Gold Jacket Spotlight: Franco Harris, ‘Mr. pittsburgh

“We thought we might have misfired.”

In hindsight, this statement, uttered by Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regarding Franco Harris at the start of Steelers training camp in 1972, could be on everyone’s list of questionable observations. times in the National Football League.

Hoak’s outlook on the rookie brightened soon after. Franco broke away for a 76-yard touchdown in an exhibition game against Atlanta.

Thus began Franco’s NFL career and Hall of Fame (Class of 1990), featured this week in the Gold Jacket Spotlight.

Originally from New Jersey, Franco graduated from Rancocas Valley Regional High School before enrolling at Penn State University. He shared the backfield with fellow New Jersey and future NFL player Lydell Mitchell.

In preparation for the 1972 NFL Draft, the Steelers named San Diego State cornerback Willie Buchanon their first pick. The Steelers staff debated who to pick if Buchanon was off the board before their No. 13 pick. (The Green Bay Packers selected Buchanon with the seventh overall pick).

The debate centered on the selection of the 5-foot-10 Robert Newhouse from the University of Houston or the 6-foot-2 Franco. There was a divide between the scouts, the head coach and the property.

Art Rooney Jr. was adamant that he wanted Franco to be the player of choice and was influenced by this advice from George Young, then Colts scout and future New York Giants general manager and Pro Football Hall of Famer ( Class of 2020): The question was settled over 2,000 years ago when Socrates said, “A good big man is better than a good little man at any time.”

“What really put us on top was Franco Harris,” Steelers teammate Joe Greene told Pro Football Hall of Fame senior adviser Joe Horrigan in a 2018 interview.

While Franco would have preferred to be drafted by several other teams, depending on local success and the franchise, he was determined to be part of the fabric of the community regardless, saying, “Wherever I go to play, I want to live in this town and get involved in this town, become this town”, as stated in Gary M. Pomerantz’s book “Their Life’s Work: The Pittsburgh Steelers Brotherhood of the 1970s, Then and Now”.

Indeed, Franco achieved each of these goals in Pittsburgh. Greene would later refer to Franco as “Mr. Pittsburgh.”

Support from the fanbase was mutual, sparked by “Franco’s Italian Army”, a group led by local “pizzaman” Al Vento. Franco and Vento will remain longtime friends.

And then “it” happened.

On December 23, 1972, the Steelers hosted the Oakland Raiders in Pittsburgh’s first playoff game in a quarter century.

With the Steelers trailing 7-6 with 1:13 remaining in the final quarter, Terry Bradshaw threw three straight misses. Pittsburgh faced a fourth-and-10 situation with 0:22 on the clock.

Bradshaw threw a directed pass to running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua. The ball, Fuqua, and Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum all came to the 35-yard line at the same time, causing Tatum to crash into Fuqua, kick the ball, and send the ricochet towards Franco. He caught the ball inches above the turf and ran along the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown, leading to a 13-7 Steelers victory.

Pomerantz wrote that while at Penn State, head coach Joe Paterno implored Franco to “Go to prom!” Go to the ball! always. On this day in December, that well-learned lesson played historic dividends – the “spotless reception”.

In a 1990 article published in The Canton Repository, Steelers President and Hall of Famer Dan Rooney (Class of 2000) commented, “People will never have to wonder what the greatest game in Steelers history is. . Franco’s Immaculate Reception stands above all others. It was a miracle game that just lifted the Steelers to a new level.

Indeed, the Steelers would not post a losing record during Franco’s 12 seasons in Pittsburgh. (He played a 13th season, in Seattle, and the Seahawks went 12-4.)

“It was, without a doubt, my most memorable (play) of all time,” Franco said in this Repository article. “I still have people coming up to me and talking about that play. They always tell me where they were when it happened.

Franco has 12,120 career rushing yards, with eight 1,000-yard seasons, as well as 2,287 receiving yards and 100 total touchdowns. He appeared in four Super Bowls and was MVP of Super Bowl IX. In 1976 he was named NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year.

“A player shouldn’t be measured by statistics alone,” Franco once observed. “It should be measured by something more special, like the sharing of teammates and fans.”

Franco has certainly created something special in Pittsburgh.