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Week Sixteen Crystal Ball - Weekend
A born-and-bred Pittsburgher recalls an Immaculate afternoon
Like most folks, I’ve attended my share of life-changing events. The birth of THE TRE MAN. The Cubs in the World Series. Joey Chestnut laying waste to the hot dog-eating competition at Coney Island.
But, when it comes to sports, few things my eyes have seen can compare with what a seven-year-old named IRON CITY ANNA experienced with her father on December 23, 1972.
Joseph Borro, Jr., was a proud first-generation American whose father hailed from northern Italy. He was raised on a farm in Freedom, Pa., a town of 1,500 residents about 27 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and proudly served our country in the Korean “Police Action,” stationed in Germany. Joe was also a whiz in the kitchen, especially when it came to making his famed garlic-infused roast.
Well, like any western Pennsylvanian, Joe loved an ice-cold Rolling Rock on a hot day and, as you’d expect, he was an all-in fan of his local sports franchises, including the football team.
“He loved the Steelers and bled black and gold,” Anna said. “To him, they represented the true American experience. They were these scrappy underdogs purchased with bootlegging money and, by hard work and sheer determination, they made it to the Super Bowl. He saw them as emblematic of the American dream.”
Joe appreciated that Pittsburgh work ethic and spent his entire career at Atlantic Richfield, where he became a transportation and warehousing supervisor for Arco Polymers. With that gig came the occasional perk, like tickets to see the Steelers in a playoff game.
That brings us to the fateful day of December 23, 1972, when Joe executed a well-laid plan. After patiently waiting for his wife to leave for Christmas choir practice, he set things in motion.
With the coast clear, he pulled his young daughter aside and said “Anna Marie, since Wednesday was your birthday, I got tickets for you and me to go to the Steelers game today. They play the Raiders. It’ll be just you and me.”
Bear in mind that Anna was fresh off a couple of bouts of pneumonia, necessitating Joe’s cloak-and-dagger approach. So, even with temperatures forecast in the low 40s, Dad wasn’t taking any chances. He got his son’s snowsuit, and stuffed his daughter into the outfit, like the little brother in “A Christmas Story.”
Next, it was off to the game, dropping Anna’s siblings at grandma’s house along the way. They parked in the Knights of Columbus parking lot near Three Rivers Stadium and walked to the game. But, once they arrived at their seats, Joe had an important message for his daughter.
“Anna Marie, you can’t eat or drink anything inside the stadium because you can’t go to the bathroom here. It would take forever to get you out of this snowsuit, and I can’t let you go into the restroom alone. And I can’t go in there with you, either.”
When they got to their seats, dad and daughter quickly realized that Anna couldn’t comfortably sit down in the snowsuit, and she noticed that she couldn’t move her arms. Out of options, she stood there, mesmerized, for the next three hours.
As we know, the game turned into a hard-fought affair between two of the AFC’s best teams. Oakland led, 7-6, with 22 seconds remaining and Pittsburgh faced a do-or-die fourth down from its own 40-yard line. Then, the magic happened.
Here’s how Anna describes it:
“What I remember most was the sound the crowd made when Franco caught the ball,” she remembered. “It was pure unmitigated joy. I’ve never heard anything like that sound, before or since.”
And how did Joe react?
“My dad was jumping up and down, this little Italian man with his arms up in the air. I’d never seen him act like that. He was caught up in the moment,” Anna said. “He didn’t like John Madden and he didn’t like the Raiders.”
After the game, the excited pair made their way to the Knights of Columbus where, finally freed from her snowsuit, IRON CITY ANNA enjoyed a hot chocolate while Joe and other fans talked about what they’d just seen. What an experience.
“It wasn’t so much electric,” Anna continued. “It was more than that. A moment of joy. If Three Rivers Stadium could’ve floated it would’ve.”
Sadly, just eight days after Franco’s heroics, the city was devastated by the death of a Three Rivers icon, Pirates rightfielder Roberto Clemente. A great humanitarian, he was killed in an airplane crash while delivering emergency supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims.
“We were all very upset. My father just loved baseball and the Pirates,” she recalled. “It was such a spectrum of joy and grief. As a seven-year-old, I think it was really the first time I started to understand things.”
To be a Pittsburgher is to understand the importance of sports - and sports figures - to the city and, if you’ve been doing any reading this week, you know how painful it’s been for the town to lose an icon like Harris at 72 years old.
You see, Franco Harris was a great fixture in Pittsburgh. He still lived in the area and seemingly never said no to anyone who asked for a few moments of his time. Many locals, including Anna, have stories about his kindness.
