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Last month, I was in Pittsburgh with my family for the Christmas holidays, and I actually came in late the week before to be in town for what was shaping up to be a big week. Our book, Immaculate: How the Steelers Saved Pittsburgh, was scheduled to drop on shelves at booksellers everywhere on Tuesday, December 20. While the eBook has been available since mid-October, having the paperback available was a big milestone, and I was very excited about it.
That excitement, however, paled compared to the excitement I felt about all the events celebrating Franco Harris and his Immaculate Reception, leading up to a nationally televised, primetime tilt between the Raiders and Steelers at Acrisure Stadium. There was to be a big gala at the Heinz Center on Thursday. Then, on Friday, a ceremony at the memorial that now sits on the very site of Harris’s catch, made December 23, 1972 on the Tartan Turf of Three Rivers Stadium. Throughout it all, I was going to catch up with friends, including Tom Chafee, the executive producer of the Art Rooney biopic film The Chief, and Jim Baker, the owner and custodian of the Immaculate Reception football.
Best of all: I was going to meet Franco Harris, one of my childhood heroes and a man that I’ve gained an increasing appreciation and respect over the years.
Then, tragedy struck. Almost inexplicably, Franco Harris passed away in his sleep on the night of December 20. Immediately, everything changed.
A surreal pallor fell over the entire city. So many of us were shocked, and to tell you the truth, I’m still in a significant degree of shock. Franco had made so many public appearances in the lead up to the week, and he had appeared strong, fit and happy. He seemed the epitome of good health.
And, in an instant, Franco was no longer with us. It continues to be emotional for me, as I’m certain it is for so many others. Franco was a great football player. But, more importantly, by all accounts — and I mean ALL — Franco Harris was an even better person. He was considerate, caring and compassionate, and he was a pillar in the regional community.
Before going to the game on December 24, I had the sincere honor of signing copies of our book at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley. I was still very much in a state of bewildered shock, but it was a moment of pride for me and my family — my wife Chris Ann, our adult children, Lindsay and Danny, and my nephew Bryan were alongside.
During the hour of signing books, we had a very positive turnout — the store sold about 20 paperback copies of the book. On the surface, 20 copies might not sound like a lot. But, for a first-time author at a bookstore on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I’m told it was a strong showing.
The highlight of the event, and perhaps the highlight of the entire week, was meeting Corey Curenton. Corey had picked up a copy of Immaculate from the Steelers’ store at the stadium, where the book had been available as a special sneak peek. At Penguin Bookshop, Corey came up to me and asked me to sign the front page.
Happy to oblige, I opened the book, and promptly, my jaw dropped.
What I saw on the bottom of the page of the signature of none other than Franco Harris. I was stunned.
I asked Corey if he really wanted me to sign the book. I mean, after all, it’s Franco Harris’s signature on our book. My signature wasn’t going to add anything to it. I was worried that it might subtract from it!
Corey insisted, and I humbly added my signature to the top of the page. It was truly my honor.
Later that night, my family and I enjoyed the victory against the Raiders, despite the frigid temperatures. It was a night of celebrating Franco Harris, although the events of the week made each remembrance a bit subdued, sorrow and grief permeating throughout the night.
It’s still something — the sorrow and the grief — that I’m working through. And, I think I’m going to be working through for some time.
Thank you, Franco, for all you’ve done for your fans, community and family. You will be missed, but you won’t ever be forgotten.