The Pittsburgh Steelers fan base is likely still in a state of shock after the news of Franco Harris’ passing Wednesday. For the staff here at BTSC, we too are feeling the effects. As a part of the mourning process, we decided to give our writers the opportunity to tell a story, or just give their thoughts, about Franco Harris the player and man.
Below is where you’ll find those thoughts, and we encourage any of you reading this to include your own in the comment section below the article.
I can still recall the first time I saw Franco Harris highlights on television. I saw this giant of a man who never looked all that fast, yet was able to out-run the majority of the defense. He didn’t just have a different look about him, but also the way he approached the position. This wasn’t the same type of runner which I saw in my youth. Runners like Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith of the 80s.
Although he may have done it different than most, I can still recall reading people criticize him for running out of bounds and not taking the punishment of unnecessary hits, Franco was liked by everyone. It didn’t matter who you talk to, or their age, they loved “Franco”.
The Italian Army, rubbing shoulders with Frank Sinatra, or just being the young rookie who didn’t just steal fans’ hearts with the Immaculate Reception, but played his way to Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl IX. Throw in the fact whenever I flew out of Pittsburgh International Airport I walked by Harris’ Immaculate Reception statue, and you knew he was larger than life.
His number deserves to be retired, only the 3rd in team history, and he deserves to be there to see it happen. The fates had different plans, but when it comes to being a Steelers legend, Harris doesn’t need a special ceremony for that — he’s been doing it since 1972.
The news of Franco’s passing hit me hard. He was a South Jersey guy, like I am, and the South Jersey football community is a tight one. I had the opportunity to meet him several times at various football banquets, golf outings and functions. He was always gracious with his time and considerate to anyone who wanted to speak with him. When people say, “That guy is a class act,” the epitome was Franco.
My best memory of Franco Harris was from my childhood. I went to a football camp when I was in 6th grade at Fairfield University in Connecticut. It was called “Offense-Defense” camp. Fortunately, the quality of the instruction was a lot better than the creativity of its name. This was around 1982, and the camp was staffed by some of the bigger name players in the league at the time. There were a couple of Oakland Raiders there — tight end Dave Casper and defensive back Burgess Owens — a pair of Philadelphia Eagles — running back Wilbert Montgomery and linebacker Jerry Robinson — and a bunch of NFL coaches.
Franco was there, too. I had tried to get into the camp that ran a week earlier and was headlined by Jack Lambert, but that one filled up before I could register. Franco was a great consolation prize. I was fortunate enough to be placed into his group, and he ran the offensive drills with us all week. Franco couldn’t have been nicer. He was funny, supportive, smiling all the time. The last day of camp we had a scrimmage against another team of campers. Franco and Tom Moore, who was the Steelers wide receivers coach at the time, were our coaches. I was playing running back. I’ll never forget Franco teaching me how to dip my shoulder into contact in a way that would allow me to bounce off the tackle and keep defenders from getting in to my legs. I did it on one run and he high-fived me on the way back to the huddle. As a 12-year old, that was about as cool as life could be.
Losing Franco Harris is a reminder that the Team of the 70s which spawned so many Steelers’ fans like myself won’t be with us much longer. We should appreciate these heroes while we can. R.I.P., Franco. The impact you had was greater than you know.
I don’t have a personal story of interaction with Franco, or a sweeping take about who he was as a person or player. All I know is a 90s kid born to a Pittsburgh native was enamored by the slow-motion highlight videos of a ‘70s Powerhouse dynasty filled with high-flying catches on 60-yard bombs, bone-crushing hits, and long leg-churning, arm-swinging TD runs by this larger-than-life superhero wearing 32. I was hooked.
In middle-school, I started my football, um, “career” playing Midget Football and I knew I wanted to be a running back. When I lined up in front of that rack of jersey numbers for the first time, I immediately reached for 32. I was gonna be the next Franco. He’s a big reason I’m the football-loving Steelers fanatic I am today.
I’m not old enough to have watched Franco Harris play, I was 4 years old when he played his last game as a Steeler. I saw Franco Harris one time in person, it was after Super Bowl XL, my wife and I had flown in from Chicago for my birthday and rescheduled my flight back so I could stay and watch the Super Bowl in Pittsburgh. On my way through the airport to head back to Chicago Franco was coming through, having returned from Detroit. He made time for fans that were yelling at him, asking for pictures and wanting to talk about the Steelers finally getting the “one for the thumb”.
It wasn’t a big deal, but his accessibility, his willingness to make time for people struck me. As has the way his teammates and later running backs have talked about him. He’s a person who left an impact on everyone he met, whether a teammate for years or for a passing moment in the Pittsburgh International Airport. Rest in Peace Franco, and Thank You.
We preach our own funeral by the life we live. Franco Harris lived a remarkable life, positively impacting every individual fortunate enough to make his acquaintance, and leaves behind an incredible legacy.
Who would the Pittsburgh Steelers be today without Franco Harris? Franco orchestrated the greatest play in NFL history, the Immaculate Reception. That single play forever changed the fortunes of a franchise renowned for their losing tendencies before that fateful play.
Franco Harris will forever be a Steelers legend for all of his accomplishments on the field, and for being an amazing ambassador for the franchise throughout his life off the field. Congratulations on an amazing life lived to it's fullest. Well done. Prayers for those left behind.
