By John Affleck
The first time my mom sets the house on fire, the timing could not be worse, about two in the afternoon on December 23rd, 1972. You got it — right in the middle of the Raiders-Steelers playoff game.
I am 8 years old, sitting alone on the braided rug in the den, looking at our black and white TV. The Steelers haven’t ever won a division title before and, really, haven’t played in a game with this much at stake. The papers are full of it, both The Post-Standard we get before breakfast and the Herald Journal at night. I read every single article about it.
I didn’t always love football this much. I used to read everything I could about airplanes, and I’m not saying they’re not cool. But last year I saw this TV show that was all highlights from Sunday’s games, with music and a narrator, and it was just so great for some reason. Football became the only thing that mattered. I started playing it with the big kids down the street, mostly rushing the quarterback when they let me in the game or returning kicks, humming the highlight music as I ran with the ball. And I began reading everything I could. There was a chapter book called “Championship,” which was about every NFL title game before there were Super Bowls. And I read another book called “Championship Teams of the NFL” about some of the best. The 1940 Bears stand out. They ran the T formation and beat the Redskins 73–0 for the title. There was a chapter on the 1951 Rams, which I think is kind of a, I dunno, weird choice because the Browns of that era were better if you look at the big picture. They even beat the Rams the year before. If I wrote the book, it would have had a chapter about Otto Graham and the 1950 Browns. Lou Groza kicked a 16-yard field goal, and Cleveland beat Los Angeles, 30–28, to win it all. Groza kicked straight on. The shoe was squared off to give him more power and protect his toes. I wish I had shoes like that.
Every Sunday this fall, I came home from church and watched the highlights from last week’s games. And now I am doing my own broadcast of the game while I watch it. It works like this. I take out some of my toy soldiers and sailors and line them up on the carpet, 11-on-11. I have these pirate guys that I took off a plastic sailing ship my older brother used to have. They are the Raiders. Then I put them against a bunch of Army guys from my collection — they have to be Army guys because they don’t sell bags full of plastic Steelers. During the commercials, I move the guys around like the last play, only I do the voice for it. My goal is to get a different set of toy guys to represent every team next year and call every game I see. Part of it is, not only do I love football, I love saying football words — scramble, blitz, tenacious, zone, end zone, barn burner.
Somewhere late in the first quarter I can hear mother yelling. Dad is a little calmer. He says something like, “What do you want me to do? Quit my job? Work at a gas station in Schenectady?” and she says something back that I can’t hear because the TV is too loud. I guess I leaned over and cranked up the volume knob.
This game has everything that makes football great. The weather is bad at Three Rivers, raw and cold, and the uniforms are cool. Black and gold for the Steelers. White, black and silver for the Raiders. It’s hard hitting and low scoring. In fact, there’s no score after the first quarter and well into the second. If it stays this tight, I am guessing it might be compared to the 1965 playoff game between Baltimore and Green Bay, which ended 13–10, Packers, in overtime. Johnny Unitas was hurt and couldn’t play that day, so the Colts used a tight end named Tom Matte as QB and still almost won. It’s important to think about where games like that one and like this one fall in football history because, next to American history, it’s probably the most important history there is.
One of my big sisters, back from the state college an hour away, stands in the doorway while I’m calling a play where Mean Joe Greene makes a terrific stop on Marv Hubbard. I hear her but keep going.
“Can you believe it, ladies and gentlemen? All the way from North Texas State …”
“Hey kid, we gotta go,” she cuts in from the top of the short flight of stairs that leads into the kitchen. “The house is on fire.”
“Get lost,” I say. “I’m watching the game.”
She just wants the TV so she can watch the Saturday movie matinee on the channel 9. I’m not that dumb. That’s why I got here even before the pregame started.
“I’m serious,” she says. She sounds — not mad but more like weird, or kind of nervous. She looks behind her, at something I can’t see from my spot on the floor, and curses.
Who cares? She hates football. I have no time for people like that. I decide to pretend I didn’t hear that bad word. Ratting on her would take me away from the game, so I just keep watching.
It’s almost halftime. Still scoreless. Nobody can do anything. Now it’s starting to remind me of the 1948 championship, in which Steve Van Buren scored the game’s only touchdown for the Eagles as they beat the Chicago Cardinals 7–0 during a blizzard in Philadelphia. I mean, like, the conditions then were way worse than they are today, but everybody has to be thinking first score wins — just like in ’48. It’s hard to sit still for all the tension. I’m sort of squirming all over the floor.
