During the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers established themselves as the National Football League’s reigning dynasty, and one of the biggest reasons why they were able to do so was running back Franco Harris.
For over a decade, he gave them a big-time threat in the backfield and was their biggest weapon on the offensive side of the ball.
By helping to make the Steelers the NFL’s first consistently dominant team since its merger with the AFL, Harris made himself into a legend and a symbol of the team’s massive success.
Growing Up In Jersey, Emerging in PA
Franco Dok Harris was born in Fort Dix, N.J. on March 7, 1950 to Cad Harris and Gina Parenti Harris, and he was one of nine children born to the couple.
His father was African-American and had served in World War II. While stationed in Italy during the war, he met Franco’s mother, who is Caucasian and a native of Italy, and the two got married when he returned to the States following the end of the conflict.
After returning home, Cad went on to be a supervisor at Walson General Hospital near Fort Dix, allowing Gina to be a full-time stay-at-home mother to all of her nine children.
Growing up in Mount Holly Township, N.J., Harris went to Rancocas Valley Regional High School, where he not only played football but also basketball and baseball. Although he was adept at all three sports, he found that football would be his ticket to a future that would’ve been otherwise unimaginable.
After being named a high school All-American, Harris accepted a scholarship to play football for Penn State University over in central Pennsylvania.
There, although he played running back, he would be used mostly as a blocking back to create openings for tailback Lydell Mitchell. Mitchell, who was a freshman the same year Harris was, would become an All-American and a major offensive threat for head coach Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions.
In 1969, Harris had 643 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns while putting up 5.6 yards per carry. The Nittany Lions went 11-0 and made it to the Orange Bowl, where they defeated the Missouri Tigers 10-3.
The next two seasons, Harris’ numbers would be similar: 675 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore, and 684 yards and six touchdowns in his junior season.
Although Harris’ stats weren’t earth-shattering, his abilities as a blocker allowed Mitchell to have a monster season in 1971 with 1,567 rushing yards and 26 rushing touchdowns.
That year, Penn State finished 11-1, and it blew out Texas 30-6 in the Cotton Bowl behind 47 rushing yards from Harris and 146 from Mitchell.
Afterward, the New Jersey native decided to turn pro.
Helping To Build A Winner
In 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers had known nothing but futility in the NFL. Since entering the league for the 1933 season, it had made the playoffs a grand total of once.
But things started to turn around when team owner Art Rooney hired Chuck Noll to be head coach for the 1969 season. Although Noll was, in some ways, befitting of the old school, especially when it came to his philosophy of building a physical, hard-hitting defense, he was forward-thinking in other ways.
Unlike many other coaches, he didn’t try to micro-manage what his players did off the field during their free time, and he placed a premium on players who had intellectual interests away from the game.
In addition, Noll would be credited with helping to open the flood gates for African-Americans in the NFL.
The Steelers already possessed a young, promising quarterback in Terry Bradshaw and budding defensive stars such as “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Mel Blount.
But they needed more offensive firepower, and thus they took Harris with the 13th pick in the 1972 NFL Draft, even though many around the league expected Pittsburgh to draft Mitchell instead to play running back.
The 1972 season is seen as the major turning point for the Steelers, and the foundation for their coming success. Harris was a star right away, as he contributed 1,055 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns that year, even though he wasn’t permanently entrenched in the starting lineup until Week 6.
A key contest came in Week 12 against the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers and Browns were developing a fierce rivalry, and Pittsburgh had lost a tight game to the Browns just two weeks prior.
Harris ran for 102 yards and two touchdowns, and the Steelers ground the Browns to fine dust, 30-0. But it was also a major milestone for Harris personally, as it was his sixth straight game with at least 100 rushing yards, which tied the record held by Jim Brown, the legendary Browns running back.
The Steelers finished the season with an 11-3 record, which gave them first place in the AFC Central. It was by far their best record ever, and although their greatly-improved defense got much of the attention, Harris helped lead an offense that was fifth in the NFL in points scored.
For his efforts, he made it to the Pro Bowl and was named the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Those who may have preferred that the Steelers had drafted Mitchell had to acknowledge that Harris was becoming a strong pillar of the team.
Coach Noll was quickly impressed with his rookie.
“We were looking for someone with size, speed and the ability to catch the ball, and Franco had all that, but the thing you’re never sure of is the emotional makeup—and that’s what’s done it for him,” said Noll. “He wants to excel. He wants to be the best there is.”
