Franco Harris: An Immaculate Life

Years later, Steelers legend Franco Harris still squabbles with former Raiders players about the Immaculate Reception.



Illustration by Chris Morris

Before he had his own army, before he had his own car, Franco Harris used to take public transportation to work like the average Joe. In 1972, as a rookie on a Steelers team that hadn’t posted a winning record in eight seasons, Harris didn’t have to worry about signing many autographs on the bumpy ride to Three Rivers Stadium.

“I used to take the bus and even hitch a ride home after practice,” Harris laughs. “Half way into the season, people really started to recognize me.”

While today the nine-time Pro Bowler’s place in history may seem predestined, back then black-and-gold were the colors of the inglorious. When the Steelers opened the 1972 season against the heavily-favored Raiders on September 17—the same night “M*A*S*H*” premiered on NBC—Harris was a relatively anonymous public commuter. Just three months later, the Steelers made their first playoff appearance since the Truman administration, and Harris was on the receiving end of an Immaculate catch that would prove to be the start of dynasty.

He finally got some wheels, too.

“Later on in the year, a dealership gave me a car to use,” he says. “Then I won Rookie of the Year and won an American Motors Javelin.”

Pittsburgh magazine recently talked with Franco, now 62, to talk about life after football, the rival Raiders and the worst poker player on the ’70s Steelers.
 

Q&A with Franco Harris
 

Do you ever run into former Raiders and argue with them about the Immaculate Reception?

Yeah, me and [former Raiders linebacker] Phil Villapiano still go at it every now and then. For years, Phil kept telling people that I was loafing on the play and I got lucky. So I saw him about a month ago and I finally said, “Phil, look, you say I was loafing, right? Well, when Bradshaw was scrambling and I released out of the backfield, me and you were side by side, but guess who got to the ball first? So who was loafing, Phil?” He didn’t know what to say. We’ll quiet the rest of the Raiders in time.

Every time you fly in to Pittsburgh, you get to see your Immaculate Reception statue at the entrance to the terminals. That must be a special welcome home.

Oh yeah, no doubt about it. Someone told me that when the Raiders came to town recently, some of the Raiders fans were trying to knock the ball out of my hands. They still can’t do it after all these years.

I’ve got a great April Fool’s joke for you: Send Raiders owner Al Davis a note that says, “Hey Al, just between you and me … I didn’t catch it.”

[Laughing] I don’t know if I’d do it right now with the condition he’s in.

What are your fondest off-the-field memories from your playing days?

The Tuesday night poker games at my house with Lynn Swann, Joe Greene, “Moon” Mullens and all the guys.

Who was the best poker player?

Me, of course! But Frenchy Fuqua was probably the funniest guy at the table.

Who got hustled the most?

Probably Swann. Man, wait until he reads that! If you can imagine this, we only played for a dollar and two dollars. No car keys being thrown into the pot back then.

You worked at a restaurant in the summer during your time at Penn State. What do you make of the current scandals involving college players taking money from boosters and agents?

Well, the players are not allowed to take a part-time job during the season, and what happens if they're from a family that can't afford to send them money? When I was in school, my parents didn't send me one dollar. After a game you can't even go out and buy a pizza? I think it really puts the athlete at a disadvantage and in a position where bad things can happen ... Did I scalp tickets [as a college player]? Yeah, but all the players were doing it. Coach Paterno helped to keep us in line, and hey, I graduated in four years. I'll always be proud of that.

Image courtesy of @SI_Vault

You recently became part owner of the Pittsburgh Passion, the full-contact women's football team. What drew you to the Passion?

When I heard about the Passion a few years ago, it was intriguing to me because people always said that football is one sport that women will never play. So I went to watch a game and I was like, “Wow. This is a lot better football than I imagined.” I became a big fan. The players are housewives, accountants, nurses, teachers, all practicing at night after work. It kind of makes you think of stories from the old NFL.

"It was a rude awakening to a lot of people to see that happen to Iron Mike."

Several current Steelers have expressed concern about head injuries affecting their life after football. Are you worried about long-term effects from your career?

