Blueberries. for that Over the past decade, any time my mom, Joy, or her sister, Bonnie, have eaten an antioxidant-rich superfood, whether it’s in a morning bowl of granola with Greek yogurt or drizzled over a lettuce salad in the depths of a Florida summer, their mind goes to Franco Harris.
“Ever since he told your mom he was eating it every morning for his health, I can’t think of one without thinking of the other,” Aunt Bonnie told me last week, hours after we learned he had died at age 72.
In 2013, I was in Pittsburgh reporting a story that, according to several national polls, the Steelers had the most female fans of any franchise in the big-four sports. My mom, who grew up in Pittsburgh, flew in from my parents’ house in Florida to join me on the trip, and on Sunday afternoon before the Steelers-Ravens game, we met Franco for lunch not far from Heinz Field. They both talked about 1970s Steelers football, and my mom remarked that Franco had a memory like a steel trap. That’s when he asked her to eat blueberries.
“They’re great for memory,” Franco said, adding that since learning about the long-term effects of multiple concussions, he’s been doing everything he can to maintain his brain health. He was 63 at the time; My mother is 62 years old.
“Happiness,” he said. “You really should eat more blueberries.”
I woke up News of Franco’s death via texts from friends on December 21. Like every Steelers fan, resident of Pittsburgh or person who briefly encountered the band from the greatest moment in Black and Gold history, I was shocked, crushed and confused.
“I saw him,” my mother said when I told her the news. “I mean, not in person, but he was hanging around on Instagram on Friday. He had an event and interviews at a museum in Pittsburgh yesterday. He can’t go today.”
Today of all days, I thought. This week, of all weeks. Two days before the 50th anniversary of that immortal catch, the Steelers plan to retire his jersey at a Christmas Eve home game against the Las Vegas Raiders, four days before Christmas. That last part hurt when I thought about his son, Doug, and his wife, Dana, and the friends and family who got to celebrate the season with him.
But time struck me for a selfish reason. Almost every December 25th for the past 17 years, Franco has sent a “Merry Christmas” text from my company-issued Blackberry, Motorola Razr or iPhone 11. Those messages inevitably lead to a string of inquiries about life and our families, and comments about what the Steelers were doing that season. Realized that there will be no speech this year.
The story of How I became friends with one of my childhood heroes is incredible and incredibly ordinary. I always felt our friendship was a privilege, and I took great care to protect it, but I never believed it was particularly unique. Franco was a collector of people, and I always imagined that many in his circle of friends had similar stories.
In January 2006, I was in Denver for the AFC Championship game between the Steelers and Broncos. One night at dinner, my friend Rob Tringali, a photographer who was filming the game for ESPN, saw Franco walk by our table. “You won’t believe this,” he said. “Franco Harris is behind you.”
I don’t remember our entire conversation, but I do remember Rob worrying that it might be a bad idea to introduce me to an honorific reserved for mythical figures like George Harrison and Santa.
Pittsburgh’s burgeoning black-and-gold craze is a precious heirloom encased in bubble wrap and passed down through the generations. As a kid, I knew the names Franco and Terry before Ernie and Bert. What if he is mean or rude? What if he says, “Hello, I’m from Pittsburgh. I’m a fan,” and then, like the annoying mall Santa in “A Christmas Story,” he tells me to get lost and gives me a quick boot on the nose?
“I’m going to do it,” I told Rob. I got up from the table and said no. Intercepting 32, I later learned that when he went back to an area, it was a private dining room where Franco’s sister and a group of friends were celebrating a birthday. I introduced myself, said I was in town to cover the game for ESPN, that I was born in Pittsburgh, and wrapped a hideous towel around me and handed it to my mom, who was the biggest Steelers fan I’d ever met.
Fifteen minutes later, we were still talking about the Steelers, the wild game against the Colts the previous week, the team’s young QB and the long-term promise of Jerome Pettis’ final season. That conversation started a 17-year friendship.
But I’ve been struggling to write about it for the past week. In that 2013 piece, I wrote about what Franco means to the city and the people of Pittsburgh. It was hard to put into words what he told me.
I learned a lot from our first conversation and from his interaction with the fans. Franco loved football, Penn State and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he spent every moment trying to pay forward the joy those institutions gave him.
He had the most incredible ability to turn a conversation around and make a nervous fan feel like the most important person in the room. Because he knows what it’s like to be loved by strangers, I always imagined that others — especially the fans who made a life like his possible — must feel the same for a few moments.
He was a very popular face in Pittsburgh. A Madame Tussauds-style statue of Franco making “The Catch” greets visitors to Pittsburgh International Airport. A few feet away is a second statue — George Washington. I have never seen a selfie taken with anyone him.
Despite his fame, Franco always seemed surprised by how people reacted to his presence. “I played football,” he would often say. But he never underestimated the adoration of his fans and instead magnified it by being kinder, nicer and more engaging than they expected. I don’t think it was a conscious choice. It’s just who he is.
Before the 2009 Super Bowl between the Steelers and Arizona Cardinals in Tampa, one of my editors at ESPN The Magazine, JP Morris, asked if he would help E60 prepare a piece on his friend Bob Zinski, a Steelers fan. He was dying of cancer. His ultimate wish is to see the Steelers play in the Super Bowl. A group of friends, including JP, conspired to give him an unforgettable week. That’s where I came in. I asked JB if he could call in some help to shepherd BZ and his wife, Janine, during Super Bowl week.
That assignment was one of the greatest honors of my career, and my first call was, of course, to Franco. Each year at the Super Bowl, he and fellow NFL great Liddell Mitchell and his teammates at Penn State host an invitation-only, six-course dinner and invite current and former NFL players and local community leaders to the event. It was, of course, called Immaculate Reception. I told him BZ’s story and asked if he wanted a few minutes to meet with him and Janine while we were in town. “I’ll do one better,” Franco said. “I’ll save you a table during my dinner.”
That night was surreal. We didn’t tell BZ and Janine where we were taking them — we did a lot that week — and when we arrived, I saw BZ’s face and he recognized one of his dinner companions. Mel Blount. Rocky Blair. John Stallworth. Then Franco walked away. “Bob! I’m so glad you’re joining us!” he said. “Can’t wait to meet you guys.”
Babu doesn’t know what hit him. Franco presents him with a Steelers watch. He escorted him and Janine from table to table, introducing them to the “companions” and making Bob the center of attention each time.
He did the same to my mother. I mentioned her in my introduction that first night we met in Denver. At some point in the evening, Franco said, “Pick up your phone and call Joy. I want to talk to the biggest Steelers fan in the world.”
When he found out I was taking her to the 2011 Super Bowl in Dallas, he invited us to dinner, saved seats at a table with my mom’s second-favorite Steelers player, Mean Joe Greene, and told her how happy he was. Finally meet her in person.
I’ve counted the number of times they’ve spoken over the years, and each time I’ve thought: If someone has the amount of kindness, how good they are to your mother.
Saturday, I I watched the Christmas Eve game between the Steelers and the Raiders and teared up at every mention of Franco. We texted sometimes after big games and I imagined what he had to say after this. A relentless optimist when it comes to the black and gold, he would have said something about the Steelers still being in the playoff hunt, how a February game in Glendale is possible and we have to believe.
At halftime, I was scrolling online and came across a Sports Illustrated story about how Terry Bradshaw remembered his teammate and friend. About three-quarters of the way through the story, I read a Bradshaw quote that took my breath away. Earlier this year, no. 32 She said she tried to convince him to eat more blueberries.
I sent the story to my aunt and mom and I cried. Then I typed “blueberry Christmas ornament” into Amazon. I ordered three.