Franco Harris' crusade is defending late Penn State coach Joe Paterno


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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The theme song from "Skyfall" crackles out of raised speakers in a hotel ballroom festooned with chandeliers. You've heard Adele's lyrics. She sings about standing tall together when the sky crumbles, "where worlds collide and days are dark."

As the song fades out, Franco Harris takes the stage alone, wearing a navy sports coat. His hair is thinning, but his beard is thick. He has a microphone in his hand, a captivated audience at his feet and another man's legacy on his mind rather than his own.

In the wild month of November 2011, when Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired, Mr. Harris visited State College several times. Driving back to Pittsburgh from one of these jaunts, he called Bob Capretto, his friend and a former Penn State football player. Mr. Capretto remembers Mr. Harris saying, " 'Look Bob, I'm going to be very vocal about this. You'd better distance yourself from me because there are going to be people coming after me.' "

The first time Mr. Harris spoke out in support of Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, Meadows Casino and Race Track halted a sponsorship deal it had recently made with him. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl then asked him to step down as the chair of the Pittsburgh Promise charity.

In the weeks following his dismissal in 2011, Mr. Ravenstahl received more criticism, and Mr. Harris was quickly reinstated.

When he called and emailed Penn State president Rodney Erickson that month, proposing a summit at Ye Olde College Diner near campus, nobody showed up except for a few students. They ate the diner's famous sticky buns, and Mr. Harris regaled them with stories about Paterno. Appreciation for his former coach and a gut feeling drove his actions.

"It was a start where you really felt that you didn't know where this was going," he said. "You felt kind of alone. In my wildest dreams I wouldn't have guessed where we've come out today."

Mr. Harris' one-man rebellion has evolved into a widely resonating movement. He's pestered the university's board of trustees constantly, sometimes crashing their meetings, other times signing up for the public comment sessions. He's hosted several heavily-attended pro-Paterno rallies. On 36-hour notice in December, Mr. Harris found out NCAA president Mark Emmert was scheduled to speak at a luncheon in California, flew from Pittsburgh to ask one question about the NCAA sanctions then flew back that night.

Most recently, he helped endorse three candidates for the trustees' May alumni elections. Before their victory was official he addressed the current trustees at their meeting, saying, "We'll never understand your lust for power, board of trustees, but we will never back down."

Though Mr. Harris didn't start the Penn Staters For Responsible Stewardship group (PS4RS), his involvement has helped give it significance. PS4RS now has 20,000 members. For the recent board election, Mr. Harris spearheaded a committee that screened more than 25 candidates seeking the approval of PS4RS. The three endorsed by Mr. Harris and PS4RS easily won.

Whether Mr. Harris is flying to California, commanding attention at a trustees meeting or espousing his views on TV, many involved say he is not only the key link holding this chain of protest together, but the original designer.

"If it's not Franco, I don't know who it is," Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano said. "Without that notoriety, without that push, I think it would've been much easier to just say, 'You know what, we're just moving on and we're not looking back at this at all.' "

Ruffling feathers

After screening the mini-movie "The Framing of Paterno," passing out diagrams of the infamous Lasch Building coaches' locker room and bringing up possible conspiracy theories at his "Upon Further Review" rally in the State College hotel ballroom, Mr. Harris asks the crowd, "Who can we believe in? Who can we trust?" Quickly, somebody yells, "You Franco."

The event could sound like a revival if Mr. Harris wanted it to. Even when discussing heated issues, though, he sounds remarkably calm, almost soothing. His steady cadence masks the complexity or, as many would say, the extremeness of his rhetoric.

There is no reluctance when it comes to divulging his hard-core beliefs about Paterno, who died in January 2012. Harris discussed how after analyzing Paterno's grand jury testimony he now thinks Paterno was "briefed" by somebody on what to tell the grand jury because of language he considers unusual.

Another one of his major points centers on a conspiracy to fire Paterno that he believes is linked to John Surma, the former trustees vice chairman, who is the CEO of U.S. Steel. His evidence toward this conclusion is largely based upon a frayed relationship between Paterno and Mr. Surma's brother, Victor Surma, a former Penn State football player, depicted in a series of emails recovered from a 2007 Penn State letterman's listserv group.

Neither Victor Surma nor John Surma responded to interview requests.

Mr. Harris qualifies his theory by saying he's just "showing information," a strategy that parallels the way radio host Glenn Beck and other well-known contrarians often portray arguments, presenting a view for several minutes to a like-minded audience and then telling those people they don't have to accept the premise -- that it's just a possibility.

They are listening, though. Whether that influence is being used for good is another question.

Mr. Harris has been joined at most of the "Upon Further Review" events by documentary filmmaker John Ziegler, who directed "The Framing of Joe Paterno," and Ray Blehar, a Penn State graduate and former federal government analyst who has tirelessly studied the Freeh report and authored numerous rebuttals of it. Mr. Harris refers to them as part of his team.

In State College, Mr. Blehar attempted to discredit the testimony of some of Sandusky's victims, saying they exaggerated how small and young they were when they were sexually violated by Sandusky. In a later email exchange, Mr. Blehar wrote, "[prosecutor Joe] McGettigan coached many of the witnesses into changing their stories." He said his purpose of dissecting their testimony was to draw attention to Pennsylvania's child protective services.

Michael Boni, a lawyer for one of Sandusky's victims, said he understood why Mr. Harris and others would stand up for a friend's legacy, but said the rhetoric involving victims' testimony went too far.

