Dapper Dan: Franco Harris a player for all times

It has been 34 years since Franco Harris scored two touchdowns and totaled 112 yards from scrimmage against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl. That game was the culmination of the Steelers’ dynasty of the 1970s, and fittingly, Harris had a starring role in the 31-19 victory that clinched the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl victory.

Harris’ footprints are all over those Super Bowl wins. He scored four touchdowns and averaged 117 yards rushing and receiving in those games. Those numbers still resonate. After all these years, his place in the Super Bowl record books remains prominent.

Harris holds the records for most rushing yards (354) and rushing attempts (101) in the game’s history. It took two Hall of Famers to break a couple of other records he owned.

Harris is now second in career Super Bowl rushing touchdowns (4) and second in combined yardage in Super Bowls (468) after records he set were broken by Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice. Smith, the former Dallas running back, rushed for five touchdowns in three Super Bowls, and Rice amassed 604 yards in his four Super Bowl appearances with the 49ers and Raiders.

“This is the 48th Super Bowl and for Franco to still own two records tells you how great of a player he was,” said John Banaszak, the former Steelers defensive lineman and three-time Super Bowl champion. “For me, Franco was one of the greatest money backs of all time. When the game was on the line, when the games got more important, when the championship was on the line the better Franco Harris was.”

On Thursday, Harris will receive the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award at the 78th annual Dapper Dan dinner and sports auction. What better way to celebrate the accomplishments of Harris on Super Bowl Sunday than taking a look back at his clutch play in Super Bowl games?

While Harris is best remembered for the Immaculate Reception in the 1972 playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, it’s difficult to find other running backs in history that have performed more consistently in Super Bowls.

Harris set the Super Bowl record for most rushing yards when he ran for 158 yards in the Steelers’ 16-6 victory against the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player and is one of only seven running backs to earn that honor. The rushing record has since been broken three times and is currently held by Timmy Smith, who rushed for 204 yards for the Redskins in Super Bowl XXII.

In Super Bowl X, Harris had 108 total yards in a 21-17 victory for the Steelers. He was the game’s leading rusher with 82 yards and also reeled in a 26-yard reception in the fourth quarter.

In Super Bowl XIV, Harris scored the first and last touchdowns for the Steelers. His 1-yard plunge with 1:49 remaining put the finishing touches on that win.

Oddly, Harris’ favorite Super Bowl was his least productive. It was Super Bowl XIII against Dallas.

Harris was held to 68 yards rushing, but he made one of the biggest plays to help the Steelers secure their third Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers were clinging to a 21-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter and were in Dallas territory after a 33-yard pass interference penalty. After Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson hit quarterback Terry Bradshaw after the whistle, the usually mild-mannered Harris got into a verbal confrontation with Henderson.

Henderson had been in the news all week for his taunts of Bradshaw, including the infamous quote that Bradshaw was so dumb he could not have spelled cat if he was spotted the c and the a.

On the next play, a third-and-9 from the Dallas 22, Bradshaw called an audible at the line of scrimmage. Harris took the handoff from Bradshaw and raced into the end zone for a 28-17 lead. The Steelers eventually won, 35-31.

“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.”

When his Steelers teammates saw an agitated Harris, they knew Henderson had made a mistake.

“We were on the sidelines, but we all saw what happened,” said Banaszak, who is now the head football coach at Robert Morris University. “In that situation, you see the confrontation. You see Franco getting in his face. He wasn’t that way until you got him mad or until the game was on the line and he had to win the game.

“Franco’s motor was full blast. He wasn’t going to be denied. He was going to score a touchdown on that play. That was quintessential Franco. He was a big-time player when everything was on the line.”

In the NFL Films series “America’s Game,” former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier recalled what he witnessed and how out of character it was for Harris to be confrontational with anyone.

“Franco is an easy-going guy,” Bleier said. “He doesn’t say a whole lot. He comes back in the huddle. This was the first time I ever heard Franco really say anything. He has this look on his face and all he says is ‘Give me the ball.’ ”

A look back at Harris’ postseason career would not be complete without mentioning his underrated skills as a receiver out of the backfield. Only once did he rush for 100 yards in a Super Bowl, but he contributed by catching the ball when teams sold out to stop the run.

Harris had 504 receiving yards in 19 playoff games and averaged almost 10 yards per reception. He had 114 yards receiving in the final three Super Bowls he played in, including 66 in the final one against the Rams.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate Harris’ worth to those Steelers teams was his dependability and his record in playoff games.

Harris only missed one playoff game in his 13-year career, the 1976 AFC championship game in Oakland after getting injured in a playoff game the previous week. In 19 postseason contests with Harris in the backfield, the Steelers were 14-5 and had a perfect 4-0 record in Super Bowls. He rushed for 1,556 yards and scored 17 times in those games.

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

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