SI Vault
 
THE ASCENT OF AN ENIGMA
Roy Blount Jr.
August 23, 1982
The Steelers' Franco Harris is a man of few words but a lot of yardage, and though some derogate his style, he's climbing to a record
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 23, 1982

The Ascent Of An Enigma

The Steelers' Franco Harris is a man of few words but a lot of yardage, and though some derogate his style, he's climbing to a record

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Franco's father stayed in the Army, at Fort Dix, N.J. after World War II, and Franco grew up in a firmly disciplined family of nine children. "He took after our father, because he was into his privacy," says Harris' younger brother Pete, who tried out unsuccessfully as a defensive back with the Steelers this year. "But I never saw Franco much when we were kids. He was always at Fort Dix shining shoes and bagging groceries. Too many kids to support."

Franco was also starring in baseball, basketball and football. But "nobody in our house talked about careers," he says. "In the seventh grade I got put into an Atrack class, and the teacher went around the room asking whether we were going to take commercial or college prep, and everybody else said 'college prep, college prep,' so I said 'college prep.' But I never thought about going to college until my older brother Mario went to Glassboro State."

Franco did even better: made high school All-America and went to Penn State, where he wore a T shirt, khakis and high-top black tennis shoes and hung out at the hoagie shop just like back home. But he also took his grades seriously. At the end of his first term, Harris had a 1.9, a tenth of a point under a C average. Many a jock would have been pleased, but Franco says, "I was sick. I couldn't get over it. I wasn't going to let that happen again"—possibly because he remembered the time one of his sisters came home with a bad grade "and my father tore her up. Whooo. A lot of times I didn't cross the fine line into getting in trouble because of fear of my father."

Which isn't to say that he toed every line. "The late '60s and early '70s was an era when I guess a lot of people didn't look at authority as very good no matter where it came from," Harris says. "Being in college then, you learned to read between the lines. Kent State, I think, was the most tragic thing in the history of our country. I couldn't believe our own countrymen shooting and killing.... If there were demonstrations or takeovers, I liked to go see what was happening. But I wasn't one to overthrow the university. At times I felt a lot of pressure, from people who thought it would be great to have a football player visible in a lot of things. But I still was kind of a punky kid from New Jersey and I didn't want anybody to tell me what to do, especially college kids.

"After I got to Penn State I heard that there had been a discussion among the coaches about whether I should shave my mustache. I'd never have gone there if I'd thought they'd tell me that. I never thought of my mustache as being a mustache. I thought it was just part of my face. I had hair on my lip at a very early age."

He also had a sense of how to play football at an early age, and in college he didn't test that sense enough. He was an All-America honorable mention his sophomore year, but tailed off after that. It's often said that Penn State relegated Franco to blocking for his friend and classmate Lydell Mitchell, who was a consensus All-America their senior year, but the situation wasn't that simple. John Morris, who was sports information director at Penn State then, says he promoted Harris and Mitchell equally as Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, with the twist that Harris, the bigger of the two, was Mr. Outside. Their senior year, Harris got hurt and took a long time to get back in shape, and Mitchell became the primary ballcarrier. Years later, Morris says, "Franco told me, 'I wish I'd known as much about conditioning then as I do now. I'd have been unstoppable.' "

As it was, he made pro scouts doubt his mettle, and he ran afoul of coachly authority. Paterno was hollering at his troops trying to get them psyched at the beginning of practice one day when Harris, who had characteristically been the last player to get taped, came trotting up a few minutes late. In front of everyone, Paterno told him that if he did that again he'd be demoted to second team.

The next day, Mitchell recalls, "I told Franco not to do it, but he did it anyway. Franco is the type of guy that I don't know how people cannot like him. But once he makes up his mind to do something, usually he does. Actually, Franco wasn't at practice late. But once we took the field, he sat inside. He came out late. He called Joe's bluff, and meanwhile Joe called his bluff."

Later Paterno blamed himself for challenging Harris in such a way, but the upshot was that Franco didn't start in the Cotton Bowl, and that raised questions about him in pro scouts' minds.

"I always thought I was an all-right guy," says Harris. "But there was talk that I might be blackballed from the NFL. Joe was on vacation, out on a boat somewhere. I tracked him down and called him, asked him if he was saying anything negative about me. He assured me he wasn't.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9