It was called the “Immaculate Reception.” NFL Films declared it the greatest play of all time in professional football and it happened on December 23, 1972, in the AFC divisional playoff game. It was the Pittsburg Steelers against the Oakland Raiders. The legendary Raiders quarterback, Kenny Stabler, had just scored a touchdown after a magnificent 30-yard run with just 1:17 left on the clock. Raiders led 7-6. And then the unexpected happened.
With 30 seconds left in the game, Steelers’ quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, launched a desperate pass down the field to John “Frenchy” Fuqua. But the ball bounced off of the hands of Raiders defender, Jack Tatum, and careened backward. Before the pigskin fell to the ground, Steelers fullback, Franco Harris, scooped it up and ran for the game-winning touchdown. Harris, who is a legend, not just as a Steeler, but in Penn State history, remembered what, much lately maligned, yet still beloved coach, Joe Paterno, had taught him in college: “always follow the ball, even if you’re not directly involved in the play.”
An Unexpected Miracle
For Philadelphia Eagles fans (like me), the best play ever was when, on November 19th, 1978, late in the game with the N.Y. Giants leading 17-12, Giants quarterback, Joe Pisarcik , fumbled the ball trying to hand it off to the legendary Larry Czonka on an off-tackle run, which on the previous play had netted eleven yards. But, this time Czonka and Pisarcik didn’t connect. There were just seconds left in the contest. The football spurted out of their hands and onto the field. It was deftly picked up on a bounce by Eagles cornerback “Herm” Edwards, who ran it in for a touchdown. Because it happened on the Giants home turf, it was historically nicknamed “The Miracle in the Meadowlands.”
It really only happened because Pisarcik didn’t take a knee to run out the clock. After all, the Eagles had no time outs left. From that moment on, all football teams and all quarterbacks started to huddle close and let the clock dictate the final seconds of a game, never attempting anything so foolish again. Formation changes where running backs are positioned immediately behind, and at the flanks of the quarterback, and a speedy wide receiver is posted a few yards back in case of a missed snap to prevent the defense from swooping up the ball like Edwards did now became normal. Not just for professional players, but throughout college and even high school football.
The lesson: keep your eye on the ball.
It was 1968. The world was in turmoil: the Cold War waged on, Vietnam divided not just their own country but ours, American cities were in flames over much needed civil rights, college pot-smoking students were infuriated and began protesting everything traditional, especially the war against communism; the women’s liberation movement and the “pill” started its unprecedented historic change on society, divorce became rampant, and the Roman Catholic Church was teetering on the verge of schism.
New changes stemming from but never quite attributed to the Second Vatican Council started becoming the norm. Novus Ordo was quickly accepted yet gave many pause. The priest now faced the congregation. The mass was said in English not Latin. In fact, the catholic world had turned topsy-turvy just at the same time the rest of the world did, both from a sociological and political perspective. The objective of Vatican II was to bring the church into the modern world. But, the world had already jettisoned far beyond rational thought and into the neo-reality of narcissism, and couldn’t quite understand why the church lagged behind. Neither did many of its members, both religious and laity. The result was a mass exodus from the altars, convents, and pews. This is history well documented and cannot be denied.
But this was just a blur in my memory at, what used to be, the tender age of 13. My world was safe and secure. Mom and dad made sure of that. We were truly happy. We never knew hunger and our needs were always provided for thanks to the sacrifices of, what Tom Brokaw called, “The Greatest Generation.”
That generation was focused. They had seen tough times – times that you and I simply cannot relate to, and we were shielded from the kind of pain and sacrifice they had to suffer through. Because of their extreme trials, our parents raised families with such love and security their own children were completely isolated from want, from fear, from the devastating events happening in the world around us.
Yes, in school, we practiced hiding underneath our desks in case of an atomic bomb attack against our nation by Russia. We prayed and wept, with the nuns who instructed us, when we heard the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and then the death our beloved Pope John XXIII, and later, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Yet, young children who were not subject to the “sixties” had absolute trust in our parents, our neighbors parents, our police, our teachers, and, especially, our clergy. Essentially, we had perfect trust in authority.
