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Francophile After Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception, the author became obsessed with the Steelers' star

Jan. 20, 2003
Jan. 20, 2003

Table of Contents
Jan. 20, 2003

Francophile After Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception, the author became obsessed with the Steelers' star

Confessions of a Hero Worshiper
by Stephen J. Dubner
William Morrow, $24.95

This is an article from the Jan. 20, 2003 issue

On Dec. 23, 1972, Franco Harris became a hero to thousands of
football fans, and one of them was nine-year-old Stephen Dubner.
The occasion was the Immaculate Reception, a play in which a pass
by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw ricocheted off
a player and into the arms of Harris, the Pittsburgh running back
who carried the ball 42 yards for the winning touchdown. The
young Dubner, whose father was ill at the time and would die
within a year, was looking for a hero to carry him through his
grief. He became obsessed with Harris, for if the big back could
appear seemingly out of nowhere, snare the ball just before it
hit the ground and turn the play into a glorious touchdown,
anything was possible.

Dubner had dreams about Harris in which they ate plates of
spaghetti together and played pickup games in the backyard of the
Dubner home in Duanesburg, N.Y. In real life Dubner begged his
mother to let him change his first name to Franco. But what he
really wanted was for Harris to take his father's place--to be
that someone, the grown Dubner writes, who would say, "Reach for
something beyond your grasp, for I will pick you up if you fall."
Touching, yes?

Yes, but you'd think that more than 25 years later Dubner, who
wrote a best-seller (Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to
His Jewish Family) and has a wife, and a baby on the way, would
have outgrown hero worship. Instead he decides to track down
Harris and write a book about their relationship--the one that
exists in Dubner's mind. Putting his writing skills to work,
Dubner sends a fawning letter to Harris vaguely discussing a book
project, and Harris invites him to Pittsburgh. Once there Dubner
discovers that the once scintillating player has become a
49-year-old doughnut salesman (Harris is the owner of a company
called Super Bakery) and that his favorite topic is the Super
Donut, an all-natural vitamin-fortified snack.

But Dubner is blind with admiration. Every platitude Harris
utters seems profound to Dubner, who tries to express his
affection without letting on how much he adores Harris. Dubner
never tells him about some of his dreams or about his secret
desire "to see Franco naked." (He writes that it's not a sexual
thing; he just wants "to behold [Harris's] proportions and
angles, as one beholds Michelangelo's David.")

Let's face it, a guy like Dubner is bound to give his hero the
creeps. After their visit Harris seems to like Dubner and is
flattered by the interest of an author of his stature, but his
instincts tell him to keep Dubner at arm's length. A game of
cat-and-mouse commences: Harris keeps agreeing to see Dubner for
additional interviews and then cancels at the last minute.
Dubner, like a smitten swain, finds that each rejection stokes
his ardor. He feels certain that if he could have one more
meeting, Harris "would realize my intentions were benign."

Recognizing Dubner's situation, a friend tells him an instructive
story: When Napoleon died, the abbe who performed last rites
supposedly cut off the emperor's penis and preserved it in a jar.
Why? Because, the friend explains, the abbe "had a thing for
[Napoleon]...the way you have a thing for Franco." When a
friend tells you that, it's time to listen. But Dubner does not,
and what follows is a lesson about what can happen when hero
worship becomes a substitute for confronting your demons.

B/W PHOTO: WILLIAM MORROWB/W PHOTO: HARRY CABLUCK/AP STIFF ARM Harris, making that miracle play, kept his distance from Dubner (inset).B/W PHOTO: ELLEN BINDER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: SPORTS PUBLISHING LLC

All-Prose

A former star linebacker adds yet another paean to Pittsburgh's
glorious run of titles

An Odd Steelers Journey
by Andy Russell
Sports Publishing LLC, $22.95

THE GREAT Steelers teams of the 1970s have produced almost as
many books as Hall of Famers. Terry Bradshaw has written six,
including his most recent, Keep It Simple, which is only
recommended to anyone who wants to know the former quarterback's
opinion on divorce law. Like Bradshaw, former linebacker Andy
Russell had no reason to write another book (this is his second),
and you have no reason to read it unless you enjoy an old pro
unspooling his favorite yarns. The best one involves a trip to
Paris with defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene. You'd figure that
the notoriously rude Parisians would be intimidated enough by the
6'4", 275-pound Greene that they would treat him kindly, but
you'd be wrong. Fed up with the coldness and snobbery of the
French, Greene became so enraged he actually lifted a cab and
threatened to turn it over.