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

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Host an event in Pittsburgh’s urban sustainable homestead. Join a club for mushroom hunters. Tour a coal mine. Listen to some banjo music. We list our new favorite experiences, food, drink, personalities, stores, items and activities in the ’Burgh.
Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Fourteen years ago this month, the mighty Kinzua Viaduct met its match.
Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

The restaurant, run by Dinette’s Sonja J. Finn, boosts the dining experience at the Carnegie museums in Oakland.
Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

FASTER Pittsburghʼs Hip Hop Cardio promises to get your workout into a groove.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

With a tear in our eye, we bid the “Flower” Au Revoir.
Finally, a Faster Way From Pittsburgh to Oakland and Beyond

Finally, a Faster Way From Pittsburgh to Oakland and Beyond

A proposed route for new electric buses will connect 30,000 people throughout 24 neighborhoods.
Extras Wanted: Cate Blanchett Shooting Movie in Pittsburgh

Extras Wanted: Cate Blanchett Shooting Movie in Pittsburgh

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a movie based on the best-selling comedic novel, will begin filming in the ‘Burgh next month.
What We Know about Anthony Bourdain’s Visit to Pittsburgh

What We Know about Anthony Bourdain’s Visit to Pittsburgh

While Bourdain and his crew aren’t talking, they left plenty of hints about what’s likely to be in the Pittsburgh episode of “Parts Unknown.”
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Host an event in Pittsburgh’s urban sustainable homestead. Join a club for mushroom hunters. Tour a coal mine. Listen to some banjo music. We list our new favorite experiences, food, drink, personalities, stores, items and activities in the ’Burgh.
Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Fourteen years ago this month, the mighty Kinzua Viaduct met its match.
Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

The restaurant, run by Dinette’s Sonja J. Finn, boosts the dining experience at the Carnegie museums in Oakland.
Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

FASTER Pittsburghʼs Hip Hop Cardio promises to get your workout into a groove.
Curling in Pittsburgh: ‘It's Basically Golf and Chess on Ice’

Curling in Pittsburgh: ‘It's Basically Golf and Chess on Ice’

On the eve of its largest annual event, the Pittsburgh Curling Club has plans to increase Pittsburgh’s appreciation for its intricate sport.
Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

With a tear in our eye, we bid the “Flower” Au Revoir.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Pusadee's Garden Will Close at End of Year (But Not Forever)

Pusadee's Garden Will Close at End of Year (But Not Forever)

Look for some big changes at the Upper Lawrenceville restaurant, which is expected to shutter for at least a year.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Read on for some under-the-radar ideas on how you and the kids can survive a rainy day this summer.

Comments


High-Wire Acts at Carnegie Science Center

High-Wire Acts at Carnegie Science Center

The North Shore landmark's new ropes course is a draw for adults and youths alike.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
History Can Wait Until Penguins Are Done Making It

History Can Wait Until Penguins Are Done Making It

The desire for more a year ago helped fuel the Penguins’ quest to repeat this season. Should their thirst for yet another Cup prove as unquenchable next season, there’s no limit to what they might yet achieve. Even a Three-peat.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

The Strip District-based woodworker's cutting boards can be custom made with the wood of your choice.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Buckle Up ... Again, as Cars 3 Hits Theaters

Buckle Up ... Again, as Cars 3 Hits Theaters

Reviews of "Cars 3" and "47 Meters Down," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Enchanting Summery Trends to Illuminate Your Wedding Palette

Enchanting Summery Trends to Illuminate Your Wedding Palette

You’ll definitely want to pin these new summer wedding trends to your Pinterest board.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Blooming: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Hosts Town & Country Tour

Blooming: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Hosts Town & Country Tour

From a forest of Japanese maples to a rocky urban sanctuary, the annual tour covers 14 very different gardens across the East End.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Visit Thiel College for a Summer BBQ

Visit Thiel College for a Summer BBQ

On three days this summer, the college will host visit days for prospective students.

Comments

Edit Module