• Sal Maiorana

Happy birthday: Franco Harris made a play that will live forever

Franco Harris often wore a bemused smile and spoke softly, but all that did was hide the competitive fire of one of the best big-game running backs in NFL history.

During his time with great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s, Harris forged his Hall of Fame career, largely on what he did in all those postseason runs that resulted in four Super Bowl championships in six years.

In 19 playoff games he gained 1,556 yards and scored 17 touchdowns. Incredibly, to this day as he celebrates his 70th birthday, Harris remains the Super Bowl record-holder for most carries (101) and rushing yards (354). If Reggie Jackson was Mr. October, then just call Harris Mr. January.

“You’re going for the money. There’s no second chance,” said Harris when describing his playoff success. “You have to go all out. You have to do it in the big games.”

Though he rushed for 2,002 yards and 24 touchdowns in his career at Penn State, Harris’ critics looked at his massive size for that time – 6-foot-2, 225 pounds – and labeled him an underachiever. Nevertheless, Steelers coach Chuck Noll used his first pick, 13th overall, in the 1972 draft on the Fort Dix, N.J. native.

The move would prove to be the final piece to Noll’s Super Bowl puzzle, giving the Steelers the kind of ball-control running game that wins championships.

As proof, the Steelers had been to the playoffs just twice in their 39-year history before Harris’ arrival, and afterward, they made it nine consecutive seasons on their way to becoming the first three- and then four-time winner of the Super Bowl.

It didn’t take long for Harris to make his mark. After carrying the ball just 26 times in his first four games as a rookie, he ran off six consecutive 100-yard games. He finished the season with 1,055 yards on 188 carries, becoming just the fifth rookie in NFL history to top the 1,000-yard mark. His 5.6-yards-per-carry average led the league and he was voted AFC Rookie of the Year.

And then, facing the Oakland Raiders in the first round, Harris gained sports immortality for his role in what became referred to as the “Immaculate Reception.”

With Pittsburgh down 7-6 and facing fourth-and-10 from its own 40 with just 22 seconds remaining, Terry Bradshaw threw a pass down the middle of the field that ricocheted into the air after a violent collision between running back Frenchy Fuqua and Oakland safety Jack Tatum. The ball floated to Harris who made a shoestring catch and then raced to the end zone to give the Steelers a 13-7 win, one of the most iconic plays in NFL history.

“Going into the huddle I was thinking how great a year it had been and if this was going to be the last play, I was going to play it all the way out,” Harris said. “Unfortunately, the play that was called didn’t really involve me at all. I was supposed to stay in and block a linebacker if they blitzed, but they didn’t. I knew Bradshaw was in serious trouble, so I went downfield in case he needed me as an outlet receiver. I was always taught to go to the ball, so when he threw it, that’s what I did. The next thing I knew, the ball was coming right to me. The rest has always been a blur. It happened so fast. It was all reaction. My only thought was to get to the end zone. It’s amazing to me that this play has stood the test of time.”

In the Steelers’ first two Super seasons, 1974 and 1975, Harris rushed for 657 yards and eight touchdowns in those two post-seasons. In Super Bowl IX against Minnesota, he outrushed the entire Vikings team, 158-17, and won MVP honors.

Because of his great size, Harris was often criticized for running out of bounds rather than lowering a shoulder and taking a hit when near the sideline. In reality, he pounded hard for the vital yards and his save-the-body style allowed him to last 13 NFL seasons, 12 with the Steelers and one with Seattle.

Harris finished his Steelers career with eight team records, including yards rushing (11,950), 100-yard games (47) and touchdowns scored (100).

In 2004 he co-chaired a committee that helped create the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, a 20,000-square foot exhibit in the Smithsonian wing of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

Although the Immaculate Reception is the signature play of the Steelers’ 1970s dynasty, its lone representation in the museum are the shoes that Harris wore that afternoon.

“We never realized how big that play would be,” said Harris. “It’s not like we kept things. We had to get ready for the next game. No one talked about that play much.’’

Maybe not then, but certainly now, Harris’ famous touchdown is one of the most oft-played highlights in NFL broadcasting history.