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Harris was quite a handful for opposing teams, whether he was blocking or running with the ball. He would look to squeeze through openings and avoid contact, rather than bulldoze through defenders, and although he would be criticized for it, he felt it would help him last longer.
Nonetheless, fans at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers’ new home arena, quickly fell in love with him.
In the playoffs that year, he would quickly go from a rising rookie to a star, and even a star who would be frozen in time.
The Steelers would begin the postseason by facing the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders, who were coached by the legendary John Madden, had finished 10-3-1, and this playoff contest would be the genesis of a heated rivalry between the two squads that would stand the test of time.
The game was mostly a defensive struggle. The Steelers trailed 7-6 with just over a minute left when they took over on offense with a chance to win.
Bradshaw, however, found himself in a fourth-down and 10 situation on Pittsburgh’s own 40-yard line with just 22 seconds left. After being pressured, he attempted to find running back John Fuqua on a long pass, but Raiders safety Jack Tatum hit Fuqua before he could catch the ball, and it ricocheted off the former.
Harris picked it up before it could hit the ground, and he ran in almost uncontested for the game-winning touchdown. Tatum argued that the ball had hit Fuqua and not him (which would’ve been illegal under league rules at the time), but the play stood and the Steelers were victorious.
The play became known as the “Immaculate Reception,” and to this day it remains perhaps the most iconic play in the history of pro football.
The fans have spoken. And the #NFL100 Greatest Moment in NFL History is…
— NFL (@NFL) February 2, 2020
For the game, Harris had 64 rushing yards and 96 passing yards.
But it wasn’t time to hand out championship rings in Western PA yet. The Steelers would run into the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game, who had just completed a perfect 14-0 regular season.
Pittsburgh fell behind 21-10 in the fourth quarter and lost by four points to Don Shula’s squad, who would go on to complete its perfect year by winning the Super Bowl.
The Steelers now had a culture to build on, and although the 1973 season was a bit rockier than ’72, they finished 10-4. Harris’ numbers dipped to 698 rushing yards and three touchdowns, but he still was selected to appear in the Pro Bowl.
In the playoffs that year, the Raiders would get revenge on Pittsburgh with a 33-14 rout, as Harris could only manage 29 yards on 10 attempts.
The Steelers’ success in the draft over the past several years had been stellar, and it would continue in 1974 with the selection of wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and linebacker Jack Lambert. Lambert would help complete what would come to be known as Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense, which would be one of the greatest that game would ever see.
When combined with Harris’ abilities in the backfield, many teams didn’t have a chance against the Steelers.
Harris only recorded five rushing touchdowns in 1974, but he went over the 1,000-yard mark again and earned his third Pro Bowl nod in as many years. He would run for over 110 yards four times that season, including a 156-yard effort against the Browns in Week 10.
With a 10-3-1 record, Pittsburgh won its division and looked to complete its march to the top of the NFL.
By now, the Steelers were the talk of much of Pennsylvania. Rooney and Noll had built a winning program that was befitting of Pittsburgh and the region at large, which was the heart of the then-strong steel industry and a major part of the industrial Rust Belt.
The natives of Pittsburgh and its surrounding area considered themselves gritty and blue-collar, and Harris was one of their favorite sons.
Being partly of Italian descent, Harris was especially popular among the team’s Italian-American fans, some of whom dubbed themselves “Franco’s Italian Army,” which included famous musician Frank Sinatra. They would show up at Steelers games wearing Army-styled helmets with Harris’ No. 32 on them while waving Italian flags.
In the postseason, Harris was nothing short of sensational. He had three touchdowns in the Steelers’ divisional round rout of the Buffalo Bills, and he followed it up with 111 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Pittsburgh defeated the Raiders, 24-13, to advance to the Super Bowl for its first time.
Its opponents there were the Minnesota Vikings, a team that featured Hall of Fame QB Frank Tarkenton and one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses, especially against the run. This defense was nicknamed the “Purple People Eaters.”
The first half was ugly, as the only score was a safety scored by Pittsburgh. But Harris notched a touchdown in the third quarter to put the Steelers up 9-0.
1/12/75 Super Bowl IX – Pit vs Min
Early 3rd qtr. Pit lead 2-0
Franco Harris touchdown!
At least two great blocks here. One by Gerry Mullins and the other by Rocky Bleier. Steelers take a 9-0 lead. pic.twitter.com/iHNhrnEx6W
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) August 30, 2018
In the fourth quarter, a touchdown pass from Bradshaw to tight end Larry Brown gave the Steelers insurance, and they held on for a 16-6 victory and their first world championship.
