For many like myself who grew up with Pittsburgh Steelers football, the recent death of our beloved Franco Harris hits even harder than a Jack Lambert tackle. More than anything else, Franco was the chief ambassador for the Steelers brand. His face was instantly recognized around the world. His kindness and decency mirrored the values practiced by the Rooney family across generations of team ownership.
I was lucky enough to meet Franco and several of his teammates during the mid-1970s when Steelers players hosted regular Monday Night Football gatherings at the old, Redwood Motel on Banksville Road in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. Kind, modest and determined, Franco was exactly the kind of person described these days by those who knew him best.
For long-in-the-tooth contemporaries of the ‘70s Super Steelers such as myself, Franco’s death initially is a sober reminder of our own mortality and the fleeting passage of time. In our mind’s eye, we replay every great moment of No. 32’s career. This recalls, not only what happened on the gridiron, but also how Steelers football has served as one of the main soundtracks to our lives. We remember where we were and what was happening while Franco was leading the Steelers offense to four Super Bowl victories. His heroics on the gridiron are the milestones for cherished, personal experiences and events.
Coming as it has during the Christmas season and nearing the end of a tough year for the Black-and-gold, the symbolism inherent to Franco’s death is difficult to escape. As much as any other fabled player, Franco was responsible for putting the Pittsburgh Steelers on the NFL map. His Immaculate Reception served as the first universal declaration that the Steelers were standing on the threshold of becoming a league powerhouse.
But in 1972, the Steelers were still a young team transitioning to the greatness that followed. It’s a profile not far removed from that of the 2022 Steelers. That’s why Franco’s legacy can be an important source of inspiration and unity for today’s team. By recalling his humility, determination and quiet competence, today’s Steelers have the perfect model of what a champion is all about. It’s a model which certainly was personified by Jerome Bettis during his outstanding career as a Steelers RB. And today, indications are that the young phenom Najee Harris is cut in a similar mold.
Today as in Franco’s heyday, the Steelers possess the most loyal and dedicated fanbase in pro sports history. It’s a rock-solid legion that consistently upstages fans of other NFL teams in their own home stadiums. Steelers Nation remains an invaluable, motivational resource for today’s team.
By defining the true meaning of The Standard, Franco leaves us with a clear roadmap for success both in football and life. The tragedy of losing Franco presents an occasion for the entire Steelers organization and Steelers Nation to cut through the noise and refocus on the things that truly matter. It also reminds doubters that this organization still possesses the management, history and continuity to excel. Like Franco and the 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers, the future remains ours for the taking as long as we’re willing to pay the price of excellence.