Gold Jacket Spotlight: Franco Harris, ‘Mr. Pittsburgh’

“We thought maybe we had a dud.”

In hindsight, that statement, uttered by Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regarding Franco Harris during the early days of Steelers training camp in 1972, might make the list for all-time questionable observations in the National Football League. 

Hoak’s outlook on the rookie brightened shortly thereafter. Franco broke loose for a 76-yard touchdown in an exhibition game against Atlanta.

Thus began Franco’s NFL and Hall of Fame (Class of 1990) career, featured this week’s in the Gold Jacket Spotlight.

A New Jersey native, Franco graduated from Rancocas Valley Regional High School prior to enrolling at Penn State University. He shared the backfield there with fellow New Jerseyan and future NFL player Lydell Mitchell.

In preparation for the 1972 NFL Draft, the Steelers listed cornerback Willie Buchanon of San Diego State as their top choice. Steelers personnel debated over whom to select if Buchanon was off the board prior to their No. 13 pick. (The Green Bay Packers selected Buchanon with the seventh overall pick).

The debate centered around selecting either 5-foot-10 Robert Newhouse from the University of Houston, or the 6-foot-2 Franco. There was division among the scouts, head coach and ownership.

Art Rooney Jr. was adamant he wanted Franco to be the player chosen and was influenced by this advice from George Young, then a Colts scout and a future New York Giants general manager and Pro Football Hall of Famer (Class of 2020): “That question was settled over 2,000 years ago when Socrates said, ‘A good big man is better than a good little man any day.’”

“The thing that really put us over the top, was Franco Harris,” Steelers teammate Joe Greene told Joe Horrigan, senior advisor at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in a 2018 interview.

While Franco would have preferred to be drafted by several other teams, based on locale and franchise success, he was determined to become part of the fabric of the community regardless, saying, “Wherever I go to play, I want to live in that city and get involved in that city, become that city,” as noted in Gary M. Pomerantz’s book “Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now.”

Indeed, Franco accomplished each of those objectives in Pittsburgh. Greene later would refer to Franco as “Mr. Pittsburgh.”

Support from the fan base was reciprocal, ignited by “Franco’s Italian Army,” a group led by local “pizza man” Al Vento. Franco and Vento would remain longtime friends.

And then “it” happened.

On Dec. 23, 1972, the Steelers hosted the Oakland Raiders in Pittsburgh’s first playoff game in a quarter-century.

With the Steelers trailing 7-6 and 1:13 remaining in the final quarter, Terry Bradshaw threw three consecutive incompletions. Pittsburgh faced a fourth-and-10 situation with 0:22 on the clock.

Bradshaw hurled a pass directed toward running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua. The ball, Fuqua and Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum all arrived at the 35-yard line at the same time, resulting in Tatum crashing into Fuqua, hitting the football and sending the ricochet toward Franco. He snared the ball inches above the turf and ran down the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown, leading to a 13-7 Steelers victory.

Pomerantz wrote that, while at Penn State, head coach Joe Paterno had implored Franco to “Go to the ball! Go to the ball!” at all times. On that December day, that well-learned lesson played historical dividends – the “The Immaculate Reception.”

In a 1990 article published in The Canton Repository, Steelers President and Hall of Famer Dan Rooney (Class of 2000) commented, “People will never have to ask what the greatest play in Steelers history is. Franco’s Immaculate Reception stands head and shoulders above all the rest. It was a miracle play that just lifted the Steelers to a new level.”

Indeed, the Steelers would not post a losing record during Franco’s 12 seasons in Pittsburgh. (He played a 13th season, in Seattle, and the Seahawks went 12-4.)

“It was, without question, my most memorable (play) ever,” declared Franco in that Repository article. “I still have people come up to me and talk about that play. They always tell me where they were when it happened.”

Franco accumulated 12,120 career rushing yards, with eight 1,000-yard seasons, along with 2,287 receiving yards and 100 total touchdowns. He appeared in four Super Bowls and was MVP of Super Bowl IX. In 1976, he was named the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year.

“A player should not be measured by statistics alone,” Franco once observed. “He should be measured by something more special, such as the sharing of teammates and fans.”

Franco certainly created something special in Pittsburgh.