Bryan Anthony Davis
When the schedule came out last Spring and the Raiders were on the schedule in prime time on Christmas Eve, I was less than pleased, My thought was that Christmas is a time for family. But as it approached, I started to warm to it because Steeler Nation is absolutely family, and the thought of Franco Harris being there and being honored was so special to me. You see, when a kid was growing up in Johnstown, PA in the 1970s and 1980s, you had many cool uncles and they all wore black and gold either for the Steelers, Pirates or to a lesser extent than it is now, the Penguins. These guys were larger than life to me and you had so many different options and personalities to choose from as your favorite. I had and will always have a hard time picking favorites. I loved them all. But Franco and Terry Bradshaw were always tops in conversation for this eight-year-old because they were the poster guys. I had t-shirts, the Hills Department Store No. 32 jersey, Topps cards and posters. Why? Because Franco wasn’t just a player, he was the face of a dream for a city that needed uplifting. And he was the one to do said uplifting. I feel like a major part of my childhood died on this day. But I know that my love for the Steelers is largely due to No. 32 for heroics as a player and a community stalwart. R.I.P. Franco.
Rich Schofield (Big Bro Scho)
Like most of you I woke up this morning and was hit with the news that Franco Harris had passed. I was with my son Kyle in our dentists office for 8:00AM appointments, when we saw the news flash up on KDKA news on the TV in the waiting area. We both sat there stunned for a minute and then we were like “No, it’s bad enough he’s gone, but not right before the 50th anniversary celebration of the Immaculate Reception, and right before the Steelers retire his number”.
This becomes a sad time for the city of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Steelers and for Steeler Nation. Not only have we lost one of the all-time great football players, but one of the all-time great people. I am not sure how things will play out now on Saturday night in terms of the anniversary celebration, but I have a feeling that things will turn into a tribute to Franco Harris the man as well. I figured that the Raiders were not looking forward to the frigid temperatures forecasted for Pittsburgh, while also having the Immaculate Reception thrown in their face, now add in Franco’s passing and if I were the Raiders I would not come anywhere near the city of Pittsburgh.
I’d like to say “Thank You” to Franco Harris. I was lucky enough to see you play live. On December 26, 1982 I attended my first Steeler game with my dad and one of his friends from work. I was 8 years old at the time, but can still remember so many things about that day. I remember hearing Blondies “The Tide is High” on the radio before we even got out of Maryland, I remember getting drive thru at a 50’s style McDonalds on Rt 51, I remember sitting next to someone who knew the person we got out tickets from (four rows back, 50-yard line behind the visitors bench), he kept giving me chocolate chip cookies and he also had a few too many Iron Cities. John Stallworth caught a TD from Bradshaw, Franco had a great game (23 carries, 101 yards), but didn’t get in the end zone as the Steelers got scores on the ground from the “youngsters” Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie.
I will always remember Franco, especially at this time of year. I can never hear the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” without hearing the Steelers 12 Days of Christmas. Five golden rings will forever be changed in my mind to “Franco Harris’s Moves”. Rest well Franco. You will forever be remembered in the hearts of Steeler fans everywhere.
2,949: That’s the number that always stands out when talking about the legendary Franco Harris. This was the number of rushing attempts the First Ballot Hall of Fame running back had during his stellar career. Harris retired with the most rushing attempts in NFL history up to that point. If you want an example of what Harris meant to those 1970s Steelers teams and their identity and philosophy, that’s the best one I can possibly think of. Chuck Noll wanted to run the ball and win games that way, and he wanted to do this at a time in the NFL—even after the league started to open things up in the late-’70s—when running the football was the way EVERYONE wanted to have success. Noll luckily had a workhorse to carry out his wishes, someone that also retired with the most thousand-yard seasons in NFL history up to that point (eight), as he bested the great Jim Brown in that category in his last regular-season game as a Steeler in 1983. Furthermore, Harris nearly caught Brown in what was the holy grail of NFL records in those days: Career rushing yards. Harris was as good a player at his position as any of the greats to have ever played for the Steelers were at theirs, and that’s saying a whole lot. Harris was also a big game back, and someone to count on in the postseason. Harris STILL ranks second all-time in career postseason rushing yards with 1,556. Harris, who ran for a record 158 yards and was named MVP for the game, scored the first Super Bowl touchdown in team history against the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. Harris clinched the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XIV against the Rams. Harris was a great ambassador and the star of the greatest play in Steelers and NFL history. But he was also one of the greatest running backs to ever play professional football. R.I.P. Franco.
As my colleagues have expressed, it’s impossible to tell the story of the Steelers or the broader NFL without Franco Harris. Though his playing days were well before I was born, it has simply been an honor to relive and learn about the 1970s in which Harris propelled the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles. To hold the franchise rushing record for an organization that had star ‘backs in Jerome Bettis, Barry Foster, Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and more is nothing to scoff at.
What strikes me most about Harris is how present he was in Pittsburgh and surrounding the organization despite his retirement, whether announcing the selection of Kenny Pickett this past April or volunteering at current team community events. Harris is inextricably linked to the black and gold and represents true continuity spanning generations; I’m heartbroken that he will not be able to see his jersey retired on Saturday.
In my college dorm room, a poster with the wacky play art of the Immaculate Reception hangs. Every time I look at the art, I can’t help but flash back to the zaniness of the play, yet how it encapsulates the beauty of football. That poster will certainly hold extra meaning every time I glance at it.