Kozora: Franco Harris Is No Longer Here But His Legacy Lives On Forever

The news of Franco Harris’ death is a shock to Steelers Nation and the entire NFL world. He was supposed to be among the crowd Saturday night, Christmas Eve, to celebrate his #32 being officially retired as the Steelers and Raiders played on the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. It was supposed to be a great and joyous night. Now, it’ll be a somber occasion.

As devastating as today, tomorrow, Saturday, and all the other days will be, Harris left a mark on football, on Pittsburgh, that’ll never be forgotten.

Few teams have such a clear mark and moment of an organizational shift. The day a team turned their fortunes, their culture, their history, and their attitudes around. For most, it trickles in slowly over time, building and building until they bring a championship home. For Pittsburgh, their moment couldn’t have been any clearer.

December 23, 1972. The Immaculate Reception. No, the Steelers didn’t win the Super Bowl that year. But Harris’ game-winning play against the Oakland Raiders turned that team from lovable losers, with zero playoff wins in franchise history up and until that point, into the makings of a dynasty. Without a doubt, it’s the greatest play in NFL history. Terry Bradshaw’s scramble, Frenchy Fuqua and Jack Tatum’s collision, Harris’ hustle and presence to scoop the ball inches away from hitting the ground, and – people forget this – outrunning the final Raiders’ defenders into the end zone. That wasn’t a walk-in touchdown.

That was the day for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They became a two-act franchise. Everything before the Immaculate Reception and everything after. Franco Harris was the man in-between.

But Harris was more than a moment, more than a play. He was a tremendous player with a full Hall of Fame career, a key piece during the 70s dynasty and a focal point for their first two Super Bowls with the team’s run-first identity. He remains the franchise’s all-time leader in carries, yards, and touchdowns, records that figure to stand for a long time. Maybe forever. His gold jacket was well-earned and deserved as one of the best to ever do it.

Beyond football, Harris was also an activist who fought for what he believed in and what he valued. In Dan Rooney’s autobiography, he writes about the time Harris held a one-man protest against an upcoming KKK rally, prepared to indefinitely sit on the courthouse steps. Here’s what Rooney wrote:

“The mayor believed Franco might be in danger and his presence might incite the Klansman to riot. I told them, ‘I can’t tell Franco what to do. He’s got to do what he thinks is right.’ But I agreed to go downtown to talk to him…I went up the steps to where Franco was sitting, leaning against one of the granite columns. He had food and water and intended to sit there all night until the Klan arrived the next day. I sat down next to him, and we talked. I told him he was doing a brave thing by being there.

I asked him if he would consider joining [a counter-demonstration] instead of confronting the Klan here on the steps. I told him I would go with him. Franco said he’d think about it, and soon after I left he packed up his belongings and quietly departed. I can’t tell you how much respect I have for Franco. He is a deeply principled man, and I admired him for his stand against the Klan.”

Harris loved Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh loved him. Even in retirement, he was such a presence in the city, always hanging around town, talking to new Steelers – like Najee Harris – and I don’t know how many draft picks Franco’s announced over the years. There were many and he enjoyed every one of them.

While his death is a shock, there’s comfort in reading and hearing the stories from those who knew him the best. To know how much he was appreciated and loved. It doesn’t make the pain or the grief any easier. It just might bring a smile through the tears.

The world needs more Franco Harris-es. Good people doing the best they can with the tools they have. He embodied what it meant to be a Steeler. Work hard. Fight for your values. Earn and keep your reputation. Represent your city on and off the field. He did and was all of those things. He’s no longer with us but his spirit lives on forever. That can’t be taken away.

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