Now my sister’s back, standing over me. Her face is all red, and her cheeks are wet.
“Will you get up?” she says. “I’m begging you.”
She tries to lift me off the floor. I stiffen and look away. “Playoffs!” I yell.
“OK, OK. I won’t touch you. But please — the house is on fire! We’ve got to go.”
“The house is not on fire. The playoffs are on fire. This is the best game of the year.”
“Honey, the house is on fire.”
“No, it isn’t. You just wanna watch a stupid love and kissy movie.”
“Dammit!” she says, and she kind throws me down on the couch.
“I’m getting Dad.”
I shrug. No way will he make me give up the AFC Divisional Playoffs for her bullcrap.
The Steelers have just gotten stuffed on fourth-and-1 at about the Oakland 31-yard line. They could have tried a field goal but didn’t. I don’t get that. I mean, it’s 0–0 deep into the game — don’t you want to take points? What was Coach Noll thinking? It makes me wonder if I know more about football than anybody else — which is definitely true at school since I can name every starting quarterback in the league. Or, is the truth that I know nothing compared to the coaches, and that’s why I don’t understand what they do sometimes? All I really know is, when I’m a coach, I’ll take the points. That’s for sure. And then when we win, like, 9–7, everyone will know that I know what I’m doing.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Dad roars. He must have snuck up on me. I’m afraid when his voice is like that.
“Watching the game.”
“Oh,” he says, much quieter. “Who’s winning?”
“Nobody. It’s nothing-nothing. The first half just ended.”
“Seriously? Wow. Well look, son, I’ll try to get you back for the second half, but we gotta go. Your mother went downstairs and, well, some laundry caught on fire. It must have been too close to the hot water heater and caught a spark. The fire department’s here.”
“Yeah, really. C’mon.”
And he leads me up the stairs to the kitchen, where a fireman has the basement door open at the other end of the room. He’s setting up a big, huge fan. Two other firemen, one with an axe, are waiting for him to finish.
“Get your coat on,” Dad says. So I squeeze past the firemen and go to the closet at the front door, do as I’m told and go out into the yard. A bunch of neighbors are scattered around the lawn, watching. Among them are a couple of the big guys, Oscar and Tony. They’re brothers. They smile at me and ask if I’m OK, if I want to watch the rest of the game at their house.
Their mom makes us popcorn and gives us some sodas, and we watch as the Steelers push ahead 6–0 on a pair of short Roy Gerela field goals. Will it be enough? No. Oakland coach John Madden replaces the ineffective — another football word — the ineffective Daryle Lamonica with Ken Stabler, who escapes a Steeler blitz and somehow stumbles his way 30 yards down the field for a touchdown. It’s, 7–6, Oakland, with just over a minute to go. Now here come the Steelers. Their young star quarterback with the skimpy facemask, Terry Bradshaw, connects on two passes, which puts the ball on the Pittsburgh 40.
Then one incompletion. Two. Three. It’s fourth-and-10 with 22 seconds to go.
Wow. We’re on our knees, mouths hanging open, six inches from their big set, which, by the way, is in color. If they make the first down, I’m thinking we’ve got to be talking a finish in the neighborhood of the 1967 Ice Bowl, the NFL championship that year, which saw Bart Starr sneak the ball over the goal line with seconds remaining as the Packers beat the Cowboys, 21–17. Jerry Kramer always took credit for the key block on Jethro Pugh, though it was kind of a double team. Even if the Steelers don’t make it, then it’s more like the Packers-Cowboys title game of the previous year in the Cotton Bowl, when the Packers held the Cowboys in a goal line stand at the end of the game.
Bradshaw back to pass. Looking. Looking. Time’s running out. He starts to drift right. Two, now three, Raider linemen closing in. The closest, Horace Jones, takes a swipe at the QB’s hands but misses. Bradshaw sets his feet and throws down the middle of the field. The ball, receiver Frenchy Fuqua and defender Jack “the Assassin” Tatum arrive at the same moment. The ball caroms back upfield. Oakland celebrates — but wait, Franco Harris, the rookie out of Penn State, catches it in stride off his shoelaces at the Raider 42. He’s steaming down the sideline. Can they stop him? One man, Jimmy Warren, has a shot, but no. Harris pushes him away and runs through the end zone still carrying the ball. Fans are on the field. They’re mobbing Bradshaw. We’re jumping around Oscar and Tony’s basement in upstate New York, just screaming. Did that count? Is it a touchdown? The officials say yes. More craziness in Pittsburgh and in the basement. Pouring the popcorn bowls over each other. The greatest play ever. Nothing like it — we’ve just seen history.
