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That led to some problems during Harris' in-and-out career at Penn State. Steeler scouting reports said things like, "Can cut, slide, stop and go. Will lower the boom. Lots of movement and wiggle." But also things like this:
"Has all needs [scout talk for requirements] of a great pro but is not a hustler."
"Not a hard runner for his size."
"Question his top competitiveness."
And, finally, "Could be a great pro but might not even be a good one. However, I feel he is worth the gamble."
The Steelers took that gamble after considerable internal debate, but Harris didn't blow people away when he came to camp as the team's top draftee in '72. "I didn't think he could make the team," recalls retired Center Ray Mansfield. Rocky Bleier, who, with Franco, produced the Steelers' most effective running attack, and now does sports news on Pittsburgh TV, says his first impression of Franco was "lazy."
Bleier's second impression: "I sat next to him in meetings and thought, 'Little thin arms...he's undeveloped.... What does he have that I don't have?' " Bleier was a committed weightlifter who had built up his chest, arms and legs enormously. "Franco's not all chiseled," observes a friend. "He's just sort of there." By the time Harris joined the Steelers he thought of himself as being into serious lifting, but that was by his own standards. People who were in camp then recall that he didn't seem to know how to handle weights. Harris started lifting weights alone. About halfway through his rookie year the Steelers realized Franco was neither lazy nor weak but just unconventional.
As recently as 1979, however, Jack Tatum, then a feared Oakland defensive back, said in his book, They Call Me Assassin: "I have never seen a more imposing physical specimen of an athlete with less drive than Franco.... If Franco doesn't run for the sidelines, slip and fall, or cake out before anyone gets near him, then...someone else is wearing his game jersey."
Of course, being criticized in those terms by Tatum is like being called effete by Stalin. But the kind of thing Tatum exaggerated is what makes Harris such a refreshing fullback. Most backs, says Bleier, would be embarrassed to run the way Franco sometimes does. "But you know Franco," Bleier says. "He could give a damn. And look what he's accomplished."
It all began in Pisa, Italy, where Sergeant Cad Harris of Jackson, Miss., who never talked much, met Gina Parenti, whose village had been destroyed and whose brother, an Italian soldier, had been chopped to pieces by Nazis, but who talked a great deal. She married Cad and went with him to Mount Holly, N.J.