Six Degrees of Pittsburgh
December 23rd marks the 40th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception—a moment which Steeler Nation will surely celebrate next Sunday. It is the play which NFL Films has called “the greatest play of all time and which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has called “the play that changed a city”, and on Sunday, many Pittsburgh expats who wave their Terrible Towels as they congregate as part of the Steeler Nation, will agree. But I must confess here that I did not fully appreciate the whole significance of that football catch of Franco Harris—that apparently came off off of Jack Tatum’s or Frenchie Fuqua’s football helmet depending on who you believe-- which led to a victory against the Oakland Raiders in 1972, until I met Franco himself while making “My Tale of Two Cities” in 2005. For the film, we asked iconic Pittsburgh neighbors from Teresa Heinz Kerry to Fred Rogers’s wife Joanne to be interviewed in places which meant something to them. Teresa chose the Strip, Joanne the studio where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, and Franco chose the Mexican War streets on Pittsburgh’s North Side where he still has the house he owned as a Steeler and where he would walk to games with Steeler owner, the Chief, Art Rooney.
Truth be told, growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970’s, I was a Minesotta Vikings fan—mainly because as a somewhat scrawny kid—I could identify with their quarterback Scramblng Fran Tarkenton who seemed to have the ability to escape the big guys who were running after him (unlike myself who ended up getting a few wedgies growing up here.) As Franco kindly pointed out, that was not the greatest choice in the 70s when the Vikings were known for not being able to win a Super Bowl, but had I known the man who Franco was, I would have had quite a different team I was rooting for.
The filming was cathartic and revelation to me on several fronts –
1) though he is in some ways a living symbol of Pittsburgh’s obsession with sports, in talking about how Pittsburgh could reinvent itself as a city, he spoke of how important was for a city to have all the elements—sports, business, the arts—work together in order for that city to compete.
2) though Franco is known as an athlete, he tells a wonderful story about his son, Dok, and realizing early on that Dok whose real name is Franco Dokmanivich Harris, would not be a professional football player, and Franco takes tremendous pride in his son who chose a different path— who came back to Pittsburgh after Princeton and working in D.C. to go to business school and law school at the same time, and then run for Mayor. To watch Franco and Dok, who share many passions together
3) before we did the official filming, two young African America boys both yelled out—“Franco” and he stopped to talk with them. I was amazed that they even knew who Franco was. The first asked if Franco was still famous. What’s famous?, Franco asked. The other asked if Franco was rich. Franco asked what “rich” was. When they pointed to a fancy car and asked if it was Franco, Franco showed them the old Jeep he still drives. And he pointed out that the key in life was to be happy with what you make. He then asked both boys what they wanted to be in life. “Football player.” “Football player!” they both shot back. Franco shook his head and laughed, then asked what they really wanted to be. “A fireman.” “A lawyer.” Franco then shook their hands, and said he looked forward to shaking their hands again—when they were a fireman and a lawyer.
(Watch part of this at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUSt4uWyJm4 )
Over the years when we showed “My Tale of Two Cities” on Capitol Hill in D.C., in New York at the Tribecas Cinemas, and to a sold out crowd of 1300 here in Pittsburgh at The Byham Theater, I have gotten to know Franco a bit. And have been humbled by the person I have gotten to know. The man I have come to know is quiet, gentle, articulate, and thoughtful. He is the kind of person who offered to give me a ride home from the airport after we came back on a trip—even though my place was the other end of town—and then playfully got on me, when I tried to give him directions to my house, telling him how to get to the East End after the Fort Pitt tunnel. “You don’t think I know where Oakland is?” He is the person who I have watched quietly support the underdog, give of his time, himself and his resources. And he has done all this selflessly. I realize some have questioned him when he took a stand on behalf of his old coach Joe Paterno. He could have easily kept quiet, and his life would have been oh, so easier. But that is not who Franco is. And believe me, he is one who cares about the underdog and the lives of kids over football. But for Franco it seems to be all about character. He is a man who does what is right for its own sake.
At the end of our filming, Franco autographed a football for me, and inscribed on it “believe in Pittsburgh.” At the time, in 2005, no one was thinking Pittburgh would be named “America’s Most Livable City” twice, that the city would come back and be named by Business Insider as one of only 3 major American cities which has fully recovered from the recession. Oh yeah, and no one thought that the Steelers would win 2 more Super Bowls.
But the Immaculate Reception was not just or maybe not even about football. It was always about belief.
Speaking of which, the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception happens to be occurring just two days after December 21st, 2012, which has become notable as a day of significance on the Mayan Calendar. You may have seen the Hollywood tales of what they say is predicted Mayan Apocalypse. But do you know about the Pittsburgh/Mayan connection? After one of the screenings of “My Tale of Two Cities”, I met Vikki Hanchin, a psychotherapist who also happens to believe that Dec. 21st may have a different opportunity for Pittsburgh which she believes could become Peaceburgh as many things converge here. The confluence behind Pittsburgh’s three rivers—and a secret underground forth river—apparently has special significance which could, according to Mayan Elders, allow Pittsburgh to be a special portal for energy which may lead to a new way of thinking in the Universe. It could be a new world of compassion and enlightment—which in my mind, would be keeping with all the many good things which seem to be converging in Pittsburgh these days.
And so, whether you believe in the Steelers, the Mayan Calendar, or just Pittsburgh in general, I think we can all concede that something good is happening here amidst these three rivers.
(For more, please go to www.mytaleoftwocities.com)