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Saunders: No One Loved Being a Steeler More Than Franco Harris



Steelers Franco Harris Art Rooney II

PITTSBURGH — No one loved being a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers more than Franco Harris.

Harris, the Hall of Fame running back and four-time Super Bowl winner who was the central figure in the Immaculate Reception, died on Wednesday at the age of 72.

Harris was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey, the son of an Army vet. He grew up in Mount Holly, New Jersey, just down the road, and attended college at Penn State. But after being selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh became Harris’ home.

He moved into a house in the Mexican War Streets on Pittsburgh’s North Side, and long after his retirement in 1984, Harris remained invested in the Pittsburgh community. 

He founded Super Bakery with his college teammate Lydell Mitchell. Harris was the chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships and served on its board of directors. He has a pizza shop attached to the east side of Acrisure Stadium and became the owner of the Pittsburgh Passion women’s football team.

But more than his business and charitable ventures, Harris was simply happy to be present as a living, breathing representation of those great Steelers teams of the 1970s. 

Harris was everywhere; at everything. If there were 50 Steelers fans gathered at a Lions club event, there were even odds that Harris was showing up. He never seemed to be burdened by his celebrity or bothered by people wanting a moment of his time.

So it was fitting that on Nov. 10, when the Steelers and president Art Rooney II wanted to show off their new Hall of Honor museum to the local Pittsburgh media that Harris volunteered to be a tour guide.

When you enter the museum — and if you haven’t yet, it should be a bucket list item for any Steelers fan — it begins with a film. There’s a small theater with some of the original yellow seats from Heinz Field.

When the local media piled in for our tour, it just so happened that I ended up sitting in the back row next to Franco. The film talks about the history of the Steelers, and of course, Harris and the Immaculate Reception play a starring role.

I’m sure that Harris had seen the film before that moment. Not only is he in it, he narrates a portion of it. But as the faded highlights of No. 32 racing down the artificial green turf at Three Rivers Stadium and later holding a Lombardi Trophy flickered across the screen, I stole a glance over to catch Harris’ reaction. There were tears in his eyes.

Fifty years later, Harris still got emotional about what he and his teammates accomplished. He still showed up and shook every hand, listened to every story and told more than a few of his own. That’s the kind of person Franco Harris was and that’s what being a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers meant to him. Pittsburgh has lost a legend. May he rest in peace.