PITTSBURGH — Franco Harris is one of the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers — and really greatest in the entire NFL — when it comes to his work on the field during his career. The running back retired with over 12,000 yards and 91 touchdowns, and was a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have many great players. But they had only one Franco Harris. Harris retired from the NFL in 1984, but was a near-constant part of the Steelers franchise and the community from the end of his playing days to his death on Wednesday.
Cam Heyward, the Steelers defensive captain, said that Harris set the standard for the way Steelers players are expected to act off the field and in the community, during and after their playing days.
“The standard was set with guys like him and the way he was involved in the community and the way he always invited everybody to the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Heyward said.
“He was there, making change, being involved in everything that he could. I think that’s the way that group was represented, when you look at Mean Joe and guys like him. Franco led the charge in that front. Outspoken. Didn’t hide behind anything. He was a person of the people.”
In many ways, Heyward said, it was the combination of Harris’ success on the field that allowed that off-the-field standard to exist.
“Before he was drafted, they were a tough group, but they didn’t win the games they were supposed to,” Heyward said. “When Franco came along, they went 11-3, he has an unbelievable play, and you just saw the trajectory take off from there. It wasn’t just a tough group. It was a winning group.”
“Then you can say they were a tough, winning group, but they didn’t just win on the field. They won off the field. They way they interacted with people, the way the city always got behind them, that set the way for any player after. We were just fortunate enough to be a part of an organization that great men are a part of. You walk in and you see those six Lombardi’s and you say Franco is a real reason (for) that.”
Harris helped make the Steelers what they are today, and then he remained connected enough to the current roster to continue to make a difference for the rest of his life. Heyward remembered his times filming video skits with Harris and said he had interviewed him for his podcast on his final day on Tuesday.
Harris helped keep the current team connected to those of the past and create continuity of values and culture from the teams of the 70s to today.
“The way he went about respecting people after him, that was incredible,” Heyward said. “It could be one of those things where ‘I won and we did it my way.’ He welcomed every body. He always had the utmost respect for every player and every person in the city.”
“There’s so much to be learned from him about how he conducted himself, how he embraced the responsibility of being Franco for Steeler Nation, for the community, for the Penn State followers,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “He embraced it all, and he did it with such grace and class and patience. He had time for people.”
“There was just a level of humility with Franco,” Heyward added. “We lost a good one today.”