Well, the average life expectancy of an NFL player today is 54 years old. There’s a major concern about the effect of concussions and damage to the brain. One thing that always comes to mind is Mike Webster. Mike was a beautiful person—just a great guy. To see him deteriorate like that ... it was physical damage to his brain that was beyond his control. It was a rude awaking to a lot of people to see that happen to “Iron Mike,” as tough as he was.

Can the league do anything to make the game safer, or is it impossible?

During my time, they changed the rules on chop blocking—hitting below the waist—and that helped a lot of guys with their knees. Players say they know the risk and they’re always going to say, “I wouldn’t change anything,” because they think of all the good times and they forget about the pain. But my feeling is that if you can find ways to prevent long-lasting injuries that effect quality of life in a big way, that would be better for everybody.

Do you ever wish you had played in the modern era and got the paychecks these guys are making today?

No way would I change what we had. In that one decade, the Steelers went from the worst of all time to what people now regard as the best team of all time. That time was wild. You had fan armies popping up all over the place: Franco’s Army. Gerela’s Gorillas. The Dobre Shunkas. It set a whole new level for fan participation. That ’70s run was priceless.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Watch: Jameson Taillon's Remarkable Recovery

Watch: Jameson Taillon's Remarkable Recovery

Sports media company Whistle Sports documented Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon's recovery workout regime.
Celebrating 75 Years: Connecting History with Community

Celebrating 75 Years: Connecting History with Community

The Heinz History Center’s World War II traveling exhibit focuses on western Pennsylvania’s ties to history.
Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's Meg Cheever To Step Down

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's Meg Cheever To Step Down

The nonprofit's founding President and CEO will leave her position early next year.
Pittsburgh Pens' Spouse is ‘Hockey Wife’ On and Off Camera

Pittsburgh Pens' Spouse is ‘Hockey Wife’ On and Off Camera

After a Stanley Cup-winning season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, one player’s wife is working on her own claim to fame.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

The latest restaurant from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group brings Texas-style smoked meats and more to Downtown.
Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Go subterranean at Laurel Caverns, the largest cave in Pennsylvania.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: Jameson Taillon's Remarkable Recovery

Watch: Jameson Taillon's Remarkable Recovery

Sports media company Whistle Sports documented Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon's recovery workout regime.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Dish Osteria and Bar To Close

Dish Osteria and Bar To Close

The beloved Pittsburgh institution will serve its last meal in April.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


The (Very Good) Brewery You Should Be Patronizing in Homestead

The (Very Good) Brewery You Should Be Patronizing in Homestead

Voodoo Brewery is an enticing alternative to the many chains in and around the Waterfront.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Steelers’ Philosophy Back on Display After Hightower Flirtation

Steelers’ Philosophy Back on Display After Hightower Flirtation

Even as they entertained Dont’a Hightower for nearly seven hours during a free-agent recruiting trip to the South Side, the Steelers never lost sight of who they are or what they’re all about.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Turn Your Bath into a Spa with These Oils

Turn Your Bath into a Spa with These Oils

The miniature bath- and shower-oil collection from Aromatherapy Associates makes every shower a luxury experience.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The CMU Film Fest Opens with One of 2016's Best

The CMU Film Fest Opens with One of 2016's Best

Reviews of two films appearing at the 2017 Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival: "I, Daniel Blake," and "The Eagle Huntress." Plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Combating the Cold: How This Couple Pulled Off Their Winter Wedding

Combating the Cold: How This Couple Pulled Off Their Winter Wedding

Happy to see warmer weather? This gorgeous winter wedding may actually have you missing the snow.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Special Delivery: Creating a Rustic Woodlands Nursery

Special Delivery: Creating a Rustic Woodlands Nursery

Local art teacher Chris Galiyas used inspiration from his son’s name, Arrow, and his first home with his wife to create a heartfelt, whimsical baby room.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
New Club is a Hit at Thiel College

New Club is a Hit at Thiel College

The Outdoor Recreation Club becomes the newest student organization at the college.

Comments