Franco Harris’ legacy forged in humility and empathy

PITTSBURGH (AP) — It was never just about football to Franco Harris. It couldn’t be. That would have been too limiting. Too easy. A cop out.

It’s why the reaction to his death on Wednesday at age 72, just two days before the 50th anniversary of “The Immaculate Reception” — the heads-up catch and run that forever made him a part of NFL lore — ran the gamut.

Old teammates. Players just starting out. Presidents. Governors. Mayors. Fans. Rivals turned friends.

There wasn’t a friendship Harris didn’t try to forge, a legacy he didn’t try to burnish, a divide he didn’t hope to bridge during a lifetime spent putting others first.

It’s telling of Harris’ effect on those around him that former Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano — who futilely chased Harris to the end zone at frozen Three Rivers Stadium in the final seconds of what became a gut-wrenching loss on Dec. 23, 1972 — plans to be in attendance on Saturday night when the Steelers retire Harris’ No. 32 at halftime of their game against the Raiders.

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Whatever enmity Villapiano held against Harris vanished long ago, maybe around the time Villpiano’s Italian father and Harris’ mother bonded at an Italian American athlete of the year dinner. Villapiano knew he and Harris would be forever linked.

“We did so many things together,” Villapiano told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I can’t remember all these things over the last 50 years. It’s crazy. We were always doing the Immaculate Reception story and it got bigger and bigger. He would invite me to places he needed me. I would invite him to places I needed him and our friendship just grew and grew.”

That was Harris, the athlete who was on a first-name basis with people from all walks of life.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell grew up a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Yet when he needed an ally during the nascent stages of his first gubernatorial campaign in 2002, he found one in Harris, who helped the cross-state Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 1970s.

Sure, there was an element of political expediency for Rendell to align himself with someone immensely popular from Pittsburgh to State College to Scranton. Rendell and Harris would do a bar tour on the campaign trail during NFL Sundays in the fall, stops where the conversations would invariably turn toward Harris.

“People reacted to him like he was Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,’ Rendell said. ”I’ve never seen a reaction like the reaction Franco got. Not just in Pittsburgh, but in other places too.’

The two saw eye-to-eye on a deeper, ideological level. When longtime U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter faced a health battle in the late 2000s that briefly raised concerns about Specter’s ability to finish his term, Rendell said there was only one name at the top of his list as a potential appointment: Franco Harris.

Asked what Harris’ reaction was when he broached the subject about becoming a politician, Rendell laughed and said simply ″he pooh-poohed it.’

“There was never looking for credit, never looking to aggrandize himself,” Rendell told AP. “It’s hard to go back and think of a better citizen that Pennsylvania has had other than Franco Harris.”

President Joe Biden shared a story of a visit by Harris and longtime teammate Rocky Bleier to Biden’s home in Delaware shortly after Biden l ost his wife Neilia and daughter Naomi in a traffic accident in December 1972. In that moment of sadness, a friendship emerged.

“I know there will also be countless families like mine that will remember him for all that he did to lift our spirits when we needed it – in the most quiet, personal, and American of ways,” Biden said in a statement.

Harris never tired of telling — and retelling — the story of the moment that made him an icon, he was typically more than willing to listen. He stayed in Pittsburgh following his retirement and it wouldn’t be unusual for him to stop by the Steelers’ practice facility to simultaneously educate and listen to players who were born long after the last of his 2,949 career carries.

He connected with current Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris — whom Franco jokingly referred to as his “cousin” — as well as tight end Pat Freiermuth, a former Penn State alum, among others.

“When those guys spend time with him, they realize that he didn’t want anything from them, he just wanted the absolute best for them,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. ‘And that unconditional love, guys feel that and that’s why they felt about him the way they felt about him.”


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