Lifetime award adds to American dream for Franco Harris



It has been 41 years since the Immaculate Reception and 30 years since he last donned a Steelers uniform, but Franco Harris remains as much a part of the Pittsburgh sports scene as the modern-day stars of the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates.

A life-size statue of Harris depicting the Immaculate Reception, the shoe-string grab of a deflected pass that won the Steelers their first playoff game in franchise history in 1972, greets visitors at the main terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport. And there's still a smattering of No. 32 jerseys in the seats at Heinz Field for Sunday home games even though Harris, now 63, hasn't put on shoulder pads for almost three decades.

On Feb. 6, at the 78th annual Danner Dan dinner and sports auction, Harris will be honored with the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award. Harris joins past winners Arnold Palmer, Joe Paterno, Dan Rooney, Dick LeBeau, Bruno Sammartino, Joe Greene, Mike Ditka and Hines Ward.

"That's an honor I'm very proud to receive," Harris said. "I'm following in the footsteps of some great people who have won this award."

Harris played 13 seasons in the NFL, rushed for 12,120 yards and scored 100 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,000 yards nine times and made nine Pro Bowls. Twenty nine years after his retirement, Harris still ranks 13th on the NFL's all-time rushing list and remains among the top 20 players all time in touchdowns.

This is the second time Dapper Dan Charities is honoring Harris, who was Sportsman of the Year in 1977.

Harris, of course, is best known for the Immaculate Reception, but that play was just one moment in a rookie season that he still looks back on with awe. He rushed for 1,055 yards and scored 11 touchdowns after serving as the blocking back for Lydell Mitchell at Penn State for much of his college career.

"I look at my rookie year, which was beyond anything I could have imagined," Harris said. "I guess it surprised a lot of people, caught a lot of people off guard. It was a great turnaround year for us, for the defense and for me, coming of age and finishing the season off with a playoff game. That year is so memorable in so many ways. That whole year captivates me so much still to this day. It was really a Cinderella year."

Two years later, Harris led the Steelers to their first Super Bowl victory with a record 158 yards rushing in Super Bowl IX, which earned him the game's Most Valuable Player award. But Harris' favorite Super Bowl moment did not come until 1979 in Super Bowl XIII, when one play after getting into a physical confrontation with Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson of the Dallas Cowboys, he raced 22 yards up the middle for a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 28-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

"I kind of liked the situation in Super Bowl XIII with Thomas Henderson, that whole situation where he was taunting Bradshaw," Harris said. "We had our words, and then Bradshaw calls my play and we score. That whole situation, with so much happening with Henderson and Bradshaw that week, I enjoyed that moment."

The Steelers went on to win, 35-31, to capture the third of their four Super Bowls of the 1970s.

Harris played for the Steelers until 1983. He was released during training camp in 1984 due to a contract dispute. After playing in eight games for the Seattle Seahawks in 1984, Harris retired from football.

Retirement has been busy for Harris, who owns and operates two businesses -- Super Bakery, Inc. and Silversport. Super Bakery was founded in 1990 and the nutritionally enriched baked goods the company makes are distributed to school systems in all 50 states.

Silversport is in its second year of operation. The company makes and distributes odor-free and antimicrobial fitness products.

Harris also has spent much of his free time the past two years trying to clear the name of Joe Paterno, his coach at Penn State who died in 2012 amid the sexual abuse scandal at the school.

Harris credits his parents -- father, Cad, a World War II veteran, and mother, Gina, a war bride who was born in Italy -- for raising him in a way that provided athletic and academic pursuits that continue to enrich his life.

"It's been a great journey," Harris said. "I was blessed to be brought up in a great environment, surrounded by people who supported me. I was in a great school system, great sports programs. When you're in environments that help to nurture you and grow you as a person, it gives you opportunities. It was a wonderful environment to be brought up in and because of that environment, I am living the American dream."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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