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Harris weighs anywhere from 220 pounds (his reckoning) to 240 (tacklers' estimates) and stands 6'2", and yet his running style has been described as "dainty." Which is why he has been able to play in 157 of a possible 166 games in 10 years, tie Jim Brown's record of seven 1,000-yard seasons, run for more yards and score more touchdowns in postseason games than anyone else ever, and gain more regular-season rushing yards (10,339) than anybody but Brown (12,312) and O.J. Simpson (11,236) (see box, page 86).
In 1972, when the Steelers first made the playoffs, Harris was AFC Rookie of the Year and came from nowhere in the first round of the AFC playoffs to grab a deflected pass just before it hit the ground and carry it 60 yards to beat Oakland in the last five seconds and go down in history as the Immaculate Receptor. In the Steelers' first Super Bowl, IX, in 1975, in which they beat Minnesota 16-6, he rushed for 158 yards and was named Most Valuable Player. In 1976 he was named NFL Man of the Year, and after last season he was presented the Byron R. (Whizzer) White Humanitarian Award.
Like others of the 12 still-active members of the Steeler dynasty that won four world championships in six years, Harris may, as they say, have lost a step. Or a fraction of one: He ran 40 yards in slightly under 4.8 seconds (from a bad start) in camp this year, compared to slightly more than 4.7 as a rookie. But, at 32, he's still quick and sound, he still moves in his own mysterious ways, and he may well have enough steps left to pass O.J. and Brown. He makes an estimated $350,000 a year from a Steeler contract he negotiated himself. So he no longer rides a municipal bus to Three Rivers Stadium and hitchhikes home the way he did when he was a rookie. Now he drives a Toyota that is always in the shop because he doesn't like to shift gears. Harris isn't a run-of-the-mill guy.
"I always say Franco is the one person I know of who's going to go straight up to heaven," says Dana Dokmanovich, the elegant Eastern Airlines flight attendant who has been an item with Harris since college, has been living with him for several years and is the mother of Franco Dokmanovich Harris, three, called Dok. Harris introduces Dana as his wife, but they have never felt compelled to make their union official, which is why Bess Dokmanovich—who lives with them in Pittsburgh and helps take care of Dok and serves as Harris' secretary—refers to herself amiably as "Franco's mother-in-law-so-to-speak."
"Franco and the Pope," says Dana, thinking of one other who will go straight to Glory. "Because of what Franco does for other people. To me he's a pain in the butt. He lets anybody in the house."
Franco, Dana, Dok and Bess don't live in a house you'd expect a football player to have. "When Franco first showed it to me, I thought it was a joke," says Dana. But that was when it was boarded up and in terrible shape inside. Now it's the kind of townhouse a well-fixed San Francisco lawyer might have, with imposing marble mantels, rich-grained wainscoting, corkscrew balustrades, great hardwood floors and high ceilings. Franco walks around in it and says, "Feels solid." The house stands in an old part of Pittsburgh called the Mexican War Streets area (because its streets were laid out during that conflict), which is gentrifying, but not by leaps and bounds.
"It's an interesting neighborhood," says Harris in his deep murmur. "Not everyone would like it, but I like it. It has some interesting people." It reminds Bess of places she used to live. Dana, who doesn't remember that far back, would like to move somewhere "away from things." She says, "I'll tell you why he bought this house. Because it's so close to the stadium. Otherwise he'd never get there on time."
Near the house is a park. Steeler patriarch Art Rooney, who lives a few blocks away, once located Harris by going to this park, hailing the first little kid he saw playing basketball and saying, "Find Franco."
In this park, a young man comes up pushing a bent-limbed woman in a ramshackle wheelchair. Both of them look as if they've been down on their luck all their lives. "Here he comes again, with his mother," says Dana. "You should hear her holler at him when he hits a bump." The pair hails Franco, and Dana rolls her eyes.
"Did you find a place to live?" asks Harris in an elder-brotherish tone of concern. The last time he saw them they were on his doorstep under the impression that his house, like most of the large dwellings in the vicinity, contained apartments for poor folks. Harris counsels with the pair for several minutes.