It takes about half an hour to calm down. Finally, Tony suggests I better go see if my house is still standing, and I guess he’s right. I put on my green parka and step outside. It was cloudy all day, and now it is dark, almost the darkest day of the year. But I feel like running down the block, and I do, bursting into the house. I tear back to the den, where I find my father, my mother and two of my sisters. Mom and Dad are sitting quite close on the couch. Dad has his arm around my mother, her head on his shoulder. The TV is not on. Both my sisters have their arms folded. They seem uptight.
My first words: “Dad — did you see it?” He didn’t. I bounce around trying to describe what happened, but when I get to the touchdown, I realize that my mother has her head in her hands. I thought Dad would love this, but he seems to be waiting to say something to me. So I stop.
“What’d I do?”
“Nothing. I’ll talk to you about it all later,” Dad says. “How about we go out and get something to eat.”
“Really? Do we have to? The Cowboys are playing the 49ers.”
Dad smiles, laughs to himself. Mom just looks past me. She seems really tired.
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John Affleck is a veteran journalist with a track record of success as a national manager in both sports and news at The Associated Press, joined the College of Communications faculty in August 2013 as the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.
Since joining the faculty, Affleck has focused on giving students with a classroom experience that will prepare them to step right into a newsroom and perform well. He does this by providing attentive editing, practical tips, on-campus reporting assignments and an accent on working with the latest storytelling tools.
Affleck has directed students on independent studies and major projects that have been professionally published, and created Curley Center news bureaus to cover events such as the Croke Park Classic — Penn State’s 2014 football opener in Dublin — and a NASCAR Sprint Cup race in the Poconos for professional organizations. His goal is to regularly put Penn State students into situations where they can gain experience and have a positive impact on the journalism industry even as they earn their undergraduate degrees.
Affleck has brought a mix of speakers to campus who are stars in the field (Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, for example) as well as those who have a perspective on sports issues of the day such as Indian mascots, and the dearth of openly gay and lesbian athletes in the top U.S. team sports. He also regularly writes for publication himself and appears as a guest on radio programs, discussing major sports and sports media issues. In 2014–15, he served as the faculty adviser to the campus chapter of the Association for Women in Sports Media.
During his 22-year career at the AP, Affleck served as a reporter, editor and national manager, working regularly with all of the organization’s major editorial departments. In his final role before joining the University faculty, he helped manage day-to-day operations for the roughly 70-member domestic sports team. He also directed coverage of the Lance Armstrong saga, ran the Sport Department’s enterprise work, and coordinated efforts with the news department as the Jerry Sandusky case unfolded.
Affleck also directed coverage of college football, including the last five Bowl Championship Series national title games. He also oversaw the wire service’s 2013 Final Four coverage and was a key editor at the World Cup in South Africa, and at the Summer Olympics in Sydney and Athens.
Reporters and projects under Affleck’s direct supervision have been honored in dozens of regional and national contests, and have earned awards from a wide array of groups, including the nation’s education writers, religion reporters and the lesbian and gay journalists association. Work under his guidance has captured the AP’s top internal prizes for news enterprise, sports enterprise and sports features.
Affleck began his AP career in Albany, N.Y., cranking out leads on college football and basketball as well as minor league hockey and baseball from his slot on the night desk. He later reported from the state Capitol and then ran the offices in Buffalo, N.Y., and Cleveland before moving to the organization’s main office in New York. He brings an appreciation of journalism fundamentals and an understanding of the need for innovation in the changing multimedia journalism environment to his position.
Affleck grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and has been a competitive runner for most of his life, once finishing in the Top 500 at the Boston Marathon. He was ranked nationally as a master’s competitor by USATF in four events (800 meters, 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters and the mile) as recently as 2005. He is married to Jessica Ancker, an associate professor at the Center for Healthcare Informatics and Policy at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.