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