Steelers HOF RB Franco Harris Passes Away at 72

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By Ray Porter Jr

The NFL and the City of Pittsburgh was shocked and saddened at the news that iconic Steelers HOF running back Franco Harris passed away at age 72. The news was confirmed early Wednesday morning by Pittsburgh news affiliate WTAE-TV.

It is difficult to find the appropriate words to describe Franco Harris’ impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers, his teammates, the City of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation. From his rookie season, which included the Immaculate Reception, through the next 50 years, Franco brought joy to people on and off the field. He never stopped giving back in so many ways. He touched so many, and he was loved by so many. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Dana, his son Dok, and his extended family at this difficult time,” Steelers Team President Art Rooney II said in a statement.

Harris’ unfortunate passing comes two days before he was to be honored with the retirement of his #32 and the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, a historic play in which Harris caught a defected Terry Bradshaw pass and ran 60 yards for the winning TD that not only gave the Steelers a 13-7 win over the Oakland Raiders in a 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff game, but it was also the franchise’s first-ever playoff win and signaled their transformation into NFL contenders. Harris was also named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,055 yards and 10 TDs.

Harris’ #32 will be retired at halftime of the Steelers’ Christmas Eve game vs. the Raiders.

If Hall of Fame DT Joe Greene is the cornerstone of the Steelers Dynasty, then Franco Harris is the fuel for the team’s fire and many in the Steelers organization say that their success happened because of Franco.

Steelers Founder Art Rooney II once said, Before Franco got here, we didn’t win much. Since he got here, we don’t lose.”

Born in Fort Dix, N.J, Harris was the son of an African American father (Cad Harris) and an Italian mother (Gina Parenti Harris). He graduated from Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly Township, New Jersey and then went to Penn State University for his collegiate studies and played football for iconic head coach Joe Paterno. (He also played with fellow HOF teammate and LB Jack Ham).

“Our thoughts are with Franco Harris’ wife, Dana, and we send our deepest condolences to his entire family, his friends, the Steelers organization and all whose lives were impacted by Franco,” said Penn State Football Head Coach James Franklin. “His professional career and accomplishments speak for itself as a Pro Football Hall of Famer, four-time Super Bowl Champion and nine-time Pro Bowl selection, but it was his toughness and team-first approach as a Nittany Lion that will long be remembered by Penn Staters. Franco was a true steward of the Blue & White and he will be sorely missed.”

Harris rushed for 2,002 yards rushing with 24 touchdowns with the Nittany Lions and was the Steelers’ first round pick (13 overall) in the 1972 Draft. From there, he would rush for eight seasons of at least 1,000 seasons (his best season was 1975 in which he rushed for 1,246 yards) and he led the NFL with 14 TDs in 1976. He was a 9-time Pro Bowler and 3-time All-Pro and led the Steelers to four Super Bowls in 6 years in the 1970’s and was named the MVP of Super Bowl IX when he rushed for a then-record 158 yards as the Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings 16-6. Amazingly, his Super Bowl career totals of 101 carries for 354 yards are records and his four career rushing touchdowns are tied for the second-most in Super Bowl history.

Harris continued to play for the Steelers until 1983 when he rushed for 1,007 yards. Then an unfortunate contract dispute led to the Steelers releasing Harris and him finishing his career with the Seattle Seahawks in 1984, just 192 yards short of then-all time rushing leader Jim Brown. For his career, Harris rushed for 12,120 yards and 100 total TDs. He was also named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 1976. He was enshrined into the Hall of Fame (along with fellow teammate and LB Jack Lambert) in 1990.

We had a productive day. Obviously, we did so with a heavy heart. This organization, this community, the football world, we lost a great one in Franco Harris. So, obviously, we’re all heartbroken. But we do look forward to honoring him and his legacy this weekend. Obviously, where our attention needs to be is on the preparation required to put together the type of performance that’s fitting of a great man like Franco,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said following his team’s Wednesday practice. “Again, like I mentioned yesterday, I’m an advocate of giving people their flowers while they’re here. And I meant what I said yesterday. I just admire and love the man. So much to be learned from him in terms of how he conducted himself, how he embraced the responsibilities of being Franco, for Steelers Nation, for this community, for the Penn State followers. He embraced it all, and did it with such grace, and class, and patience, and time for people.

After football, Harris continued to endear himself to the Pittsburgh community. He and his Penn State teammate Lydell Mitchell opened Super Bakery in 1990 to produce nutrition-oriented foods for school children (it was renamed to RSuper Foods in 2006). He also became co-owner of the Pittsburgh Passion, a women’s American football team that plays in the Women’s Football Alliance.

“We are shocked and saddened to learn of the unexpected passing of Franco Harris,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “He meant so much to Steelers fans as the Hall of Fame running back who helped form the nucleus of the team’s dynasty of the ’70s, but he was much more. He was a gentle soul who touched so many in the Pittsburgh community and throughout the entire NFL. Franco changed the way people thought of the Steelers, of Pittsburgh, and of the NFL.

Harris is survived by his wife Dana Dokmanovich and his son, Dok.

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Image: Ray Porter Jr.

Sources: nfl.com, Wikipedia, https://gopsusports.com/