Franco Harris, Class of 1990

Franco Harris, Class of 1990

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As the 1970s began, Coach Chuck Noll was slowly acquiring the players who would eventually make the Pittsburgh Steelers the dominant power of pro football. Future Pro Football Hall of Famers Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Mel Blount were budding defensive stars and Terry Bradshaw was on hand at quarterback.

But there was at least one big thing missing -- the Steelers needed a big-play running back. They found him by picking Franco Harris, a 6-2, 225-pounder from Penn State, as the 13th player selected in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft.

Harris lived up to his billing and was everything that the Steelers scouts had hoped he would be on the NFL gridiron. He had a marvelous rookie season that was just a taste of things to come in a sensational career that kept him in Pittsburgh for 12 seasons. As a team, the Steelers were almost magically transformed into a big winner, destined to become one of the truly powerful dynasties of history. They didn't have a losing record during Franco's years in Pittsburgh. They won eight AFC Central Division championships, four AFC titles and Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV.

"Franco was the guy who really lifted the Steelers to a new plateau, a level of confidence that made us believe we could win,” Greene said. "Franco did things for our offense that nobody else had done in the four or five years I had been there.”

What Harris did was provide the Steelers with a sure-fire ground attack that would be consistent year after year.

“What Joe Greene meant to our defense -- setting the tone -- that's what Franco did for our offense,” Ham declared. “The constant factor became our running game -- in bad weather, in good weather, in wind, whatever, you could always count on Harris and our running game.”

Harris's career statistics are awesome. He rushed 2,949 times for 12,120 yards and 91 touchdowns. He caught 307 passes for 2,287 yards and nine touchdowns. He held or shared 24 NFL records at the time of his retirement following one final season that saw him play eight games for the Seattle Seahawks in 1984.

Franco is one of a rare group to score 100 or more touchdowns. He also had eight 1,000-yard seasons and 47 games over 100 yards.

Franco's deeds as a Steeler guaranteed his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which came in 1990.

Although Harris had a sensational first season when he became only the fifth rookie ever to rush for 1,000 yards, there was a time during training camp and early in the season that the Steelers wondered if they had erred in drafting Harris.  The Pittsburgh hierarchy had been sharply divided over the relative merits of Harris and another big back from the University of Houston, Robert Newhouse.

The first sign of concern came from the College All-Star camp. The All-Star coaches felt Harris wasn't following instructions when, on a play that called for him to hit the No. 2 hole, he ran somewhere else.

Harris tried to explain his reasoning. “If it’s a game and I run the two hole and the two hole is plugged, you don’t want me to run into it,” he said. “You want me to run around it. That's what I’m doing here.”

Humble and unassuming, Harris approached the Steelers summer camp in a slow and easy fashion. In his speech and mannerisms and even in the way he walked, Franco seemed to be constantly saving his energy for when it counted.

“We thought maybe we had a dud,” running backs coach Dick Hoak remembered.

However, the picture brightened when he broke off a 70-yard run in a preseason game in Atlanta. On his sprint, Harris ran over a linebacker, cut back to elude two other defenders and then raced into the open. There it was power, moves and speed all on the same play!

Still the Steelers coaches were not completely convinced. For one thing, he wouldn't go full speed the entire way on the 40-yard sprint.

“Franco would burn up the first 30 yards, then coast,” Hoak explained. “Who cares what time he ran? He was not going to pull a hamstring running the 40. He knew it. We knew it. But I don't recall ever seeing him get caught from behind. He was a 225-pounder who ran like he weighed 195.”

Harris also had the tendency to avoid contact in practice because he truly believed that most injuries occurred in practice and were unnecessary. Even in game action, he would run out of bounds rather than blast into a tackler if it appeared there was no chance to gain extra yardage by making the contact. In that way he saved himself for the heavy pounding he was sure to take in regular game action.

Basically, that plan did work well for Harris for he missed only nine games because of injuries in his 13 NFL seasons.

The Steelers started the 1972 season with Preston Pearson and Frenchy Fuqua in the backfield. Harris carried just 26 times in his first four games. In the fifth game, the Steelers had a 2-2 record and were losing, 7-0, to the Houston Oilers when Harris was sent into action. He rushed for 115 yards on 19 carries and Pittsburgh won, 24-7.