Harris riddled the Purple People Eaters for 158 yards, a new Super Bowl record, earning him the Super Bowl MVP award.
1/12/75 Super Bowl IX – Pit vs Min
2 min left. Pit lead 16-6
Franco Harris breaks Larry Csonka’s then Super Bowl rushing record. Franco is named Super Bowl MVP with 158 yards rushing and a touchdown on 34 carries. pic.twitter.com/y5ioGYFZii
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) August 30, 2018
Emboldened by his big game on the big stage, Harris took his game to a higher level in 1975. He finished the season with 1,246 yards (second in the NFL to O.J. Simpson) and 10 touchdowns on the ground, giving him his fourth consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl.
With several other key members of the team maturing and improving, Pittsburgh finished 12-2 thanks to a monster 11-game winning streak. Harris helped its cause by running for over 100 yards in six of the team’s last eight regular season contests.
By registering 153 rushing yards, he drove the Steelers to an easy win over the Colts in the opening round of the playoffs. They then punched their ticket to the Super Bowl for the second straight year by outlasting the Raiders in the AFC Championship, thanks to Harris’ 79 rushing yards and 58 receiving yards.
Super Bowl X, held in Miami, would pit Pittsburgh against the Dallas Cowboys of QB Roger Staubach and legendary head coach Tom Landry.
The Cowboys had won the championship four years prior and were one of the most popular teams in the land. They were well on their way to gaining the polarizing moniker “America’s Team.”
Harris would tally 82 rushing yards in the contest, but the hero was Swann, who shook off a serious concussion he had suffered in the conference championship game to score a late touchdown that helped Pittsburgh overcome a deficit and win, 21-17.
By winning back-to-back Super Bowls, Harris and the Steelers proved that their success in ’74 but anything but a fluke.
But they would have to deal with adversity in 1976. Bradshaw missed four games because of injuries, and the team lost four of its five games.
But it would lean on its defense the rest of the way, as well as Harris’ league-leading 14 touchdowns on the season, winning its final nine games and recording five shutouts during that span.
The Steelers won the AFC Central again, and although Harris managed to gain 132 yards in their divisional playoff game against the Colts, they would lose 40-14.
Off-the-field drama marred the 1977 season and its promise, as defensive tackle Ernie Holmes got arrested for cocaine possession, while Oakland Raiders safety George Atkinson sued Noll in a defamation case for calling him part of the “criminal element” in football, causing the coach to miss quite a bit of time during training camp.
In addition, several players held out in hopes of getting a new contract from Rooney, and as a result of all these extracurriculars, the team perhaps wasn’t as focused or united as it had been in the past.
Harris would do his part to help keep things together with 1,162 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, earning him a First-Team All-Pro nod for his first time.
With a 9-5 record, the Steelers barely held on for their fourth straight division crown, but they would fall apart in their first playoff game, as a 21-21 tie turned into a 34-21 loss against the Denver Broncos. It seemed like perhaps there were cracks in their foundation and that their dynasty was all but over.
The NFL made some changes for the 1978 season that seemed to diminish the chances of a Steelers revival even more. In addition to expanding the regular season to 16 games, the league made making contact with a wide receiver more than five yards away from the line of scrimmage illegal, partly because it was something that Pittsburgh cornerback Mel Blount often did.
At first, Noll hated the new rule, feeling like the rest of the league supported it to neutralize his team, but it would actually backfire, as the Steelers would take advantage of it on both sides of the football.
The rule would eventually open up the passing game throughout the league and increase scoring, especially for Pittsburgh. Bradshaw’s game would elevate to a higher level, and to a certain extent, it would even help Harris.
He registered 1,082 rushing yards and eight touchdowns during the 1978 season, and just like that, the Steelers got their mojo back. After struggling in ’77, their defense was again tops in the NFL, allowing them to finish 14-2 on the season.
With a number of players putting forth outstanding seasons, it may have been the greatest Steelers team ever, or at least the greatest one of that era.
Harris put up 105 yards and two touchdowns as Pittsburgh rolled the Broncos in the divisional round. Another blowout in the AFC Championship, this time against the Houston Oilers, took the Steelers back to the Super Bowl for a rematch against the Cowboys.
The Cowboys happened to be the defending world champs, and Super Bowl XIII would be a doozy.
Harris had 68 yards on the day, as Dallas’ “Doomsday” defense kept him largely in check, but his 22-yard touchdown run with 7:10 remaining in the fourth quarter gave the Steelers a 28-17 lead. After Dallas fumbled the ensuing kickoff, leading to a touchdown by Swann, Pittsburgh had what seemed like an insurmountable 35-17 advantage.
