In news that is as shocking as it is saddening, Pittsburgh Steelers legend and Hall of Famer Franco Harris has passed away. His death came just two days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and 3 days before the Steelers were to retire his number.
Franco Harris will be only the third Steeler to have his jersey retired, joining defensive stalwarts Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene. When the Steelers retired Joe Greene’s number in 2014, Steel Curtain Rising titled our tribute to him, “Joe Greene – Portrait of a Pittsburgh Steeler” as in, if you want to see what a perfect Pittsburgh Steeler is, look to Joe Greene.
The same can be said of Franco Harris – as a player, as a teammate, as a pillar of the Pittsburgh community and a global ambassador of Steelers Nation. Below we show why.
Getting to Know Franco
My “football awareness” as a Generation X Steelers fan coincided precisely with the Super Steelers wins in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV. As shared here before, the kids on Wendy Lane played “Super Steelers” giving members of the squad superhero powers.
- Mean Joe Greene had super strength and could turn himself into a giant.
- Lynn Swann had super speed, like the Flash.
- Jack Lambert was basically Black and Gold Incredible Hulk missing his front teeth.
- Terry Bradshaw could throw bombs.
- Chuck Noll played a Professor Xavier like role
As for Franco Harris? Franco could run through walls.
My first real “encounter” with Franco Harris (I was only just realizing his name wasn’t Frank O’Harris) was through a Scholastic booked titled 13 All Pro Running Backs. Franco was on the cover, I saw it at the Harmony Hill’s Elementary School book fair, and it was mine.
I don’t remember much about the book, other than this was where I learned what the word “drive” meant in a football context.
Learning about Franco
Although I knew enough about Franco Harris for him to form part of the “Wendy Lane Steelers Super Heroes” group, I have to honestly say I don’t have any memories of seeing him play.
- Yes, I certainly watched games where he played.
But unlike Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann or John Stallworth, I can’t say that I remember seeing him play in real time. Those lessons would come later, and 3 key plays Franco appreciate his greatness on the field even more.
“Don’t Over Coach Him”
As everyone knows, Chuck Noll did not want to draft Franco Harris. Art Rooney Jr. did. Art Jr. had to resort to calling George Young to convince Noll to pick Harris. Noll picked him, and then turned to Rooney and said, “You’d better be right.”
Early on, skepticism seemed justified. Franco came to training camp late, and as Jim Wexell reports, Rocky Bleier thought he was “Lazy” while Ray Mansfield “didn’t think he could make the team.”
Offensive backfield coach Dick Hoak related to Wexell, “I’m spending time with him and boy he doesn’t look very good those first few weeks. We’re all wondering, what the heck?”
The first preseason game came, against Atlanta. The play was supposed to be off tackle, but when the blocking collapsed Franco cut back and ripped off a 76 yard touchdown.
Chuck Noll approached Dick Hoak with a simple instruction, “Don’t over coach him.”
The Immaculate Reception
You can read my reflection on the Immaculate Reception here. When asked about the play immediately after the game, Franco Harris shrugged it off, insisting he was in the right place at the right time.
- But there’s a reason why.
As Chuck Noll explained, Franco was able to make that play because he “Hustled on every play.”
“Give Me the Ball.”
The Steelers-Cowboys rivalry of the 70’s may not have achieved the critical mass that the Yankees-Dodgers reached before it or that the Celtics-Lakers achieved after it, but it was the key sports rivalry of the 70’s.
- Two of its most colorful characters were Thomas Henderson and Terry Bradshaw.
“Hollywood” Henderson insulted Bradshaw, insisting the Blond Bomber couldn’t spell “cat” if you give him the “c” and the “t.” He backed up his trash talk with a late hit on Bradshaw. In the huddle, a furious Franco Harris commanded, “Give me the ball.”
Even though it was 3rd and 9, Bradshaw complied.
- Franco ran 22 yards for a touchdown.