Two weeks later, Harris started a streak of six straight 100-yard games -- the longest streak of his career. The Steelers won five in a row for the first time since 1958 and nine of their next 10. Franco wound up his first year with 1,055 yards rushing and another 180 yards on receptions.

The 1972 Steelers won the AFC Central Division championship, their first title of any kind in 40 years of NFL play. In the divisional playoff game, the Oakland Raiders were leading, 7-6, with time running out when Bradshaw rifled a desperation pass far downfield. Jack Tatum, the Oakland defender, and the intended receiver, Fuqua, reached the ball at the same time. It caromed backward into the hands of Harris, who raced into the end zone for the winning touchdown. The "Immaculate Reception" provided a story book finish to Franco's fantasy-like rookie season.

Harris quickly became the symbol of success for the steelworkers and factory people of Pittsburgh who had endured so many losing seasons. He battled injuries all of his second season in 1973, played in just 12 games and gained only 698 yards, his lowest full-season total during his Pittsburgh tenure. But most of Harris' finest accomplishments were still ahead of him. In 1974, Franco fought back with a 1,006-yard season and the Steelers won their first AFC title and Super Bowl IX. It gave Harris his first chance to demonstrate his big-game abilities.

He scored two touchdowns in Pittsburgh's 24-13 win over Oakland in the AFC title game and followed with a then-record 158 rushing yards to win Most Valuable Player honors in the Super Bowl.

In 19 post-season contests, Harris was the leading rusher 13 times. He carried 101 times for 354 yards and four touchdowns in four Super Bowls and had 400 rushes for 1,556 yards and 16 touchdowns in post-season play. About the only time Franco didn't come through was in the 1976 AFC Championship Game in Oakland. He sat out the game with severely bruised ribs and the Steelers missed their best chance for three straight Super Bowl victories.

Harris was a three-time All-AFC pick and a unanimous All-Pro choice in 1977. He was selected for nine straight Pro Bowls from 1972 to 1980 but had to miss the 1977 game because of injuries.

Franco was born March 7, 1950, at Fort Dix, New Jersey. His father, who was African American, was an Army supply sergeant who met his Italian wife while he was in service during World War II. Franco was one of nine children and he worked whenever he could to help pay the bills. He started playing football first in junior high and then at Rancocas Valley High in Mount Holly, NJ. He scored 20 touchdowns as a junior and was named a high school All-America.

A year later, Harris received scholarship offers from some of the biggest football colleges.  He chose to play for Joe Paterno at Penn State. In three seasons at Penn State, Harris ran for 2,002 yards and scored 24 touchdowns. Although his figures did not match those of teammate Lydell Mitchell, it was generally assumed Franco would be a first-round pick.

Attaining pro football stardom did little to change Franco Harris, the person. In his first season, he did not even buy a car, but rode the bus instead.

“The reason is that kids will ask what kind of a car or what kind of jewelry I have,” he explained. “I just want kids to know that it takes hard work to make something of yourself and you don't have to be flashy and show it off. Material things are not the important things. People relating to people is what is important.”

With an attitude such as that, it is not surprising to learn that Harris was always one of the most active Steelers in the community. In 1976, he was named the NFL Man of the Year as the league's outstanding “citizen-athlete.” In 1982, he was given the Byron “Whizzer” White humanitarian service award by the NFL Players Association.

In the 1980s, fans became aware that Harris was approaching Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record of 12,312 yards. At his career-long pace, Harris should have established a new record in 1983. But the NFL players' strike cut the 1982 campaign to nine games.

Even with a 1,007-yard season in 1983, he still was 363 yards short. But Harris became embroiled in a contract dispute in 1984 and, when the talks reached an impasse, Franco was released. He signed on with Seattle but managed only 170 yards in just eight games. He retired after the season.

The late founder of the Steelers, Art Rooney, Sr., called Franco’ s departure “the most frustrating thing that ever happened to me in all my years in sports.”

The whole organization was devastated and Franco also regretted the turn of events, although he defended his right to negotiate a contract.

Emotions no doubt have eased over the years and Harris will always be regarded as one of the shining stars in the Steelers’ long history.

As Harris himself once said, “A player should not be measured by statistics alone. He should be measured by something more special, such as the sharing of teammates and fans. Both the city of Pittsburgh and the Steeler team were building at the same time. It was a good feeling to be a part of it.”

Steelers fans flocked to Canton, Ohio in the summer of 1990 to pay one last tribute to their star running back when Harris was rightfully enshrined in to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

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