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 Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.
8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

When you compare what it cost to build the coaster in 1920 to what it would cost today, it's obvious Kennywood's owners got their money's worth.
Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

The upscale seafood eatery is expected to open in late 2016 or early 2017.
Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Artist David Bernabo creates a series of films that track various aspects of Pittsburgh's food culture.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Nearby Canonsburg is a rare find for antiques collectors.
U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

The U.S. Open is returning to Oakmont — and unlike previous tournaments, this one could make the community a vital part of the action.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

DeShantz owns three other Pittsburgh restaurants and is about to open a fourth.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

The in-house tavern at the Riverhounds' home stadium is now welcoming guests during weekdays. But is it worth a dedicated stop?

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

These Penguins have been downright unrecognizable, individually and collectively, on the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

An electrician by trade, designer Thomas Verscharen creates custom lighting out of repurposed pieces.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

Reviews of "X-Men: Apocalypse," "Alice Through the Looking Glass," "A Bigger Splash" and "Love and Friendship."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Get with the (Wedding) Program

Get with the (Wedding) Program

Have you ever considered making programs for your wedding guests? If not, think again and get creative.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

Spread out across the city for these upcoming events, including a “Tiny House” exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center displayed by the FIY Network.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

The event will connect hundreds of small business managers and owners and provide useful information to help them take their enterprises to the next level.

Comments