Recently, former Pittsburgh Steeler and Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris made an appearance on the “Trailblazers: A Celebration of Black History in the NFL” on SiriusXM NFL Radio. The show highlights several well-accomplished Black players like Harris, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon as names that have changed the game in the NFL.
When Harris was asked on the broadcast what specifically got him into football growing up as a kid on SiriusXM NFL Radio, Harris candidly responded that is wasn’t really even football that was his first love a child.
“We never played football growing up,” Harris responded to the question. “We had nine kids in our family. There was one TV. So, my mom and dad had it. And I tell you what, football was really never on TV that much. It was mostly baseball. I grew up playing a lot of baseball in the vacant lots. You know, we played a lot of baseball, kickball, that sort of thing never played football in our neighborhood.”
It’s crazy to think a Steelers all-time great didn’t even recognize football as a passion early on in his youth, but that is exactly the case with Franco Harris. His family were avid baseball fans growing up, and given the draw of watching the spot on the television as well as playing with his brothers, sisters, and other kids in the local neighborhood, it’s easy to understand why baseball specifically became his first love.
However, Harris did get involved in all three sports when he got to high school, and that is when he recognized what he could be as a football player.
“Football was like a last thought, but I played it because I loved sports,” Harris continued. “But it wasn’t my first love. It was baseball, but I’m glad I played all three because my junior year, my talent in football really exploded. And that’s when I knew that football was a sport and that’s where my talent really was.”
Up until Franco Harris’s junior season, football wasn’t really on the man’s radar. He mentioned that he made the varsity basketball team as a freshman in high school and played baseball extensively as well during the beginning stages of his high school career as well. Football came on later down the road for Harris, who had little exposure to the game at that point compared to his fellow teammates that had been playing since youth. He needed time to learn the game and allow his body to mature as many do during that transition from a high school sophomore to junior, which ended up being the catalyst for him to go from a relative unknown on the gridiron to one of the best players in the country.
“I was thinking more basketball and then also baseball as I said,” Harris said regarding his participation in high school sports. “I played football, but my talent really began to show my junior year. And, and then I started getting all these scholarship offers for football. I made high school, All-American because of the great year I had my junior year. And it opened up a whole new world to me.”
Harris ended up becoming an All-American running back at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in New Jersey and chose Penn State University from the slew of scholarship offers he got between his junior and senior year. From there, he would total 2,002 yards rushing with 24 touchdowns while also catching 28 passes for 352 yards and another touchdown, being primarily a blocker for All-American RB Lydell Mitchell. This didn’t stop the Pittsburgh Steelers from selecting Harris 13th overall in the 1972 NFL Draft, seeing the talent in him to become a workhorse NFL back. Harris rewarded Pittsburgh with a Hall of Fame career, helping them win four Super Bowls in the 70s while amassing 12,120 yards rushing, 2,287 yards receiving, and 100 total TDs.
Still, it’s crazy to think that if it weren’t for a breakout junior campaign at Rancocas Valley, Franco may have tried his hand at baseball at the college level. We obviously see his ability to field balls low to the ground on the famous Immaculate Reception, so who knows what kind of player he could have been on the diamond at the collegiate and possibly professional levels.
Regardless, I think it is safe to say that Steelers Nation is grateful Franco Harris became the football player he did. It helped Pittsburgh rise from mediocrity and become a dynasty in the 70s, kickstarting the legacy of Pittsburgh Steelers Football that we have come to know and love to this day.