Jim O’Brien: ‘Immaculate Reception’ was a lifesaver for Pittsburgh video photographer
Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien
The Immaculate Reception was a lifesaver for the Steelers in the 1972 AFC playoffs, but it was really a lifesaver for video photographer Les Banos.
The 2012 season marks the 40th anniversary of the amazing catch and run by Franco Harris of a pass from Terry Bradshaw that caromed off the colliding bodies of both Steelers’ running back Frenchy Fuqua and Oakland Raiders’ defensive back Jack Tatum.
You are going to see that historic sequence – voted the No. 1 play in NFL history even though it was a broken play and then some – this fall when the Steelers promote their 80th anniversary of the team’s founding by Art Rooney Sr. and the 40th anniversary of “The Immaculate Reception.”
In Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico, this year is also the 40th anniversary of the death of Roberto Clemente. He was killed in an air crash on New Year’s Eve, 1972, as he was accompanying a cargo of relief goods from his native Puerto Rico to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.
Les Banos was supposed to be on that airplane. He had promised his good friend Roberto Clemente that he would accompany him on the flight to photograph the event.
Banos was a video photographer for both WQED and WTAE in his long professional career, and he did stints as a photographer for the Pirates, Steelers, Penguins and the University of Pittsburgh department of athletics.
He also filmed games of the Pittsburgh Valley Ironmen of the Atlantic Coast Pro Football League, a minor league team that played its home games in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. They were preceded by another semi-pro team known as the Duquesne Ironmen.
I know the latter first-hand because I was the publicity director of the Ironmen during my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, in 1963, and again the following season before I was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Banos and I used to get together on Sunday afternoons, the day after the Ironmen games, to edit some highlights that would be used on Pittsburgh TV on Sunday evenings. We both liked to talk, so it took us longer than it should have to do that task.
Later, in the mid-80s, I worked again with Banos at Pitt. He and I and Pat Hanlon, my assistant, joined with Banos and others at WTAE to put together a highlight film on Pitt football. Banos went to pre-season camp with the Panthers at EdinboroUniversity. Hanlon, by the way, is now the vice-president for communications for the New York Giants Football Team, and a real success story.
Hanlon worked with Joe Gordon and Dan Edwards with the Steelers’ publicity office. Hanlon had a great time exchanging barbs with Les Banos.
Banos loved to tell stories, and he had some good ones. He told us, of course, how the Immaculate Reception saved his life. He told us about his days in his native Hungary when he was a spy who infiltrated the Nazi regime, and managed to save many Jews from the death camps in Poland.
Pat Hanlon and I used to tell people in jest that Banos had been Adolph Eichmann’s chauffeur. Eichmann, of course, was the Nazi general who oversaw the concentration camps and was brought to justice as one of the central figures and criminals by the Nuremberg Trials. It wasn’t politically-correct humor, no doubt.
Banos was born in Hungary, but he had some Jewish bloodlines, and he was always an enterprising fellow. He was short in stature, about the same size as Myron Cope, maybe 5-5 or 5-6 at best. Like Cope, he puffed up his chest and came at you like a bantam rooster. He talked with a heavy accent.
Les liked it when I told him I had played for a team called the Hungarians in the Hazelwood Little League, and that there was a Hungarian social club in my hometown. It closed a couple of months back and was the only ethnic or service club remaining in the community.
I also told him I remembered that in the mid-50s there were a lot of Hungarians who left their home country, then under siege by the Russians, and relocated in our community. There was a sandlot soccer team in Hazelwood that had all Hungarian players.
A weekly newspaper called Magyarsag was printed a block from my home by a Hungarian ex-patriot named Eugene Zebedinsky. His son was a classmate of mine in high school.
Cope, by the way, was the one who popularized the phrase “The Immaculate Reception.” One of the callers on his popular sports talk show suggested the name. Cope checked with his Catholic friends to make sure no one would be offended by the phrase, and went with it.
Cope’s other creation, of course, was “The Terrible Towel.”
Like Cope, Banos was fun to be around. I recall being in Montreal with him at a sidewalk café, enjoying some wine and food when we were there in 1967 to chronicle the entry of the Pittsburgh Penguins into the National Hockey League. Banos picked up a check, unusual for any member of the media, and did a double take when he saw the high tariff on the bill.
Banos was the only one in our party who could speak and understand some French, which is always good in the bilingual community of Montreal. It didn’t help him to get out of paying the steep bill. His brown eyes bulged at the numbers on that bill. I think the waitress brought us a bottle of champagne by mistake…maybe by mistake.
Banos befriended many of the athletes he covered in his duties as a TV cameraman. Franco Harris was one of them. Roberto Clemente was another.
When Banos died at the age of 86 on April 22, 2012 it brought back memories of this little man with the big heart and such wonderful stories.
“It is significant that he passed our way,” said Harris at the HeinzHistoryCenter, where Banos had appeared the previous holiday season with a collection of his photos of Clemente. There are 50 of these photos on display in the RobertoClementeMuseum in lower Lawrenceville.
“It is amazing what Les accomplished when you look at his history and have seen his photos,” added Harris. “He was a great guy, always enjoyable, a kind and gentle man. You never would have expected what he went through by how kind and gentle he was.”
Banos addressed everybody as “Mister,” and he liked to get up under your chin like an undersized boxer, again like Myron Cope, and tell you his stories. Banos was a dapper dresser.
Banos was busy filming the Steelers’ game against the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium on December 23, 1972. When the Steelers won that game, 13-7, on Franco’s frantic catch-and-run with a deflected ball he picked off his shoe-tops for the game-winning touchdown.
It meant the Steelers would be playing another game the following weekend, on December 31, 1972, a day that will live in infamy in Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico. The Steelers lost that one, by 21-17, to the Miami Dolphins, victimized by a fake punt by Larry Seiple of the Dolphins that was a game-changer.
So Banos had to stay back in Pittsburgh to work that game for WTAE-TV instead of accompanying Clemente on his mercy mission to Nicaragua. It ended the life of Clemente, all too early, and gave Banos a bonus 40 years.
Pittsburgh sports fans were disappointed, of course, by the defeat suffered at the hands of the Dolphins, but they were far more shocked by Clemente’s death. Fans over 50, and some as young as 45 or 46, can tell you where they were that New Year’s Day when they were the news. What a way to start a year.
If you go to a Pirates’ game at PNC Park these days you might be surprised to see how many fans still wear Clemente’s name and number (21) on their backs to the ballgames. Andrew McCutcheon and Neil Walker are the two most favorite uniforms, with Clemente a close third.
There’s a statue and bridge outside PNCPark to memorialize the man from San Juan who came to our city and set new standards for a baseball player, on the field and off the field. Young fans are fascinated by his story and the way he died, trying to help his fellow Latin Americans when they were in trouble.
It’s a shame more of them didn’t hear those stories as told by Les Banos.
Pittsburgh author Jim O’Brien is working on a book called Immaculate Reflections, which will be out in late October. His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com