Franco Harris

A giant and a gentleman, Super Bowl winning MVP, Pro Football
Hall of Famer and Steeler’s Icon who made one of the greatest ever
plays in the history of the NFL

Extract taken from an exclusive interview with Franco Harris, for The Pittsburgh Steelers Opus.


 

I never thought about the draft once. I never even had it in my mind because I never thought about playing pro-ball. It wasn’t part of my plans, but in my senior year they were telling me that I was going to be drafted. I had a good career
at Penn State but it wasn’t great because I didn’t make the All American, but it was a good career. I definitely didn’t
think in my wildest dreams that I’d be the first running back
to be taken.

Back then, no team called you. You didn’t have any inkling of what teams were interested. No indication of anything, basically no contact. I never got a phone call from any coach or anybody, but I still remember the night before, because I had a premonition that the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to draft me. It was a dream, or perhaps nightmare. I told my agent, “Will you call the Steelers and let them know I don’t want them to draft me.” “Oh, you can’t do that Franco,” he said. He tried to show me that they’re really not looking for a running back, so I thought that perhaps the Miami Dolphins or a Los Angeles team might be interested. That night I was alone in my apartment and the next morning I got the call. To this day I don’t remember who it was from, but the voice said”Congratulations the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted you.” All I could say was, “Oh my God!” I knew nothing about the procedure, but all I could think of was that I can’t believe it.

On my first visit to Pittsburgh, I got a flat tire, but when I finally got there I was put up in the Hilton. One of the first things we had was a physical and being only 21 years’ old, looking around at all the other players well built, toned and a lot of them were hitting the weights. I never did any of that, but I went back after that first physical and said to myself, “Now that I’m going in to pros, I’d better get ready.”

I decided then to get into weight lifting, get into shape, so I began going to the gym for the first time. I didn’t have a clue what to do. The gym’s in an area called the Rec Hall at Penn State and all the body builders where in there.

They were all lifting and they knew I looked completely lost. I knew nothing about weights, but they took me under their wings and put me on a program of sit-ups, dips and weight lifting for all parts of my body, alternating days on different parts. Then it got to be like an addiction. If I missed a day I felt like I’d sinned.

It was like, “Oh, my gosh. I’m going to go to hell,” but I got really into it and really focused, not so much thinking about the team but just working out, working out, working out. My other teammates weren’t doing it, just me. It really changed a lot of things and changed a lot of my focus.

Then it got to be like an addiction. If I missed a day I felt like I’d sinned.

Before I was drafted I knew nothing about the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn’t know any of their history or how bad they really were back then. Even after I was drafted I didn’t go and research anything about them. If I would have done I’d probably have been really disappointed. I was lucky there was no such thing as ESPN or Google, or other information services like today.

In my mind, up at Penn State, we were number two in my freshman and sophomore college years, and we were number two in the whole country. Then in my senior year we weren’t the highest, slipping to number three or number four. I said, “Well, we were never number one, but one day I want to win the Super Bowl.” I once came to Pittsburgh to play the University of Pittsburgh, but I stayed until the next day to go and see a little bit of a Steelers game. That was the first professional game I ever saw.

During my senior year at Penn State I went to the Senior Bowl. I felt I played pretty well and pretty tough, but I still didn’t think I was going to be this type of draft choice. In fact when I got to the training camp some of the other players thought the Steelers had drafted a dud. First of all, I get to training camp late because I’m playing in the College All Star game and when I get there, it’s the week they’re going to their first preseason game. They don’t waste any time. They get you into practice and you’re going to play the game. You get right in. The first time I walked on the training camp field, I saw all these running backs and what they were doing. I thought, “Man. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make this team.” I was put on kick return and I’m back there. In those days they always had two players for the kick-off return. I’m standing back there saying,“Oh Lord, please don’t let the ball come to me,” and of course it does. The other players always want to challenge you and you know it. The ball comes right to me, I get hit so hard and I said to myself,“Wow, welcome to the NFL!” I was put on in the fourth quarter and I felt good, and I thought I did pretty well. The game was over and we get to the locker room. That’s when I found out that some players thought I was a dud. Mean Joe Greene made an immediate impact when he was drafted to the Steelers in 1969. I still didn’t feel much pressure because most of the time, to save face, they never cut their first round draft choice in their first season. Eventually I had a good preseason, even surprising myself, but then we go in to the first regular season game against the Oakland Raiders. Some players told me that the regular season is different to the preseason and I thought how different can it really be? The only way I can describe it, is feeling like a deer caught in headlights.

I’m standing back there saying,“Oh Lord, please don’t let the ball come to me,” and of course it does. The other players always want to challenge you and you know it. The ball comes right to me, I get hit so hard and I said to myself,“Wow, welcome to the NFL!”

