On terrible pantyhose, bad sports writing, and the eternal kindness of the late great Franco Harris.
By Lori Jakiela
This story involves bad pantyhose and poor sports reportage, but it also involves Franco Harris and another link on his chain of good deeds. Back in the late 1980s, I worked for Penn State—Franco Harris’s alma mater. I worked in public relations and sports information, despite knowing almost nothing about sports. My bosses were 1980s power-suit women who saw themselves as mentors for clueless marshmallow neophytes like me.
My bosses taught me a lot of hard lessons – how important it was for women to wear make-up, but not too much make-up; how essential it was for women to smile, but not smile too much. They taught me the power of shoulder pads that could double as oven mitts, the importance of learning to walk in heels that could stand in as weapons in James Bond films, and how kindness is often misunderstood as weakness.
“Ice that crap over,” my one boss said about on-the-job feelings.
“Hold the tears for people who care enough to pass the Kleenex,” my other boss said, a mantra I think she practiced in mirrors and wrote on Post-It notes she stuck to her fridge.
The 1980s were strange times. When I was hired at Penn State to do Penn State things, pantyhose were required for women. L’eggs pantyhose were favorites, in colors called Suntan and Nude. They came in plastic eggs, like every new pair was hatching something wonderful.
I forget what my bosses said about pantyhose, but it was understood that naked legs were as off-limits as feelings on the job.
One day, at a golf-outing fundraiser, I had a raging fever. I hardly ever ran a fever, so I was sure I was dying. I was sweaty and woozy and incapable of raising any funds unless the funds I was raising were for my own coffin.
This was summer, so the pantyhose I was obliged to wear stuck to my legs like a layer of wax. I plucked at them, trying to get a little air in. My bosses saw me plucking and sweating and were livid. I was an embarrassment and, possibly, a fiscal disaster.
Enter Franco Harris.
Franco – Penn State’s star running back and sweetheart. Pittsburgh Steelers’ star running back and sweetheart. He must have seen I was close to passing out. He must have seen through the smile I’d pasted on because this was my first real job, and because I wanted to be the kind of woman who was tough enough to smile but not too much, to wear make-up, but not too much, and because I very much did not want to be fired.
Franco stepped between me and one of my bosses.
He said, “Sweetheart, you don’t look so good.”
I can’t remember what I said to him. Everything is a bit fuzzy, fever and all, but kindness is its own memory, folding over an otherwise lost moment like a blanket.
Still, I remember Franco, that lovely huge man, my hometown legend. He took me by the arm, right in front of my boss, who glared but couldn’t argue.
Franco took me to a car. I think it was a nice car. Black, shiny. He put me in the backseat, where there was a cooler filled with popsicles.
Franco was in the healthy popsicle business back then. He told me to eat a popsicle. Maybe two. He told me his driver would take me home. He said not to worry. He’d smooth things over.
“Just get some rest and get better,” he said, and in my fever-frazzled memory, Franco winked.
Dear former bosses:
I think you meant well. Thank you for trying.
Even now, my mascara looks like bed bugs running a relay down my cheeks. Blush makes me look like I’ve inhaled too much helium. My lips are so thin that TikTok make-up tutorials advise sketching new lips, better lips, with lip pencils, which make me look like the Joker in Batman, but without the murderous gravitas. When I try to walk in heels, I look like Buster Keaton doing a silent-movie stunt. I haven’t worn pantyhose for a decade at least, and L’eggs come in boxes now anyway, and what fun is that?
I smile every chance I get. My laugh is loud and sounds a bit crazy, I think. I try to tell the truth because everything else is harder.
Have you read Kurt Vonnegut? I love Kurt Vonnegut, who said there’s only one rule in this life: “Be kind, babies.”
Kurt Vonnegut said people should stay soft and not let the world make them hard.
It’s good advice. I’m trying to take it.
During the years I held my Penn State job, I failed epically.
I cried once, despite not being a crier, in the office of my Penn State Sports Director, who hated me because he discovered how little I knew about sports. I tried to take stats at a basketball game. It didn’t go well.
“Useless,” the Sports Director said, and threw some stats sheets and a pen at me and my tears surprised both of us.
Before Penn State, I worked for the Erie Daily Times covering sports, but not really. My editors were my college journalism professors, kind men who thought it might be good to have a young woman covering sports.
Maybe I was a diversity hire in the newsroom, though we didn’t have that language back then. My editors were simply kind and patient people who believed in me despite evidence to the contrary.
I covered mostly human-interest stories – stories about one-armed bowling champions and blind twins who golfed. I covered stories about Kurt Angle, a local boy and champion wrestler whose story was hard to muck up. When I had to do a real sports story, I’d come to my editors with statistics I didn’t understand, and they’d explain the numbers without making me feel like the idiot I was. Then I’d go write, under deadline, pretending to know a thing about a thing I knew nothing about.
I still know little about sports, but I became a writer through the kindness and patience of others.
Like most Pittsburghers, I love the Steelers, despite my limited understanding of football. I grew up watching Franco. I loved that the Steelers won Super Bowls when Pittsburgh itself was floundering, our mills closing, so many people out of work and hope.
Franco, his toughness and talent, his kindness and patience, his humility and grace gave my city dignity. Franco’s goodness became a metaphor for the best of Pittsburgh.
“I’m forever black and gold,” Franco liked to say long after his Pittsburgh playing days were over.
“It’s not a thing of how many carries,” Franco said to reporters who asked him again and again about the Immaculate Reception, the one moment that cemented his place in history, the one miracle I watched so many times on TV that I, like millions of other Pittsburgh Steelers fans, felt like I lived it. “But were you effective when you did carry.”
I think he nearly carried me to his car that long-ago day, I was that weak and dizzy.
I got home safe. The popsicle was strawberry, I think, and it was delicious, so cold on my swollen flu-struck tongue. I went to bed and slept the rest of the day.
I didn’t get fired. My bosses never said much about it. I think they even treated me a little more gently after that, the way people might treat someone who’d been blessed by the Pope.
When I saw Franco many years later and thanked him, he didn’t remember helping me. Why would he? It was a tiny thing. A simple kindness to a clueless kid with the flu. It was, I think, just one in a string of too many kindnesses to count.
Everyone has a Franco story, it seems. Weeks after Franco’s passing, I keep reading them–all those times he took a moment to sign an autograph or pose for a picture; all the times he was gentle and patient with fans and other players; the random Franco sightings on the airport shuttle or Pittsburgh sandwich shop.
“It’s almost impossible to process that he could give so much to so many people personally,” Franco’s son, Dok Harris, told ESPN. “People have been telling me stories about how they met him some time in 1977 or 1987 or 1991. It was important to them, and it made a difference in their lives. And that’s really the beauty of my father, truly a very blessed soul who just really sought to help everybody out.”
I keep thinking of a poem by another of my beloveds, Raymond Carver. The poem is called “Late Fragment.”
It goes like this:
And did you get what you wanted
from this life even so?
And what was it you wanted?
To call myself beloved.
To feel myself
beloved on this earth.
You are beloved on this earth.
Lori Jakiela is the author of four books, including the memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (2016), which received the 2016 Saroyan Prize, was a finalist for the Council of Literary Magazines and Small Presses Firecracker Award and the Housatonic Book Award, and was named one of twenty Not-to-Miss Nonfiction Books of 2015 by The Huffington Post. She directs the undergraduate writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, where she is a professor of English and Creative/Professional Writing. Her author website is here.