Photos provided by Lynne Deliman
-GAINS & GLEANINGS-
By J. Hogan
The news was every bit the shock as the loss of another Pittsburgh Hall of Fame sports hero when Pirates legend Willie Stargell died right on the cusp of being celebrated with a magnificent statue outside of the brand new PNC Park years ago.
The Steelers’ Franco Harris was gone, and just days before his number was to be retired at a celebration of Franco and the 50th anniversary of the most famous play in NFL history – The Immaculate Reception.
As a Pittsburgher, it was a blow to the Black and Gold blood that runs in all of our veins, and I, like others, couldn’t believe it.
But it was more than the loss of a great running back. Harris rose far above that in the many years after he hung up his cleats. He became a part of the cultural pastiche laid out before him by the Rooneys and would be seen all around town drawing support for causes and raising funds to help out with things that mattered to his heart over the years.
I’d met him once when I was a kid and he was still playing. It was beyond exciting, as I was deeply into sports and particularly Steelers fandom. I had nothing for him to sign, so I didn’t get an autograph, but I got a handshake and a kind word.
“Chase after it, whatever your ‘it’ is,” the giant man said as a parade crowd waited down Penn Avenue for the open-top car Harris was preparing to climb into. “It won’t come easy, but that’s what makes it worth doing."
Oddly, my father, who traveled for a living, ran into Lynn Swann that same week on a plane, and they were the only times I know of where either of us were around active Steelers during those early Super Bowl runs.
We didn’t go to games, and Dad was mortified by the adulation fandom wrought in some folks, so the idea of purposely going where we’d find celebrities was far from our lifestyle.
As an adult, my first run-in with Franco Harris was bizarre. On my way to catch a flight, I stopped at the airport to look at the statue of Franco plucking the Immaculate Reception from the air just before it was to hit the field, smiled at the memories of the replays I’d seen – I was 4 when it happened in real life – and turned to head toward my plane.
And there was Franco 30 yards away, toting a suitcase, walking toward the far escalator and the way back to Pittsburgh and home. I was discombobulated and said nothing. The surreal moment froze me so much that I don’t think I even looked back after him as he passed his own statue.
Years later, I shared that with him at a fundraiser downtown and he chuckled. “I used to stop and look at it,” he said, laughing.
“But I thought it probably looked funny to other people, so I started taking the farthest escalator from it.”
I was blessed to be around him a few more times, and he was always kind and giving. His adoption of Pittsburgh as home was rich and loyal, and Franco’s loyalty could be fierce, as evidenced by his passionate defense of his old coach at Penn State, Joe Paterno, even as seemingly everyone else resigned themselves to the legendary coach’s cancelation in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal in State College.
The last time I talked to him, it was at Sto-Rox’s newly renovated football field, where he was celebrating the opening of the new turf, which, like many things that drew his interest, was a passionate pursuit of many alumni and friends, people working together toward giving the school a better place for the kids to practice, play and perform.
I gave him a cold bottle of water, and as he stood there he mentioned that it must be a challenge to do ministry in this town with its rough edges and blight, and he asked some questions that showed he really cared about these old steel towns.
I told him we just keep getting after it, because, although it’s hard, it's the work that makes the journey worthwhile.
He smiled and got called off toward the concession stand to take a picture with some of the local folks, then motioned for me to come over and get in the picture.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen that particular shot, but I cherish the moment.
The Steelers don’t make a habit of retiring jerseys. They retired Franco’s on Christmas Eve, and they should have.
We’ve lost a good one.
Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.