Photo reprint of Franco Harris on the November 1973 cover of Sport Magazine
Franco Harris (born March 7, 1950) is a former American football fullback who played professionally in the National Football League (NFL) for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks. He was picked by the Steelers in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft, the 13th selection overall. He played his first 12 years in the NFL with the Steelers; his 13th and final year was spent with the Seahawks. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
Harris was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey. His African-American father served in World War II; his mother was a “war bride” from Italy. Harris graduated from Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly Township, New Jersey in 1968 and then attended Penn State University. While playing for Penn State’s Nittany Lions, Harris served primarily as a blocker for the All-American running back Lydell Mitchell, though he amassed 2,002 yards rushing with 24 touchdowns and averaged over 5 yards per carry, while also catching 28 passes for 352 yards and another touchdown. He led the team in scoring in 1970.
1969: 115 carries for 643 yards and 10 TD. 12 catches for 189 yards.
1970: 142 carries for 675 yards and 8 TD. 6 catches for 66 yards.
1971: 123 carries for 684 yards and 6 TD. 10 catches for 97 yards and 1 TD.
In his first season with the Steelers (1972), Harris was named the league’s Rookie of the Year by both The Sporting News and United Press International. In that season he gained 1,055 yards on 188 carries, with a 5.6 yards per carry average. He also rushed for 10 touchdowns and caught four touchdown passes. He was popular with Pittsburgh’s large Italian-American population: his fans dubbing themselves “Franco’s Italian Army” and wore army helmets with his number on them.
In his 13 professional seasons, Harris gained 12,120 yards on 2,949 carries, a 4.1 yards per carry average, and scored 91 rushing touchdowns. He caught 307 passes for 2,287 yards, a 7.4 yards per reception average, and nine receiving touchdowns. Harris’s 12,120 career rushing yards rank him 12th all time in the NFL, while his 91 career rushing touchdowns rank him 10th all time tied with Jerome Bettis.
Harris was chosen for nine consecutive Pro Bowls (from 1972 through 1980), and was All-Pro in 1977. Harris rushed for more than 1,000 yards in eight seasons, breaking a record set by Jim Brown. The running back tandem of Harris and Rocky Bleier combined with a strong defense to win four Super Bowls following the 1974, 1975, 1978, and 1979 seasons. On January 12, 1975 he was the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl IX; in that game he rushed for 158 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries for a 16-6 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Harris was the first African American as well as the first Italian-American to be named Super Bowl MVP. Harris was a major contributor for the Steelers in all of their first four Super Bowl wins. His Super Bowl career totals of 101 carries for 354 yards are records and his four career rushing touchdowns are tied for the second most in Super Bowl history.
Harris claims he extended his career and thus his contribution to the team’s objectives (including four Super Bowl victories) by avoiding unnecessary contact.
Following the 1983 season, Harris and Walter Payton were both closing in on Jim Brown’s NFL rushing record, and Harris asked the Rooney family for a pay raise. The Rooney family refused, believing that Harris was on the downside of his career, and Harris threatened to hold out. The Steelers released Harris in training camp in 1984 and he eventually signed with the Seattle Seahawks during the 1984 season.
He played just eight games with the team, gaining only 170 yards before retiring (192 yards short of Jim Brown’s record). Harris and the Rooneys reconciled after Harris retired; in 2006, during pre-game ceremonies for Super Bowl XL (the Steelers’ second SB appearance – and first championship – since his retirement) honoring the MVPs of the previous 39 games, Harris waved a Terrible Towel while being introduced, much to the delight of the overwhelmingly pro-Steeler crowd. While the Steelers have only officially retired two uniform numbers (Ernie Stautner’s number 70 and Joe Greene’s number 75), they have not reissued his number 32 since he left the team, and it is generally understood that no Steelers player will ever wear that number again.
Harris was a key player in one of professional football’s most famous plays, dubbed “The Immaculate Reception” by Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope. In a 1972 playoff game, the Oakland Raiders were leading the Steelers 7-6 with 22 seconds to play when a Terry Bradshaw pass was deflected away from intended receiver John “Frenchy” Fuqua right as defender Jack Tatum arrived to tackle Fuqua. Harris snatched the ball just before it hit the ground and ran it into the endzone to win the game. The Raiders challenged the touchdown, claiming that Fuqua had handled the ball before Harris, which would invalidate the score because at that time it was against the rules for two offensive receivers to touch the ball. The Steelers maintained that the ball had touched Tatum instead. According to a recounting by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the film of the play is inconclusive. Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano attempted to criticize Harris’s achievement by stating that he was only in position to catch the ball because he was lazy, but replays show that Harris headed downfield when the Raiders forced Bradshaw out of the pocket, and can be clearly seen running before catching the deflected ball.
In 1999, he was ranked number 83 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. In 2006, The Heinz History Center, home of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, installed a life-size figure of Harris in the grand concourse of Pittsburgh International Airport. The statue is a recreation of Harris’s “Immaculate Reception.” He was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2011.
Harris and Lydell Mitchell, successful college teammates at Penn State, now own Super Bakery, a company founded in 1990 to produce nutrition-oriented foods for schoolchildren. The business was renamed to RSuper Foods in 2006. RSuper foods produces the Super Donut that has been served to students at public schools in the eastern United States.
Harris and Mitchell also partnered in 1996 to rescue the Parks Sausage Company in Baltimore, the first African-American owned business to go public in the U.S.
Harris is also a paid representative for the Harrah’s/Forest City Enterprises casino plan for downtown Pittsburgh. This association has earned him the tongue-in-cheek nickname, “Franco Harrahs”.
On July 9, 2006, Harris made an appearance in the 2006 Taco Bell “All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game” at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
In August 2008, Harris attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention, in Denver, Colorado, as part of the Pennsylvania delegation. Harris voted for Obama on December 15, 2008, as one of Pennsylvania’s 21 Democratic presidential electors.
In January 2011, Harris became co-owner of the Pittsburgh Passion.
In John Grisham’s 2008 novel Playing For Pizza, the fullback of the Parma Panthers is nicknamed Franco as a tribute to his hero, Franco Harris, who he refers to as the “greatest Italian football player”. This is a reference to Franco’s mixed racial heritage.
Harris briefly worked with The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in 2011, before the casino suspended the relationship after Harris’ comments in support of Joe Paterno, his coach while at Penn State, during the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Harris’ brother Pete Harris, a collegiate All-American football player, died on August 15, 2006, of a heart attack at the age of 49.
On July 27, 2009 Harris’ son, Franco “Dok” Harris, officially announced his candidacy for Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh. He placed second in the general election on November 3 of that year, receiving 25% of the vote.
Franco has served as part of the advisory board at Penn State’s Center for Food Innovation, and in the Fall of 2009 was named a Conti Professor by Penn State’s School of Hospitality Management.
Harris is involved in, and provides funding to, Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a group aimed at ousting the members of Penn State’s board of trustees.