The Journalist and the Jock: A Football Fan Grows Up

Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper , by Stephen J. Dubner. William Morrow, 261 pages, $24.95.

Where were you on Dec. 23, 1972? Stephen Dubner and I were both watching the A.F.C. divisional playoffs on WRGB-NBC. He was in upstate New York, I was in western Massachusetts. His TV was small and black-and-white; mine was small and color. He was 9 and I was 13. He was rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers, I was rooting for the Oakland Raiders-I liked Kenny (the Snake) Stabler and the tiny, nimble Fred Biletnikoff. The game was tight, a defensive battle-not ideal for young boys-but it was capped off by perhaps the strangest, most memorable play in the history of pro football: the “Immaculate Reception,” a freaky, last-second, game-winning touchdown that sent the Steelers to the A.F.C. championship and turned Stephen Dubner into a hero-worshipper. (As for me, it confirmed my budding teenage suspicion that the world was random and absurd.)

Mr. Dubner’s rich description of the Immaculate Reception, which began as a desperation pass from the Steelers’ quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, and unfurled in a manner that “would have confused even Pythagoras,” is worth quoting in its entirety: “The ball zipped downfield where it, one Steeler and one Raider met with great force. Neither man, however, came close to catching the ball. It ricocheted free, seemingly destined to land on the turf and kill the Steelers’ season. But the ball, instead of falling to the ground, had somehow remained aloft and now traveled in a wobbly arc back towards the line of scrimmage. Suddenly Franco Harris arrived at full gallop and, cradling his hands as if to rescue a baby tossed from a burning tenement, caught the ball at his shoetops. Never losing stride, he headed for the end zone, shoulders rising and falling in grand fashion, arms and legs pumping fluidly, a Giacometti come to life.” You can probably guess two things from the style of the telling: that Franco Harris was about to become an important factor in young Stephen Dubner’s imaginative life (rescuing babies from burning buildings! Running like a statue come to life, a male Galatea!), and that when he grew up, Mr. Dubner became a magazine writer. (Extra points if you spotted the signature tics of The New York Times Magazine : here a pulp metaphor, there a highbrow flourish.) (As for me, I became a critic.)

Franco Harris, a rookie in 1972, became a hero to all of Pittsburgh, a town in desperate need, and to Stephen Dubner, a boy in desperate need. Nearly a year to the day after the Immaculate Reception, Mr. Dubner’s father died, leaving behind his wife, eight children and no money. Stephen, the youngest Dubner, began having a recurring dream about Mr. Harris. He became infatuated. He cataloged the things he and his hero had in common. He tried unsuccessfully to change his name to Franco Dubner. He worshipped-but not, Mr. Dubner insists, because of his hero’s prowess on the football field: “I didn’t worship him for what he did; I worshiped him for who he was.”

And who was he, this Immaculate Receiver? A wonderful running back-big but delicate, known for skipping out of bounds to avoid a tackle-and a good man, too. Mr. Dubner writes, “He was, in jock parlance, ‘a real class act.'” The son of a black G.I. and his Italian bride, young Franco grew up in New Jersey (nine children in the family), showed exceptional promise at Penn State under Joe Paterno, played brilliantly for the Steelers during their decade of glory, and retired well before he became a superannuated embarrassment. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. Post-football, he stayed on in Pittsburgh, became a businessman and did nothing to besmirch his reputation as a nice, gentle guy.

And young Stephen Dubner grew up and went to college and forgot about Franco Harris, became a journalist and wrote a book (about how his Catholic parents were actually Jews who converted), and was walking through Times Square (on his way to his job at The New York Times Magazine ) when he saw a photo of Mr. Harris on the cover of Black Enterprise magazine and bam!-the memory of all his youthful hero worship (Franco Dubner!) came flooding back and there it was, all but written, his second book. “I’m interested,” he told Mr. Harris within hours of tracking him down, “in the relationship between a hero and a hero-worshiper.”

It’s perfectly fine, this second book-vivid, cheerful, amusing, only intermittently disturbing and never taxing. There’s a feel-good storyline of the healing-journey variety about Mr. Dubner finding himself (his wife has a baby, which makes him a dad), and also a more interesting dark undertow: Mr. Dubner’s avid pursuit of his subject is even creepier than he admits (one chapter is called “I Am Not a Stalker”-but he comes awfully close). The fact that Mr. Harris is amiable and decent -about as un-heroic as a meatloaf sandwich-makes for some fine understated comedy.

No, Stephen Dubner is not a stalker. He’s something far more dangerous: a journalist. Mr. Harris, though guileless, wasn’t fooled for a moment by Mr. Dubner’s ardent advances and kept him at a cool distance. True to form, he skipped out of bounds. Professional athletes find out all about journalism the moment they achieve any degree of fame, and at the end of his rookie year, Franco Harris was already a legend. By the time Stephen Dubner came knocking, 30 years after that first media blitz, Mr. Harris could surely have formulated for himself the immortal Janet Malcolm dictum: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” The journalist’s agenda will mesh with his subject’s only by the wildest coincidence. As it happens, Mr. Dubner’s motives, though inevitably self-serving were almost wholly benign. In the end, his victim got off easy: Why should Franco Harris, a Pittsburgh businessman in his 50’s, object to the world being told that he’s really just a good guy?

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.