By Aubrey Bruce,
For New Pittsburgh Courier
The night before the game in which the “Immaculate Reception” occurred, the late Bill “Bubby” Nunn III, son of the Steelers super scout, Hall-of-Famer Bill Nunn Jr., gave the late John “Squirrel” Mosley (one of the original members of the Roy Ayers group “Ubiquity” and a former member of the Isley Brothers’ horn section) and me tickets to the game. We were “bosom buddies” and alumni of the legendary Schenley High School.
Late in the game, on Dec. 23, 1972, when the Oakland Raiders scored to take the lead, we decided to leave. After we exited Three Rivers Stadium, the remaining faithful cut loose an ear-splitting roar.
We assumed that it was from overly rambunctious and inebriated fans who were sore losers and so, we played it off.
We almost blew our stack when we walked into the Alcatraz bar just a few blocks away from the stadium looking gloomy and sad, when the owner of the bar, “Mert,” as they called him, asked, “Weren’t you guys at the game?” We answered, “Yeah, but we left early.”
He exposed his toothless grin and said: “So that’s why yaw’ll looking so down in the dumps. We won the game on the last m____erf____ n play.”
John Mosley and I never stopped kicking ourselves in the rear end for our lack of faith in the team.
After all, we missed the most significant play in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the history of the National Football League…and we had tickets.
I consider it one of the greatest coincidences and maybe a solid premonition that the future 6-star general of “Franco’s Italian Army” was born at Fort Dix, New Jersey, on March 7, 1950. In my opinion, Fort Dix, N.J., was his birthplace and where his manger lay. That was indeed a sure sign that immaculate accomplishments would be part of his destiny.
Franco Harris died in the late hours of Dec. 20. He was 72.
I initially met Franco Harris one night in 1973 at the “Fantastic Plastic,” a BYOB-disco located in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. At the time, I was hanging out with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching ace “Dock” Ellis along with his fellow Pirates teammates Willie Stargell and Rennie Stennett. Franco would hang out but he was on the quiet side and for all the years that I had known him, if you or anyone else indirectly or directly subjected him to any nonsense, most of the time he would quietly bring out the “Franco guillotine” and you would never gain his confidence or trust again.
But in some instances, Franco was comedy club-like hilarious and would have you in stitches.
Franco Harris was not only athletically astute, but also was intellectually, socially and spiritually attuned to and focused on the needs of the “family of humanity.” Many of the people that stayed warm during some of the terrible winters of the recent past were able to do so because of one of the government programs available to the public to assist with the payment of their utility bills. The LIHEAP Program (low-income heating assistance) was one such program. When LIHEAP began to air the PSAs featuring Franco, his reassuring presence helped to remove the stigma of seeking assistance to pay electric bills.
Franco Harris received the first-ever Beaver Stadium Run Community Hero Award in 2013. This award is given each April to a member of the Penn State family who has shown support and generosity tothe Special Olympics and/or the community. Franco was a member of Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s Executive Advisory Board and his support spanned decades. These were just two examples of his commitment to community service.
There was a serious side to Franco Harris that could be equated to possessing a “sixth sense” when it came to identifying the ongoing social, economic and systemic racial issues that plagued and continue to poison the search for equality for all of the family of man. Franco Harris had a stellar, storied and legendary athletic career, but his accomplishments on the gridiron paled in comparison to the glaring light at the end of the “tunnel of possibilities” that he provided to help those in search of success and fulfillment.
One great example of Franco’s tireless and unwavering civic commitment was the effort to restore the legendary Pittsburgh entertainment and music venue the Crawford Grill. Franco was also focused on redeveloping and restoring a few of the affected adjacent properties. The Crawford Grill was a jazz club that operated in the Hill District. During the apex of its popularity in the 1950s and ‘60s, the venue hosted jazz legends Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Miles Davis, among others. It was a musical staple until 2003 when it folded. In 2010, Franco, assisted by Pittsburgh jazz star vocalist Jessica Lee, and trombonist Dr. Nelson Harrison and a group of investors, purchased the property with the goal of restoring and reopening the location as a venue and restaurant.
Internationally known artist Walt Sims Jr., whose father was a prince in the court of the Crawford Grill, shared a few of his lasting memories: “I grew up crawling around the floors in the Grill. I cut my teeth on the music of Art Blakey, Max Roach, and many of the immortal jazz giants. After the Grill folded in 2003, it was abandoned and sat dormant for a few years before Franco and his assistant, Jessica Lee, intervened to initiate the process of claiming, restoring and reopening the Grill. Fifty years from now the effort to save the Crawford Grill may simply be known as, ‘The Immaculate Salvation.’ It hurts because Franco Harris won’t be here to see it, (but) his impact went far beyond the football field. He was and is an angel to the people in the community and one of the greatest spirits I’ve ever met in my life.”
Last and certainly not least, I spoke with Jessica Lee, the extraordinary and iconic Pittsburgh jazz vocalist. Lee exhibits a few angelic qualities of her own. She had assisted Franco for over a decade and has been a driving force behind restoring the Crawford Grill and redeveloping the surrounding properties.
“I received a call from our friend, Dr. Nelson Harrison, back in 2009 and Nelson said that it was urgent and that the Grill needed to be sold; and the fear was that when it was acquired, no one would properly restore it. That call (was eerily similar) to the miracle catch by Franco 50 years ago. After that conversation with Nelson, a group of ambassadors came together and saved it together. They had no business because they didn’t have time to create one. All they knew was that it deserved to be saved and that they would try to save it.”
Jessica Lee is an “old soul” as evidenced by an experience she had at the shuttered property.
Jessica recalled the incident: “One dark day and I think this might have been still late 2008 or early 2009…I had a chance to meet “Buzzy” Robinson, the previous owner, and talk with him about how important it was for the legacy to be honored by the new buyers, whoever that might be, and I asked them was it OK if I could stand on the stage. I stood for a few seconds and looked down at my feet. I closed my eyes. And as God is my witness, I saw Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughn standing there and I heard the clinking of glasses and a place filled with laughter. I left the stage and called Nelson Harrison and he simply said, ‘the spirits gotcha.’”
Jessica Lee explained how difficult it was to talk about Franco, but reflected on her final moments with the Steelers legend. “The last time I saw Franco alive was Dec. 13. This was a Tuesday afternoon. We went up to the Crawford Grill building around 2:30 p.m. and he asked me, ‘Jessica, do you hear it?’ He raised his hands up to his face, almost like putting his hands together in prayer and he looked down at me and said, ‘We’re gonna build something beautiful here.”
Franco Harris, you have already built something beautiful. Rest in peace, St. Franco.
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