Just as Western PA was icing down those bottles of Dom Pérignon, Dallas scored two touchdowns, the second coming with just 22 seconds left to cut its deficit to 35-31. It looked like Pittsburgh had a real chance of blowing the game.
But when the Cowboys failed to recover an onside kick, it was all over, and the Steelers had won their third Super Bowl in five years.
Their success carried over to the 1979 season, as they finished 12-4 and won their sixth consecutive division title. The “Steel Curtain” defense was still stifling opponents, and at one point, it held four consecutive opponents to seven points or less.
Harris ran for 1,186 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he was evolving with the times by also becoming a passing threat. He hauled in a career-high 36 passes in ’79 for 291 yards and a touchdown, earning him his eighth straight Pro Bowl nod.
In Week 9, Pittsburgh was able to keep the Cowboys down in their place with a 14-3 win. Harris’ 102 rushing yards and two touchdowns proved that even Landry’s “Doomsday” scheme couldn’t keep him bottled up for long.
Easy playoff wins over the Dolphins and Oilers got the Steelers to Super Bowl XIV, where they would face a new obstacle: the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams weren’t a very strong team, as they finished just 9-7 and lacked a top-flight QB. Pittsburgh was therefore heavily favored to win.
Despite being huge underdogs, L.A. hung tough throughout. After Harris’ touchdown put Pittsburgh ahead in the second quarter, the Rams took a 13-10 lead at halftime.
The Steelers looked old and slow defensively, and in the locker room, assistant coach Woody Widenhofer was visibly incensed, leading him to light into the team.
It didn’t work too well at first. After getting a touchdown by Swann, Pittsburgh allowed the Rams to score and take a 19-17 lead into the fourth quarter, and with Swann unable to continue playing due to an injury, its chances looked tenuous.
But fate was still on its side. After Stallworth scored on a long touchdown pass, Harris got into the endzone with less than two minutes left to ice a 31-19 win.
With their fourth Super Bowl title, the Steelers had become the “Team of the ’70s.” By now, they had become arguably the most popular NFL team in the land, and fans would cross state lines to attend games at Three Rivers Stadium while waving yellow pieces of cloth known as “Terrible Towels,” which were a symbol of the team.
The Fall Of The Steel Curtain
As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and as the decade of the 1980s dawned, the Steelers’ dynasty would soon come to an end.
Fans were hoping for a fifth ring in 1980, but instead, Father Time started to catch up with the team, as it would start showing real signs of age and wear and tear.
Bradshaw’s play declined, as he threw almost as many interceptions as touchdowns, as would Harris’ production. He fell to just 789 rushing yards on the season and six total touchdowns (four on the ground).
It was still enough to get him his ninth straight trip to the Pro Bowl, but as a whole, the Steelers, who finished 9-7, were no longer a legitimate championship contender. Instead, they didn’t even make the playoffs.
In addition, some of the team’s stars were retiring. “Mean” Joe Greene called it quits after the ’81 season, while Swann and Jack Ham would leave after the following season.
Noll was forced to tweak his defense, partly because of his changing personnel, and partly because the game was changing. Teams such as the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers were taking the NFL into the future with variants of the West Coast Offense, rendering opposing teams’ secondaries less effective.
In ’83, Harris had his eighth season with at least 1,000 rushing yards, breaking Jim Brown’s record, but after a pay dispute with the Rooney family, Harris was released during training camp in 1984, and he signed with the Seattle Seahawks, appearing in just eight games for them and recording just 170 rushing yards.
That would be it for him, as he retired shortly afterward.
Life After Football
After Harris hung up his cleats for good, he mostly kept a low profile. He and Lydell Mitchell, his old college teammate, both own RSuper Foods, which produces nutritious foods that are served in schools, including the Super Donut, which can be found mostly in Eastern states.
In 2008, Harris made a brief foray into politics, attending the Democratic National Convention as part of Pennsylvania’s delegation. After the general election, he served as one of the states’ electors, voting for then-Illinois senator Barack Obama.
But there was no doubt that Harris’ greatest impact was made on the field. By helping to make the Steelers into one of the nation’s most popular teams, he helped establish their winning tradition and mystique, which would continue in the 2000s behind QB Ben Roethlisberger and wideout Hines Ward.
In 1990, Harris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, making his journey from Fort Dix to the Steel City complete.
Let Franco Harris explain it all. 😭 pic.twitter.com/y9chi5Fc2T
— Steel Legends (@Steel_Legends) May 14, 2020