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Smeltzer: Franco Was a Legend but Also one of Us

Photo by Harry Smeltzer: The author with Franco Harris in June 2012

Franco Harris was a legend, but at the same time, he was one of us.

In the days following the death of Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers great Harris, I’ve wanted to write something beyond the traditional news story.

I’ve had a hard time thinking of a column and what my angle would be. 

It isn’t easy to type things about Franco that others haven’t previously typed, and maybe I won’t succeed.

I surely won’t succeed in doing Franco’s memory justice because it’s just about impossible to do that for somebody so extraordinary.

I didn’t know Franco really at all—I only met him once—, and this won’t be the greatest Franco story of all time, but here it goes. 

In May of 2011, I was a 13-year-old kid. On a Saturday afternoon, my parents and I went to see the movie “Thor” at the Cinemark Movie Theatre in Robinson Township near Pittsburgh. I don’t remember much about the movie and haven’t watched it since. But I remember enough about it to know that it was a 3D film when shown in theaters, so naturally, the people in attendance wore their 3D classes. If I remember right, there was a good crowd on hand. Amongst that crowd was Franco.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the man sitting in his seat with his 3D glasses on. I had only been a teenager for a little more than two months, so my skills in keeping my emotions in check weren’t great (not that they’re great now, to be sure). It was hard for me not to call attention to the man who made the most iconic play in NFL history, and eventually, my dad had to calm me down. 

After all, Franco was just a regular guy trying to enjoy a movie. 

Maybe that story doesn’t do the best job of illustrating one aspect of what made Franco unique. But to me, it shows that No. 32 was able to be thought of as a member of the community. I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself a sports historian, but I’ve long taken a great interest in sports history. My favorite sport, from a historical standpoint, is baseball. As anybody with interest in the history of baseball would, I know about the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I don’t just know about the Dodgers for what they did on the field but for what they meant to Brooklyn. I love hearing about how people could run into their favorite players in a supermarket or bar, and it wouldn’t be a big thing. The Dodgers were just regular guys who happened to be good at baseball. Although I didn’t get to know him, everything indicated that this is who Franco Harris was, too.

Great athletes, singers, actors etc. tend to seem like they’re in a different universe from “normal” people. But Franco was one of us, despite being a legend.

Sure, everybody in Pittsburgh knew what Franco did on the football field. 

But Franco didn’t seem to be a man who cared if people knew he was a legend. Oh, he knew he was Franco Harris. But unlike other celebrities, who use their status and influence to strut and intimidate, Franco used his for good. A great example of this appeared in the NFL Network’s excellent “A Football Life” documentary on Franco, which premiered Friday night. 

The documentary highlighted Harris’s quest to revive the historic Crawford Grill in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. 

It would have been understandable for Franco to fade from the public eye after his retirement. After his football career ended, he had almost 40 years to move out of the spotlight and adopt a low profile, but he never did. Naysayers will claim this was because Franco loved being famous and wanted to be in front of as many cameras as possible. I don’t believe that, and I don’t think any reasonable person does. I think Franco stayed in the spotlight because he loved life, loved people and loved making people happy. Richie Walsh, a Pittsburgh sportscaster, told viewers in a KDKA TV special dedicated to Franco and the Immaculate Reception that, in his last conversation with Harris, the two had a 20-minute discussion. The topic of their conversation? Favorite pizza places. 

That was Franco Harris. Imagine how that made Richie Walsh feel. Not many people get to talk with a legend for 20 minutes about pizza places, but Walsh had that opportunity, and Franco gave him that opportunity. Franco understood that he had the power, more than most, to make people smile, and he used that power to the max. Like many of us, I’ve seen tweets about Franco and what he meant to the world in the past few days. Among the best was written by my colleague on the Penn State beat, Neil Rudel of the Altoona Mirror. 

Rudel, who’s been covering Penn State since 1977, had this to say about Franco.

“Between living in the football-crazed town where he became a star and helped elevate a franchise, returning to #PSU frequently, all the community events he supported for 50 years and his approachability, #Franco probably holds the world record for most photos in American history.”

Well put, my friend. With every photo, handshake, conversation etc., Franco Harris also created a memory. Those memories, and the ones he created running the ball for Penn State and the Pittsburgh Steelers, are why he’ll always be a legendary sports figure and human being.

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