Write-up courtesy of Luke Robson
For this week’s Game Changer, the Penn State Sports Business Conference team has chosen to highlight legendary running back Franco Harris. He excelled on the football field for both Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions and Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers. Our entire team would like to offer our condolences to Franco’s family and friends, and we would like to use this article as a way to remember the legacy that he has left on Penn State, Pittsburgh, the National Football League, and anyone lucky enough to have crossed paths with him during his lifetime.
Before college, Franco Harris grew up in New Jersey where he was raised by Italian parents Cad and Gina. He attended Rancocas Valley Regional High School and quickly turned into an excellent three sport athlete playing football, basketball, and baseball. Upon graduation, Harris received an offer to play football at Penn State and he ended up taking his talents to Happy Valley. At Penn State, Franco spent a lot of time blocking for All-American running back Lydell Mitchell, but he still managed to achieve 2,002 rushing yards, 352 receiving yards, 24 touchdowns, and an average of over 5 yards per carry over three years. In 1970, he led the Nittany Lions in scoring.
After his time at Penn State, Harris was drafted 13th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1972 NFL Draft. Little did they know, this pick would change the culture of Steeler’s Football and help launch the franchise into the powerhouse, Super Bowl winning team that they have been for decades. It did not take long for Pittsburgh fans to recognize the talent that Franco possessed, and they quickly dubbed themselves “Franco’s Italian Army”. At games, fans would create huge signs with the phrase, and they even wore army helmets with #32 pasted on the side.
During his 13 years in the NFL, Harris racked up over 12,000 rushing yards, 91 rushing touchdowns, won 4 Super Bowls with the Steelers, received countless awards (Offensive Rookie of the Year, Super Bowl MVP, NFL Man of the Year, etc.), and capped off his prestigious career by being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
Even after all this success, many football fans remember Franco Harris for one play, the Immaculate Reception. After Terry Bradshaw’s pass had deflected away from the intended receiver, Harris reached out and snagged the ball just before it hit the ground. He proceeded to run into the end zone for a touchdown giving Pittsburgh their first ever playoff win as a franchise. To this day, this is arguably the most famous play the NFL has ever seen during a game. Tragically, Franco’s death comes just two days away from the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. During Saturday’s event at Acrisure Stadium, the Pittsburgh Steeler’s will retire Harris’ number making it only the third time in franchise history.
Franco Harris was not only a star on the field, but also within the community. He took it upon himself to seek out any opportunity to give back to those around him whenever he could. After partnering with former teammate Lydell Mitchell, the two founded Super Bakery, known today as RSuper Foods, which produced nutrition-oriented food for schoolchildren. Additionally, they worked together to help save the first African American owned business to go public in the United States, Parks Sausage Company.
At Penn State, Harris was an active member of Penn State’s Center for Food Innovation’s advisory board, a Conti Professor at the School of Hospitality Management, and worked with, as well as heavily funded, the Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship group which aimed to promote positive change within members of Penn State’s board of trustees. In Pittsburgh, Franco served as chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise, a non-profit organization that provides scholarships for public school graduates. To add to that, Harris loved partnering with the Special Olympics as a way to help others live out their dreams of playing competitive sports regardless of the situation they were facing. To show gratitude for his efforts in uplifting the community, Mayor Bill Peduto presented him a key to the city of Pittsburgh back in 2021.
Whether it was on the field or in the community, Harris led by example and inspired others to exceed expectations in their day to day lives. The impact he has had on Penn State, Pittsburgh, and the sport of football in general is immeasurable. Without question, Franco will be greatly missed but the legacy he has left behind will never be forgotten. With that being said, the Penn State Sports Business Conference team could not be prouder to name Franco Harris as this week’s Game Changer. May he rest in peace.