"That is problematic," Mr. Boni said. "That's denial. There is going to be a fringe element that wants to see what they want to see and somehow think they're the victims in all this and that this is a product of victims making stuff up. That's absurd beyond belief."

In late March, the name of Victim 2 was leaked on Mr. Ziegler's website. His prison interview of Sandusky, broadcast on the "Today" show, prompted the Paterno family to disavow him, saying in a statement that Mr. Ziegler's interview was "transparently self-serving and yet another insult to the victims and anyone who cares about the truth in this tragic story."

Mr. Harris continues to associate with Mr. Ziegler, assigning him to the panel at his April presentation in State College and his May presentation in the Lehigh Valley.

"I only had one conversation with Sue [Paterno], and I don't think anybody else would call me," Mr. Harris said of his connections to Mr. Ziegler. "There's no reason to call me. We have our own show here. We don't abide by any rules; we don't abide by anything."

Aside from the Internet bile that arose after his original defense of Paterno and again after he brought the Joe Paterno cardboard cut-out to a football game last fall, he has mostly escaped scrutiny for his role, particularly from those inside the Penn State community. The Paterno family, heavily critical of Mr. Ziegler, offered a statement about Mr. Harris for this story that reads, "Penn State has never had a more dedicated and passionate supporter. He is a man of deep convictions and courage."

But as Penn State continues to move on from the Sandusky scandal and Mr. Harris and his "team" veer further toward personal vendettas and the questioning of Sandusky victims, how long can the grace period endure?

Chuck Franzetta was a senior when Mr. Harris arrived on campus as a freshman. He said he respects Mr. Harris as an athlete, person, humanitarian and businessman, but considers his actions detrimental to the university, preventing Penn State from showcasing its academic achievements and thwarting football coach Bill O'Brien from assembling and leading the best team.

Further, he questions the veracity of Mr. Harris' message. Of the board of trustees, which Mr. Harris has accused of conspiracy, Mr. Franzetta points out that four of the 32 board members in November 2011 were former football players who respected Mr. Paterno. Three of them, Dave Joyner, Paul Suhey and Steve Garban, were captains. Mr. Franzetta said he has asked Mr. Harris via email and in person to discontinue his actions.

"Their attacks on those people are wrong," Mr. Franzetta said. "I get a little emotional about that. They're wrong. They shouldn't be doing that. They are going after people who are good, decent people who have committed themselves to this university. I guess at some point somebody has to stand up ... and say, 'Stop it, shut up.' "

Still a star

Few people represent Pittsburgh like Mr. Harris. He's an icon. Since the 1970s, he's involved himself on just about every board and every charity. He's visited just about every elementary school and every fundraising event.

When Barack Obama ran for president the first time, he campaigned in Pittsburgh with Mr. Harris by his side. In 2009, T.J. Rooney, then the chair of Pennsylvania's Democratic Party, said he envisioned Mr. Harris as a future candidate for Senate.

For some, the scandal has obscured those days. CBS sports columnist Gregg Doyel wrote in September: "So this is how Franco Harris will be remembered. Not as one of the NFL's great running backs. Not for the Immaculate Reception or the Super Bowls. He'll be the crank who wouldn't stop defending Joe Paterno."

Mr. Rooney, now the managing director of the lobbying firm Tri State Strategies, said he disagrees with much of what Mr. Harris has been doing relating to Penn State but still considers him a valuable public figure.

"I know for a fact his phone rings every time there is a race for a national office," Mr. Rooney said.

At a Harrisburg autograph show in March, hundreds lined up in black and gold to meet Mr. Harris, many of them saying they didn't care about anything he said about Mr. Paterno. He was still their hero. Mr. Harris said that after the original brushback from Mr. Ravenstahl and the Meadows Casino about his stance, he hadn't been hurt financially. Mr. Harris is a businessman who is the owner of RSuper Foods.

Ideally, Mr. Harris said he would like his mission to last another year and a half, yet added there is no timetable for truth. His end goal is also vague. He talked explicitly about wanting everyone to know the "truth" about Mr. Paterno yet acknowledged that the consensus had likely been shaped beyond malleability. He also wants to find out exactly why the board of trustees decided to fire Mr. Paterno.

Considering whether everything he's done since November 2011 has affected his reputation, he said, "Did it really bother me or did I think twice about it? Absolutely not. And no way, as I said, would Joe ever protect a predator. ... As far as the legacy, I don't have time to think about that."

Phil LaPorta, a former Penn State teammate, said there's a joke that Mr. Harris is never on time for anything because a mob is always waiting for him, to chat, to take a picture, and he can never say no. At that autograph show in March, Mr. Harris nearly missed a flight because he spent so much time engaging the people who came to see him.

Away from the stage, separated from his platform, Mr. Harris distances himself from the colliding worlds of this ongoing Penn State political battle. He radiates normalcy, his personality opposing both that of famous Hall of Famer and leader of a polarizing movement.

Two days after telling a large crowd everything he and they wanted to hear about Paterno, he was still in State College. Next to Beaver Stadium, Mr. Harris headlined a 5K that benefited the Special Olympics, entertaining runners as they stretched before the race began. While saying in his soft voice how impressed he was with their fitness, he singled out a young girl, maybe 9 years old. He told her he was certain that she could beat him in a race.

The girl smiled, too shy to make eye contact. Mr. Harris chuckled. He was standing about 100 yards away from the unnoticeable patch of grass where the statue of his mentor was once displayed.

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Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 or on Twitter @mdent05. First Published July 7, 2013 4:00 AM


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