I wasn’t the starting running back at that time, but he got hurt so I had to play. It was mean. The pace. The violence. The attitude – it was like night and day. To say it was a step-up from the preseason would be an understatement. It was like going from the bottom of the mountain to the top in one game.

I really didn’t do very well, then in the second game we played, I dropped the ball and the other team got it, scored and won the game. Now I’m really in the doghouse. I keep telling myself, “Franco, don’t give up. Just keep working hard.” It really is tough being a rookie.

I was also in a new town away from my family who were in New Jersey, but I kept on working hard. I actually made a statement to myself. I said, “Next time they put me in a game, they’ll never take me out.” I remember reading, in my rookie year about how bad the Pittsburgh Steelers were because they never won anything.

Then around the time I changed my attitude we went on this incredible run. But I’m still a rookie who only played at Penn State. We had good crowds, but now I’m in Pittsburgh and all of a sudden their fans are going crazy. I’m thinking, “Man, what’s going on here? Why are these people so crazy?” I didn’t realize that they never had a winner before. It just started going wild. My performances, things were happening, and it all came together with the craziness, the winning, nothing was expected. In fact everything was unexpected because I had no clue. I don’t know if anyone foresaw the 1970’s. I wouldn’t think anybody did. Early on I just had this feeling that I wanted to go to the Super Bowl and that was the drive.

My rookie year was a fun year. Before that they said the Steelers always found a way to lose, but now we knew how to win. It was the same in the Raiders’ game, where we were winning then all of a sudden we’re losing. People think you find a way to lose but we found a way to succeed. Then with that attitude, that’s when we started feeling we’re a good football team.

I keep telling myself, “Franco, don’t give up. Just keep working hard.” It really is tough being a rookie.

In my rookie year we went to the championship, the game before the Super Bowl, but we lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Looking back I’m glad we didn’t beat the Dolphins. They had an undefeated season, which
is unique. So now things are changing for the Steelers – and their fans – how can we persuade them to get behind their team because they’d never had anything for all those years. It’s all timing and place.

In 1972 a lot of things came together and it was unexpected. No one in their wildest dreams were looking at that or thinking that, that was going to happen.

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw started to develop a lot of things. The defense started to develop as well. A lot of things started to come in to play and then we knew how to win. We won games in the fourth quarter. That makes you feel good too. That year I realized how good our defense was becoming. Our defense was starting to play some good, tough football.

This was around the time we had the Steelers’ Steel Curtain, which was the front four of our defensive line. They were “Mean” Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White, which was the team’s backbone throughout our success. In eight of the next nine games, the defense didn’t allow a single touchdown to get through the Curtain.

But how were we going to get our fans to really get into and back their team? It’s 1972 and the Steelers hadn’t played a championship for 39 years. One player said, “It’ll take an army”, and the rest is history. Pizza store owners Al Vento and Tony Stagno created Franco’s Italian Army, an 80-strong group, marching and chanting “Go, go Franco” to help encourage the fans to really get into their team. Throughout that 1972 season Franco’s Italian Army played antics both on the field and in the stands, even waving Italian flags at the 40 yard line. They even drank Italian wine, ate Italian food and put curses on our opponents, while protecting us.

In fact the Army supported me throughout my career. Vento and Stagno also mailed an invitation to Frank Sinatra at his Palm Springs house when we were going to have a practice game in San Diego. Sinatra came to the game, was made an honory one-star general, and he drank wine with myself and my ‘generals’.

You ask yourself what are all those defining moments? For me, it started my rookie year and went the rest of the decade. When there were plays like this, when your fans can connect to the team and not only your fans, now that the whole world connects to the Steelers that helps define our team too.

When people look at the great teams, a lot of them consider the 1970’s Steelers as the greatest team of all time. You ask yourself what are all those defining moments? For me, it started my rookie year and went the rest of the decade. When there were plays like this, when your fans can connect to the team and not only your fans, now that the whole world connects to the Steelers that helps define our team too.

The Italian Army a couple years later. And the iconic Terrible Towel, which not only defines our team and our fans, but has since raised so much for charity. All these things tend to define that era. Things that people can connect with. When things looked hopeless, should you give up or what should you do? This was a playoff game, an important game.

People tell stories that the game here was blacked out. No one within 70 miles of Pittsburgh could watch the game, but yet everybody said they watched it on television. It makes you chuckle when they say, “Oh, yeah. I saw the game on television. I was at home watching it.” Then you hear stories about people traveling 70 miles outside of Pittsburgh just to see it.

