jobs and the schools starting the slow and painful process of integration.
"People were still at a point of decision as far as African-Americans about who we were," Brewer recalls. "Sports have always been a point of elevation for us. You go back to the times of Joe Louis. We have always gravitated to sports because that was kind of our way that we kept ourselves level. That's how we were able to endure. Now you see Franco becomes a hero, but he's not our hero."
Overall, Harris would be viewed as a healing figure for Pittsburgh. And, certainly, there were much worse problems to get ruffled up about in December 1972. No matter what race you were, or how you felt about the Steelers' top running back, there was near universal agreement on one topic: President Nixon had better get those boys home from Vietnam, and fast.
Jim Palochik was the son of a Slovak father and an Italian mother. Yet, there was no confusion about what nation they loved most. The Palochiks didn't have much, but the life they'd built in Arnold, Pa., was enough to make them feel like they'd experienced the American dream.
"The way my parents raised me was to respect and honor your country," Palochik recalls, "and don't do anything to embarrass your name."
So when his country called after he graduated from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe in 1967, Palochik answered. In December 1969, he left for Vietnam, carrying with him the necessary amount of naivete, believing his country was fighting the right war for the right reasons.
As a helicopter pilot, he was responsible for providing air backup when the men on the ground needed it. At night, he'd often find himself flying just over the trees with a large headlight beaming forward, letting the enemy know that he and his array of artillery were on the way. His helicopters were shot down twice during the year he was there, but he managed to make it out of there. He gave much of the credit to his loyal wife, who wrote him letters every day to keep his spirits high.
"Sometimes there would be three or four letters there," Palochik recalls, "and I'd read them in sequential order. They were four, five, six pages. She was an English major. She used all of her writing skills to the fullest."
Palochik left Vietnam in December 1970. After two years in Germany, he was offered a job in Pittsburgh, and he accepted. It was time to come home.
Palochik found extremes when he landed. There were the parties that his parents and friends threw for him that made him feel so good. Then there was the day he visited a former mentor at Saint Vincent while wearing his uniform. He passed by a college student who asked him, "How many babies did you kill?"
"I wanted to ring his neck," Palochik recalls.
Pittsburgh, with its culturally conservative ethnic core, was not a haven for hippies or war protests like some other cities around the country. Still, one couldn't avoid the negativity surrounding the conflict. Hey, Palochik was conflicted, too. His parents would never have questioned the government's decisions, but maybe the outspoken nature of his peers could be a good thing.
"There was a clash between that generation and the older generation," Palochik recalls. "It was the first time that a group of people said 'No.' My parents' generation just kind of accepted things and went along. I had no great love for the draft dodgers, but as I look back, that major dissent that occurred in the early '70s sparked these people to achieve more and not accept the status quo."
Throughout his time in the military, Palochik had tried to keep up with the Steelers through the newspaper and the radio. So when a family member gave him and his wife tickets to the Steelers-Raiders playoff game on Dec. 23, 1972, it felt surreal.
> President Nixon had called for a ceasefire of the Hanoi bombings to promote holiday cheer. That period of Palochik's life was now over, and he'd have no problem leaving it behind for the next three hours.
These were not the Same Old Steelers. They had hinted at that all season, going 11-3 and winning the division, and now they were showing it to a national audience.
The defense had held John Madden's Raiders for nearly 59 minutes, and the Steelers clung to a 6-0 lead. But with 1:13 left, Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler scrambled and slipped away for a 30-yard touchdown run. Oakland would take a 7-6 lead, forcing the Steelers' struggling offense to muster a final scoring drive.
"After Stabler scored, I think everybody just held their breath in the stadium," recalls Harry Cabluck, who shot photos of the game for the Associated Press. "When George Blanda made the kick that put them ahead, it just got real quiet."
Art Rooney Sr. had seen enough Steeler football to know he'd better go ahead and head down to the locker room so he'd be there to tell his players they'd had a great season. He left his box and got in the elevator. At least they hadn't been embarrassed in their first big moment as a franchise.
On the field, as Rooney Sr. descended with a heavy heart, Cabluck was trying to think ahead, about the next great shot. He figured that if anything worth capturing happened it would be near the goal line, so he positioned himself there.
With 22 seconds left, the Steelers faced fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line. In the stands, it felt like the game was already over. Some fans were too distraught to even watch. But Cabluck had about a half-roll of film left in that camera, and he was going to use the rest of it on this last play, just to be sure.
When Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw came under center, Cabluck moved his finger to the shutter button. Bradshaw yelled his cadence, took the snap from Ray Mansfield, and, just 17 seconds later, a city would never be the same.
First Published September 9, 2012 12:00 am