Franco Harris: Great New Jerseyan, Great Pittsburgh Steeler, Great American

Almost exactly fifty years ago, on the last day of 1972, the most beloved player in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates, ROBERTO CLEMENTE, passed away.  He was flying on a mission of mercy to Nicaragua to assist refugees from their civil war when his plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

And on Tuesday night, almost exactly 50 years after the Clemente death, the most beloved Pittsburgh Steeler, FRANCO HARRIS, passed away. He was more to me than just a great National Football League (NFL) running back.

I’m in Pittsburgh right now, spending time with Garnet, the special love of my life.  At various stores, they are selling shirts honoring Franco and the fiftieth anniversary of the December, 1972 Immaculate Reception, Franco’s miracle last second catch that defeated the Oakland Raiders, giving the Pittsburgh Steelers their first ever post-season playoff victory and signaling the arrival of the Steeler dynasty of the 1970s.  That play ranks Number One on the “NFL 100 Greatest” ranking of the top plays in NFL history.  The anniversary will be celebrated at a halftime ceremony at the Steeler home game against the Las Vegas Raiders this weekend.  Sadly, the shirts will now serve as memorial souvenirs to Franco.

If you never saw the Immaculate Reception, here is a link to same.

When one grows up in Pittsburgh and its suburbs, as I did, your Pittsburgh roots never leave you.  When I served as Region 2 EPA administrator, I traveled to Puerto Rico at least four times a year to deal with environmental issues.  On every occasion when I would address a group, I would discuss my growing up in Pittsburgh and my adulation of the Great Roberto, as Pirate announcer Bob Prince called him.  I would then close that part of the speech with the words, “I won’t be satisfied until Major League Baseball honors Roberto Clemente by retiring his number 21 for all the teams in baseball.” And then, without fail, I would receive a standing ovation!In truth, Franco Harris spanned two eras of my life: my childhood and adolescence in Pittsburgh and its suburbs and my adult years in New Jersey.  And Franco was the quintessence of the best of both locales, both in terms of athleticism and character.

As an athlete, Franco was one of two sports legends with Jersey roots  who attained stardom in my native  Pittsburgh.  The first was Arnold Raymond Cream a/k/a Jersey Joe Walcott, a native of Pennsauken New Jersey and the former sheriff of Camden County who won his world heavyweight championship from Ezzard Charles by a seventh round knockout in Pittsburgh’s late, lamented Forbes Field in July, 1951.   I wrote earlier this year a column about Jersey Joe’s Pittsburgh triumph and the statue of him in Camden.

In attendance at Forbes Field the night Jersey Joe won his world heavyweight title was my late Uncle Ben Steinberg, the last of the renowned Steinberg kosher butchers of Murray Avenue, Squirrel Hill Pittsburgh fame.  And he picked Walcott to win!

As for Franco Harris, he was an almost sports messianic figure for anybody like me who grew in “the Burgh” and suffered through years of rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1950s and 1960s, then the worst organization in the National Football League, a model of abject futility on and off the football field.

I actually suffered from derision from my friends and their parents for rooting for the Steelers during those years.  My own late father, Melvin “Moshe” Steinberg didn’t want to go see them play.  But he was a wonderful, loving dad who took me to see them play at least one game  a year in either Forbes Field or Pitt Stadium, two of the worst venues for pro football in NFL history.

The Steelers never won a single title of any sort throughout their first five decades. Their famed owner, Art Rooney, was a wonderful, warm, human being and the leader of the Pittsburgh Irish community.  He ran the Steelers as a “Mom and Pop“ operation.  If you went to the Steeler offices then located in downtown Pittsburgh at the Fort Pitt Hotel or the Roosevelt Hotel, Art would come out and talk to you as you were obtaining your tickets. And as my friend, sports business journalist Evan Weiner told me, if I had been older, Art would have invited me to come back with him and play cards!

