In Franco Harris, the Steelers found a hero … and a Way

PITTSBURGH (AP) — “The Steeler Way” did not exist at 3:28 p.m. on Dec. 23, 1972. If it had, it would have been synonymous with one thing and one thing only.

Losing. Lots of it. Nearly four decades worth of pratfalls and misery cloaked in anonymity.

By 3:29 p.m., about the time Franco Harris raced across the goal line while the Oakland Raiders gave chase in what looked more like a dazed trot, everything had changed.

They call Harris’ iconic snatch, grab and sprint to the end zone in the final seconds of the 1972 divisional playoff “The Immaculate Reception,” a title that hints at the divine.

Maybe, but divinity suggests a one-shot deal. This was not that. It couldn’t be. The will of Harris, defensive tackle Joe Greene and head coach Chuck Noll, among others in an organization soon stuffed with legends, wouldn’t allow it.

On the day that Harris died, one that came just 48 hours before the 50th anniversary of a play that changed the arc of a franchise and the narrative of a region, the weight of his legacy was both spoken and unspoken.

Mourners gathered at the monument placed at the exact spot — now essentially in a parking lot — where Harris caught the ball that caromed off either Oakland’s Jack Tatum or Steelers teammate Frenchy Fuqua (who exactly, we’ll never know for sure). Others posed with the statue that welcomes visitors to the main terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Longtime Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward did what he’s done for each of the last dozen years. He walked to work, by the case stuffed with Vince Lombardi trophies given annually to the Super Bowl champions — four of which arrived soon after Harris turned the impossible into the inevitable.

“(Harris) has an unbelievable play and you just saw the trajectory take off from there,” Heyward said. “It wasn’t just a tough group, it was a tough and winning group … but they didn’t just win on the field. They won off the field. The way they interacted with people. The way the city always got behind them.”

Maybe that’s why Harris never left after his retirement in 1984. There were obligations to meet. To himself. To the game. To the community that embraced the man simply known as Franco. He could have left for more lucrative places. Warmer places. Cashed in on his fame. Yet he never even considered it. He couldn’t.

“He felt a real burning passion to use that celebrity to bring about change to the people who need it,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said. “And he identified he would have the greatest impact in staying here in Pennsylvania.”

At the time of his death, he was serving as the board chair for “The Pittsburgh Promise,” a nonprofit dedicated to “high educational aspirations among urban youth and scholarships for post-secondary access,” among other things. It was just one of the many charities he dedicated his time to long after he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

To Harris and the other members of the Super Steelers, success wasn’t defined just by winning, but by the way in which they triumphed.

“(They) set the way for any player (that came after),” Heyward said. “We were just fortunate enough to be part of an organization that great men are a part of. You walk in and you see those six Lombardis and you say, ‘Franco is the real reason (for) that.”

As the years wore on, Harris could have tired of talking about his place in NFL lore. Could have asked others to move on. To talk about the other things that interested him. Politics. Social progress. Equality.

He’d try to steer others to that point eventually, but not at first. Harris knew perhaps better than anyone what it mean to turn Pittsburgh into the “City of Champions” during a time when the steel industry was crumbling. He never took his role in the area’s symbolic rebirth for granted.

“The feeling is there and there is a deep, just good feeling,” Harris said in September after the team announced it would retire his No. 32 this Saturday when the Steelers host the Raiders, now based in Las Vegas. “And what an honor it was to be a part of that and to contribute to that.”

It’s why he shook every hand and posed for every picture. Listened to every story from those who said they were there, a number that has swelled through the years far past the 59,000 seats at the old Three Rivers Stadium.

There are babies named after him whose parents were inspired by what the benevolent general of Franco’s Italian Army meant to a city searching for something to cling to.

In Harris, Pittsburgh found a hero who walked among them. Who stuck around. Who led — by words, sure, but by actions too. Actions forever memorialized in stone, grainy film, Jack Fleming’s iconic call and in the long history of a proud city that feels more like a village most Sundays during football season.

That is what Harris and those he stood beside built. Who knows what happens if that ball falls to the turf at 3:29 p.m.? Maybe all that came after still goes as it did. The four titles in six years. The seemingly yearly two-hour pilgrimage by the locals over to Canton, Ohio, to watch another Steeler enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

The beauty is that Steeler fans will never have to know. All because Harris never stopped running. Setting the foundation for not just a team or a region, but a way.

The Franco Way. The Steeler Way.

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