On Saturday, December 23, 1972 I saw a miracle with my dad. He was 29 and I was five. It was on TV. Almost Christmas. It would be called “The Immaculate Reception”. One of my most favorite memories was also one of my earliest memories.
My dad was screaming all up and down the family room that the Lord was on the job. Urging me with all the frenzy of a mad man to keep watching the reruns of the play closely, and as I did, though I was five, I thought I understood what all the was screaming about.
That we couldn’t quite see if Franco Harris actually did catch that ball or lifted it like a purse from the ground, not only made the mystique grow in real time but also makes it grow all these years later too. There’s also the liberating feeling of being a five year old son allowed to jump up and down crazy with your dad.
You might say after that I was ruined. Like a musky fisherman who catches the fish of a thousand casts on their first outing. Maybe from that I came to believe the Lord should be on the job all the time. Why shouldn’t a five year old boy grow up to expect miracles?
My dad was a very excitable guy. He wasn’t afraid to show great joy and jubilation but he also had some deep pockets of hell in his heart. He had massive highs and lows from his personality. One minute he was up here and the next minute he was down there. It was a great blast and a great burden to know him and to have him as my dad. He passed away over two years ago. But like the angels say, there ain’t no use in complainin’.
One thing I knew was that we were watching something special. Witnessing something special, no matter how cold it was outside or how small the black and white TV was inside.
My dad was a husband and family man first and after he married my wonderful and beautiful mom I was born soon after. While many were following a counter-culture in the 60’s or being drafted into the Vietnam war, he was following the roads that a responsible man takes to provide for his family. “It’s what people did,” he would always say years later.
Watching sports was a way to see miracles. We always had the big games on. He loved Al Davis, the man responsible for merging the AFL and the NFL together. He was also a John Madden guy. The Oakland Raiders were the model of everything right about football.
Chuck Noll and the Steelers were also of course enormous. Any coach as I would later find out—because I was and still am trying to be a writer like my dad—who quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as he retires from the NFL has a giant place in heaven all reserved for himself.
Don Shula and the Dolphins were giants. Hank Stram and the Chiefs were giants. Tom Landry and the Cowboys were giants. George Allen and the Redskins were giants. Bud Grant and the Vikings were skol giants.
Later my dad as an old man would encourage me to read, “When Pride Still Mattered” by David Maraniss, because with all these football giants there’s also the God of all of them put together, Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, and even if you never read a word about him, you still seem to know why he’s such a big deal. We hold these truths to be self-evident.
The Bears were kind of a giant joke. All the good teams were playing a sophisticated game. The Bears were playing a simple one. Roger Staubach knew how to run the shotgun. Fred Biletnikoff knew how to run deep pass plays and get open. The Bears knew how to run Walter Payton three times and punt.
But hey, Walter knew how to hit a guy in the face with a forearm shiver and then lift opposing lineman up with one hand after they tackled him. He was a punishing runner but also a classy act. He endured like the seasons and helped Bear fans endure the seasons. The nickname “Sweetness,” was the cherry on top. No surprise they ended up naming the man of the year trophy after him. Yeah, he was a miracle, too, for sure.
I saw other miracles on TV in the 70s. We watched tennis in our house because my mom would not be outdone and I saw a woman, Billy Jean King tell a man, Bobby Riggs she was better than him and beat him in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. We saw Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova play like giants, and of course Borg, Connors, and McEnroe too.
I saw Kenny Stabler with my dad throw a pass blind and falling down into a Dolphin “sea of hands” only to have it find his surrounded teammate Clarence Davis for a touchdown at the end of the playoff game to win. Again I heard his, the Lord is on the job” cry. I saw all by myself the “hail mary” from Staubach to Drew Pearson to beat the Vikings in cold Bloomington in the playoffs. I also saw Stabler throw another pass to Dave Casper against the Colts in the playoffs in the “Ghost to the Post.”
When Earl Campbell was taken by the Houston Oilers with the first pick in ‘78, it was like Rome running through the destiny of the smaller world, as defenders made futile attempts at grabbing him only to be left holding a fistful of shredded jersey. He was like a bomb exploding, sending his crown into the chest of weaker men. But in his bigness he was also gentle like Santa Claus. So soft spoken and kind. A great symbol of why the people in Texas have that reputation of buying you beers and going out of their way to help strangers.
Another thing about Campbell. My dad knew him. This made my dad a giant too, although he was one already. He shared a plate of nachos with the 34 inched thighed running back while working on an advertising project. I never asked him later about what they talked about and my dad never said. Sometimes the best thing to do when you’re with someone great like that is to just be quiet with them. Appreciate the silence.
Yes I was privileged to see all these miracles and it helped me add another element to my game, to believe that I too could do something great and pull out a victory with my last second chance. Nothing, not even all the most wonderful things a person might earn or share or feel or know, has a greater chance at making the world a better place more than a young heart believing.