In the space of 40 years, infants have grown to become Watergate plotters, beauty queens have been retired to nursing homes, and Norman Thomas has become for many a name they might identify as that of a San Diego Padres first baseman. So 40 years is a long time, and unless you were one of us—that is to say, a part or partisan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who after four desolate decades in the NFL won their first divisional title—you cannot possibly know the sweetness. Sweetness, did I say? More, it was the tie plus ultra of fruition when, as if to compensate for the lost years, everything fell into place. Even Sinatra came around, and I shall begin by telling you about him in the event there exists any doubt that to get hot after 40 years is to be hot.
It is December 1972. We are in Palm Springs (I as the color man for Steeler radio broadcasts) to acclimate ourselves for the upcoming title-clinching game in San Diego. Dinner the second evening is at Lord Fletcher's, well out beyond Frank Sinatra Drive. Over cocktails I say to traveling secretary Buff Boston, "I'm giving up on the Sinatra project. I've had it." During our short stay, at least six local Italians have represented themselves to me as Sinatra's No. 1 comp�re and guaranteed to put him in touch with me at once. "All phonies," I say. "I'm not wasting any more of my time."
"Waste a little more," says Boston, who is facing the front door. "There's your man."
In the flesh, to be sure. He goes to a table in an adjoining room, followed by a toothsome girl, Leo Durocher and Ken Venturi. I write a note on a napkin:
We are press and front-office bums-traveling with the Steelers. We do not wish to disturb your dinner except to say this: Franco Harris, who as you probably know is a cinch for Rookie of the Year, has a fan club called Franco's Italian Army. Franco is half-black, half-Italian. So a baker named Tony Stagno started Franco's Italian Army and is its four-star general. The Army hopes you will come out to practice tomorrow to be commissioned a one-star general. There will, of course, be an appropriate ceremony in which you will be given a general's battle helmet, and there will be ritual dago red and provolone cheese and prosciutto, and there will be much Italian hugging and kissing.
And then, reaching back to Sinatra's origins, I tell a small lie: "P.S. Franco's from Hoboken."
He's really from Mt. Holly, N.J., but my artful approach—supported, in retrospect, by the fact that Quarterback Terry Bradshaw has a dislocated finger and Sinatra the earmarks of a man who bets football—does the trick. His first words, after making a beeline to our table, are, "How's the quarterback's finger?"
In Pittsburgh, Four-Star General Stagno, summoned by my urgent phone call, tumbles out of bed to learn that Sinatra has agreed—"groovy" is the way he put it—to present himself approximately 15 hours hence. Never in his 34 years has Tony Stagno been able to screw up the courage to board an airplane, but within the hour he and Three-Star General Al Vento are talking to an airline clerk. "Economy or first class?" asks the clerk. Tony replies, "Always the Italian Army travels first class." With that, the two generals peel off close to $400 apiece for round-trip tickets that will land them in Palm Springs at two p.m. and six hours later fly them out to their bakery and pizza establishments in Pittsburgh.
So right there along the sideline at practice, with Italian flags flying, the whole thing comes off—the wine, the cheese, the embracing and kissing, the cries of comp�re. Franco Harris stands there beaming, the first player in the history of the league to drink during practice. Sinatra, after giving his ear the familiar tug and saying "Groovy, groovy," inquires of Franco, "How's the quarterback's finger?"