It’s something that all the new Steeler fans can connect to because it’s part of our history and it connects people back to the 1970’s. Just about every Steeler parent will eventually show their children the Immaculate Reception. It was a very special time in so many ways. If the 1970’s Steelers took to the field against the team today, the only difference would be our offensive line and how we would handle the defensive linemen. For our first Super Bowl the average weight of our line was 240 lbs and today it’s about 300lbs plus. In all other areas today, I don’t think they could match us, as we were back in the 1970’s. We had Lynn Swan and John Stallworth, two unbelievable receivers. Then we had Terry Bradshaw, the best ‘arms’. We had defensive back like Mel Blount who’s still considered to be one of the best. Then there was Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Andy Russell, probably the greatest trio ever in NFL football.

>Bonding was also important to us off the field, too. We used to have a dress-off during my first couple of years at the Steelers. After a game we would try to outdo each other with locker room humor by wearing the most outrageous 1970’s fashions. Big flares with long collard shirts, platform shoes. Players like running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua, defensive end L. C. Greenwood and offensive lineman Jim Clack would dress up. Frenchy wore a cape like a French count, and during my first year I had to hold his cape because I’m a rookie.

Every Tuesday morning the rookies also had to bring in donuts for the veterans. It was all ‘right of passage’ stuff, but it showed another more humorous side of the NFL. Another way to help us bond as a team was to always play poker. Every Saturday night before the game and every Tuesday, after the game, we’d play.

It was just the guys getting together laughing, bonding and having fun. We also had a great coaching staff that really fitted us well. When you arrive you hope that the system will work for you. If the Steelers ran from an ‘I’ formation it would be difficult for me as I never ran from an ‘I’ formation before. Luckily when I came to the Steelers, they were formations I was already familiar with. They ran plays that really fitted my ability. We were always well prepared thanks to Chuck Noll. In our practices, in game plan, and running back, we really did have a great coaching staff. Chuck didn’t really change his coaching style throughout the decade, which may or may not have been to our advantage. However, what we had during the 1970’s was special because we were talented and he helped bring that talent out of each of us. As time went on, though, I thought there should’ve been some changes, but it just didn’t happen.

Every Tuesday morning the rookies also had to bring in donuts for the veterans. It was all ‘right of passage’ stuff, but it showed another more humorous side of the NFL.

The 1976 Season was seen by many, including our then owner, Art Rooney, as the best team in franchise history. However, some of our players felt that we can’t call that our greatest season because it wasn’t a Super Bowl season. To me that year showed the true character of our team and what we’re made of. Talking about winning the Super Bowl in 1974 and 1975 in one thing. But in 1976, our first five games were one win to four losses.

Then in the fifth game we lost Terry Bradshaw for the rest of the season. With nine games to go we had to win all of them to make the playoffs. We won them all. In the nine games we had five shutouts, zero points. Two where the opposing team got three points during the sixth and seventh games. Altogether we earned 16, six, three and three points in nine games. We had a team meeting where we agreed that every game is a playoff game and there’s no tomorrow – you lose, you’re out. It was one game at a time and every one was a must-win game.

The play was incredible. This is the type of football that the NFL doesn’t like – hard, smash-mouth, five yards in a cloud of dust. Only four passes a game. They changed the rules after the 1976 season. To me, that really showed the true grit and character of our team. It was incredible, but in terms of winning the Super Bowl it wasn’t our year, but it showed what we’re made of.

It was incredible, but in terms of winning the Super Bowl it wasn’t our year, but it showed what we’re made of.

We won all nine games and we made the playoffs. That’s the year half back Rocky Bleier and I got over a thousand yards each. Also on average, we controlled the ball six minutes more per game than the other team – a six-minute advantage per game is huge and no one was injured.

Then we went to Baltimore for a play-off game and killed Baltimore. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw came back that day and his first pass was a 70-yard touchdown. We’re running and throwing then suddenly everybody starts getting hurt. It was like fate had turned against us. Rocky Bleier went down. Then Richard Fuqua. Then I went down and another running back went down the previous game. We only had five running backs. In that one week, they weren’t able to get the whole passing team together and we went in to a championship game against Oakland with only one running back. I had no doubt that we’d have won three in a row with a fit whole team. We had a lot of pressure, game after game after game. When we won, our last game in Houston, that was a great feeling. There was a lot of jubilation in that lineup. For something well accomplished, it was like, wow, “We did it!” Who would have thought? 
That was quite a season. Everybody stepped up to the plate. You have to imagine that there’s no tomorrow. Every game’s a playoff. Even with the highlights from that season, our defensive players couldn’t get to their opposite guys quickly enough to hit them. They were throwing each other out of the way to hit the guy – it was pretty ferocious.

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