There’s your recipe for an NFL Hall of Famer: An instinctual player, dedicated to maximizing his God-given talent, who is loyal to his teammates and delivers a big play when the game is on the line.
Franco Harris: Steelers Nation’s First Citizen & Spreader of the Faith
Franco Harris’ football resume is enough to earn him the honor of having his number retired. But what really made Franco special was his work off the field. As Tony Defeo argues, Franco Harris embraced his “Italian Army” which helped give rise to Steelers Nation.
But what most people don’t know, is that Franco remained close with the Army’s founder Al Vento and his family for the rest of his life.
Franco Harris was active in the Greater Pittsburgh Community. His efforts on behalf of charities, foundations and other civic organizations are too numerous to try to list here. And he was committed to social justice.
As Dan Rooney related in his autobiography, the Pittsburgh police contacted Franco who was planning a sit-in in protest of a Ku Klux Klan rally. Both the police and Rooney feared for Franco’s safety. Rooney talked Franco into joining a counter, peaceful protest, that far outnumbered the Klan that day.
- Through it all, Franco Harris maintained his humility.
As former ABC Radio Executive Mike Silverstein recounted, when Franco arrived in Pittsburgh, he took the “71 Negley bus from his place in the Friendship/Garfield neighborhood for the first seven weeks of the regular season.”
Can you imagine, even in 1972, any other NFL first round draft pick taking the bus to work?
But, as the sign that hung in Coach Eric Taylor’s locker room reminded us on Friday Night Lights, “Character is what you do when no one else is looking.”
- In reality, Franco passed fictional coach Taylor’s test time-and-time again.
During the height of the Iraq War, a story circulated on the internet of a solider meeting Franco at the airport, asking for a picture. Franco asked where he was going. “Iraq via Atlanta” the Hall of Famer was told. Franco wished him luck.
When the solider arrived at the gate, he found out that he’d been upgraded to first class and seated next to Harris for his trip to Atlanta.
- That’s just who Franco Harris was.
I know, because something similar happened to a friend of mine. I met Mateo Labriola (he insists there’s no relation to Bob, but we don’t quite believe him) when he started a Steelers Argentina Twitter account. Through the years we became friends, and have watched a few games together (including the 2015 playoff win over Cincinnati.)
In 2017 Mateo and his mother traveled to the US to see the Steelers play the Bengals in Cincinnati (the game where Shazier’s career ended) and the Ravens in Pittsburgh. They stopped at Canton, Ohio and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Franco Harris happened to be at an event in Canton that day. Mateo approached the organizers saying, “Hey, I’ve come all the way from Argentina. I’m a Steelers fan. Is it possible to meet Franco Harris in person?”
He was told to wait. Franco sure enough came out, met Mateo and took a picture with him.
- You can imagine this happening with any number of sports figures, but not what comes next.
Franco asked him if he was going to the game in Pittsburgh that coming week. Mateo said yes, he had tickets, but his mother didn’t. Franco solved that problem for him, by inviting them both to see the game from his Luxury box at Heinz Field!
Not only did he do that for two strangers from Argentina, Franco drove in his own car to Mateo’s hotel, and personally dropped off the tickets at the hotel, stopping to take pictures with everyone in the lobby. Franco’s son insisted on not letting them pay for any food or drink during the event (and as someone who has organized corporate events at stadiums, I can assure you luxury box food prices are anything but cheap.)
- That is what Franco Harris did while no one was looking.
Franco Harris was a great player. As Joe Greene, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II observed, the Steelers never won anything before Franco Harris arrived, never suffered a losing season while he wore the Black and Gold, and have had a lot more difficulty winning since he left.
- But as the stories here show, Franco Harris was an ever greater person than he was a player.
Steelers Nation hasn’t just lost one of his greatest Hall of Famers, it has lost perhaps its greatest ambassador.
Rest in Peace Franco Harris, our thoughts and prayers are with you, your wife Dana and his son Dok.