But Art Rooney has virtually no success as a football team chief executive.  He hired terrible coaches like Buddy Parker, a racist alcoholic and got rid of quarterbacks who later became elite performers, such as John Unitas, Len Dawson, Earl Morrall, and Jack Kemp.  By the mid-1960s, the Steelers were a failing franchise.  They were distinguished only by their behavior as the top imbibers of alcohol in the NFL, as described by the famed Pittsburgh sports journalist Myron Cope, with whom my mother, Harriet Steinberg worked at the Pitt News.  Topping that list of extreme alcohol imbibers were quarterback Bobby Layne and defensive end Ernie Stautner.

As the NFL under the leadership of Pete Rozelle began to experience astronomical growth in the mid-1960s, Steeler attendance lagged way behind the rest of the league.  Only the agreement of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania to finance the building of a new stadium, Three Rivers, kept the Steelers from moving.

In 1969 and 1970, however, three developments occurred that led to the transformation of the Same Old Steelers, as they were called in Pittsburgh throughout the 1960s into Steeler Nation, the dynasty of the 1970s.  First, Art Rooney turned over the management of the Steeler franchise to his son, Dan.  Dan Rooney, who was later appointed by President Barack Obama as Ambassador to Ireland, emerged as one of the top team executives in the NFL.  Second, Dan Rooney in 1969 hired as the new Steeler head coach Chuck Noll, who became second only to Vince Lombardi as the greatest coach in the history of the NFL.  Third, the Steelers received $3 million as compensation for their agreement to join the American Football Conference after the AFL-NFL full merger went into effect in 1970.  Dan Rooney pledged to use that money to draft and recruit better players.

At his first press conference after being hired as head coach, Chuck Noll was asked what he thought of the Steeler team he was hired to coach.  His response was straightforward: “ I think it stinks!”

Chuck Noll, however, would go on to become the greatest drafter in NFL history.   He would draft the following Hall of Famers: Defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene in 1969, quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1970, outside linebacker Jack Ham in 1971, running back Franco Harris in 1972, and then in 1974, in the greatest draft in NFL history, four future Hall of Famers, wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, middle linebacker Jack Lambert, and center Mike Webster.

All these players were indispensable.  Yet the most consistent of all was Franco Harris.  He was a most popular draft choice, having been a star running back in the Penn State backfield, along with his close friend, Lydell Mitchell.  In the four Steeler Super Bowl victories during his tenure, he performed excellently in each and was named the Most Valuable Player in the first Steeler Super Bowl victory, Super Bowl IX in January, 1975, in which the Steelers triumphed over the Minnesota Vikings, 16-6.

Outside the football gridiron, Franco was a man of business success and committed community involvement.  And his New Jersey origin was a special source of pride for him.

Franco was born on March 7, 1950 at Fort Dix, New Jersey, four months after me.  His parents were an African-American soldier and a native Italian woman.

Franco and his brother, Pete first attained football stardom at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, New Jersey, Franco as a running back and Pete as a safety.  And after he graduated, Franco maintained a lifelong commitment to Mount Holly, specifically his involvement with Mount Holly youth programs and the Mount Holly Pro Day, an annual charity golf tournament honoring an NFL pro from the state of New Jersey.  Proceeds benefit youth programs.  Franco was the first honoree.

His continuing contributions to Mount Holly were recognized when he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2011.  People in New Jersey knew long before he attained national fame that Franco was as good a man as he was great an athlete.  He was truly a model of outstanding American citizenship.

And it can truly be said that New Jersey and Franco were perfect together.  May his memory be a wonderful blessing for the Garden State.

Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

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One response to “Franco Harris: Great New Jerseyan, Great Pittsburgh Steeler, Great American”


    Not being an avid fan of sports, I have difficulty understanding anyone’s passion for sports.
    BUT THEN, I remember my dad
    listening to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games and his great love and loyalty to HIS team.
    This is a treasured memory for me.

    Sports fans, enjoy the games of today and treasure the memories of the past.

    Enjoyed this column, Alan Steinberg,.
    It brought back happy memories in regard to my dad.
    AND, I have now seen the ‘Immaculate Reception’.

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