What do you do when the man of the hour suddenly passes on? That’s what the Pittsburgh Steelers—and the NFL community at large—are grappling with this week as they prepare to retire the jersey of running back Franco Harris, who passed away suddenly earlier this week.
No cause of death has been yet reported for the 72-year-old, and it’s not my place to speculate. I do know that he was taking part in a media blitz in advance of this weekend’s festivities. One of his very last activities was to sit down with Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and talk about his past and the Steelers’ present on the Not Just Football podcast.
One of the recurrent themes throughout the many interviews I’ve heard him give over the years when speaking about the team’s history after his own era has been an investment in the continuation of a legacy. He continues to have a relationship with the current players even today, probably more than any other player in team history, this podcast being a perfect example of that.
“1972 until today, 50 years later, it’s not only the 70s, it’s the teams that followed that really kept, as Mike Tomlin would say, the standard,” he told Heyward. “And that’s what makes us feels so and feel so proud that Steeler football has maintained that”.
The ‘us’ to which he refers is his teammates of that 70s dynasty, many of whom fortunately remain with us today, including numerous Hall of Famers like Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, John Stallworth, and Lynn Swann.
Unsurprisingly, the past 40ish years since the end of that dynastic era haven’t quite lived up to the same impossible standards, but they’ve managed to be the winningest team in the league in the modern era, recently becoming the first franchise to win 500 games since the merger. And they’ve added a couple of Lombardis to the trophy case as well, so it could be worse.
“The last 50 years has really been incredible, so I always want to thank the teams that followed for maintaining that standard,” Harris said. “You look at their first 40 years and the next 50, it’s incredible how it turned and where we are now. Just like I said, it just makes us feel proud and makes us feel good that Steeler football is Steeler football still.”
Now, I know what the comments are going to read like, and everyone is entitled to their opinions, of course. Yes, the game has changed over the course of the past 50 years, for everybody. No, the Steelers haven’t ever matched the success they had in the 70s. Standard this, standard that, non-losing seasons, etc., etc.
For me, however, I do take some small comfort in hearing Harris talk about feeling proud of seeing the legacy he helped create all those years ago continuing to live on today in guys like Heyward. And I hope he really believed it.