1968 was the year I was in sixth grade. My father taught me and my siblings the joy of singing. I seemed to have the gift of perfect pitch and tone. I got that from him. There was always a metronome on the dashboard of the car to make sure we sung in time and unison with each other, all ten of us. If not, dad simply used the windshield wipers of the station wagon, even on a sunny day, while using the wiper fluid to spray the windows with. It was glorious. Dad taught us to sing in harmony and it made us delighted when we all heard each other complement each other’s voices. My older sister Janie, taught me how to sing even in counterpoint and polyphony. We were never schooled in this. We just picked it up naturally. This inspired me to join the church choir. The director of the boys’ choir, who was also the organist at church, always stationed me on her left so that she could hear the perfect pitch of my voice.
One Sunday, we descended the steps of the choir loft, as we always did right before Holy Communion. We needed to receive the sacrament first, so we could sing when the rest of the congregation lined up (this was the time when parishioners filled the aisles, even to standing-room-only) to receive as they knelt in front of the Communion Rail.
When I knelt down to receive, the pastor, a kind and loving man, whose dog I adored, seemed to be in a hurry. There were so many congregants at this mass, perhaps he, just this once, took his eyes off the ball. As he offered me the Sacred Host, he missed my mouth. The altar boy, assisting with the polished paten, also missed the falling host. In an instant, no – less than that, my brain instinctively moved my arm and caught Jesus in the sleeve of my choir jacket as if I had anticipated the moment even before it happened. Perhaps like Franko Harris and “Herm” Edwards did years later. After mass, I went into the sacristy where the priest plucked Jesus out of my sleeve and placed Him reverentially into my mouth. Then he washed my arm in holy water.
I suppose it was my version of both the “Immaculate Reception” and the “Miracle in the Meadowlands.”
My father was an avid fan of any athletic competition. He always used sports analogies when advising his children on any given day. His two favorites were “finish strong,” especially when you got off to a bad start on any given endeavor, this was because he loved track and field and knew the importance of “getting your second wind”; next was to “keep your eye on the ball.” By this he meant focus on what was really important.
Today, we talk about a lot of things that we deem wrong with the church. The one, true thing we’ve dropped the ball on is adoration of the Eucharist: Jesus is our ball on the field. We’ve fumbled it, we no longer pay Him the attention He deserves. We’ve forgotten what He did for us, which is why we no longer genuflect before Him. We see the Eucharistic Celebration as a time for fellowship and socialization more than coming to the palace or the stable to honor our King. We talk when we shouldn’t. We’ve become center stage when the sanctuary should always be our focus. Our children have learned this from us and they, of course, follow our example.
And, it’s not just our fault. The church is to blame, too. Together, we’ve all dropped the ball, trying to keep up with a world filled with pride because we wanted to feel belonged, as if we were just as hip and as modern as it is. We’ve tried to tweak the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to keep up with the Jones’, sometimes with outlandish things such as liturgical dancing and folk music. I remember watching eighth-grade girls in leotards performing a dance at mass much to the delight of eighth-grade boys, but as a teacher I also knew that hormones should not be encouraged just at the time when they were raging out of control. Funny, sometimes we get just we deserve, or just what we wished for, but, not what we should have prayed for.
The Clock is Ticking
Many times we simply don’t appreciate the fact that time does matter while we are here on earth, and I’m not talking just about a football game. All of our clocks are ticking. As we grow older we begin to recognize that we face the inevitable: our own demise; what we leave after us; our own legacy; the consequences of our actions both during our lifetime and beyond. It need not be dire, although it can be depending on the circumstances. This is all part of a divine plan sketched just for us. As a teacher it would be akin to an IEP (Individual Education Program) only this time drawn up by God Himself. He recognizes our innate deficiencies and balances them with reality; you know nature versus nurture stuff. In the end, our end – or rather our beginning, He sees the truth of everything and, finally, so do you and me.
The reverence and solemnity of our liturgy should always be focused on “the ball,” as dad would say: on the prize – on the precious pearl – on the Eucharist. There should never be “liberal” or “conservative” Catholics. There’s no time for that nonsense. But, there’s always a time for sacred and unconditional worship even if it’s hidden up our sleeve.
Let’s “finish strong,” and get our “second wind.” The race isn’t over yet, but time is running out. And for God’s sake let’s keep our eyes on the ball.