She recalls bumping into the Steelers legend at a John Kerry presidential rally when the Massachusetts senator was campaigning in the Pittsburgh area in 2004.
“I was blabbering when I saw Franco, telling him how my dad and I were at the ‘Immaculate Reception’ game and basically made a fool out of myself,” she says. “But he was great. He just looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Let’s take a picture for your dad.’ A total gentleman.”
How did her dad react when he saw the image of his daughter and Franco?
“He put the picture right on the fridge, and it stayed there,” Anna said. “It was really important to him. And he loved the fact that Franco was half-Italian.”
Joe continued to embrace Franco and the Steelers to the day he died in 2011, at age 81. He passed away in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, the very borough where Harris died this week. The two men never met but that day in 1972 bonded the running back with every Pittsburgher, including a proud American patriot who gave his daughter a day of memories she’ll never forget.
Anna now lives happily on Cape Cod with her husband, longtime New York sports fan NICK “PURPLE” HAYS, a good man and a former colleague of yours truly. They have their faithful Beagle-Basset Hound mix, Yogi, and dream of a Steelers-Giants Super Bowl. And, of course, the Steel City - and that amazing day - are never far from Anna’s heart.
“That sound, that joy, still lives in me,” she said. “When I’ve had to navigate difficult times, it’s helped me to find light and remember what’s possible with perseverance.”
Hyperbole? Not even close. That, folks, is the power of football.
Those Steelers and Raiders renew their rivalry tonight, a pair of six-win squads trying to remain relevant with the 2023 season nearing a close. With Franco’s iconic number “32” being retired as part of the evening’s festivities, emotions will be sky high for the hometown faithful.
Interestingly, Las Vegas experienced their own unlikely last-second victory last week when Chandler Jones intercepted an errant New England lateral and scored with no time remaining. I don’t expect any such miracles tonight.
These teams are pretty evenly matched, but I expect Mike Tomlin and the troops to pull out all the stops to get the victory as they celebrate Harris’ life and the play that sparked the 1970s Steelers dynasty. Call it Pittsburgh by three.
Let’s take a quick look at today’s other matchups with the season record at 135-88 (.605) after Thursday’s Jacksonville victory…
Minnesota (11-3) beats the visiting Giants (8-5-1). The Vikings are better than we think they are and New York, though likely playoff bound, is a year or two from being a serious contender.
Kansas City (11-3) wins, at home, against Seattle (7-7). It’s been a remarkable post-Wilson ride for the Seahawks, but they just aren’t in the same league as KC.
Host Baltimore (9-5) tops Atlanta (5-9). The Falcons will struggle against the Ravens defense and Tyler Huntley will do just enough to get Baltimore the win.
Dee-troit (7-7) gets a win in Carolina (5-9). The Lions are on a roll though Steve Wilks has the Panthers playing tough. Don’t expect a blowout.
Cincinnati (10-4) continues its hot streak at New England (7-7). It’s hard to go against Belichick but everything seems to be clicking for the Bengals.
Cleveland (6-8) wins, at home, against New Orleans (5-9). The Browns, nearly eliminated from the playoff picture, are showing signs of going on a run.
Buffalo (11-3) gets the “W” in frigid Chicago (3-11). The real-feel temperature is forecast to be -8 degrees at kickoff, which won’t be a hardship for the Bills. Heck, it’ll feel like a lovely spring day back home.
Tennessee (7-7) gets back on track against visiting Houston (1-12-1). The Texans’ record is embarrassing though they’ve been quite competitive at times. An upset is not out of the question with the Titans struggling.
Host San Fran (10-4) beats my beloved Commanders (7-6-1), all but ending DC’s 2022 playoff hopes. Still, it’s been a successful year in DC and the offseason focus will be on retooling the offensive line and figuring out the quarterback situation.
Philly (13-1) upsets Dallas (10-4) on the road. Gardner Minshew is no Jalen Hurts but he’s pretty darned good. He’ll get the win and dedicate the victory to his late mentor, Mike Leach.
As for Sunday, I like…
Miami (8-6) to beat the visiting Packers (6-8). This one’s a bit of a toss-up. Simply put, I trust the Dolphins at home more than struggling Green Bay on the road.
Denver (4-10) wins at the LA Rams (4-10). It’s been a lost year for both teams and there will lots of questions to answer in the offseason. I think the Denver defense will be the best unit on the field Sunday.
Visiting Tampa (6-8) beats Arizona (4-10). JJ Watt will make Tom Brady’s life difficult. Arizona will struggle to move the ball. Bucs in a close one.
That’s all for now, folks. Merry Christmas to you and may God bless you and your families in 2023.