Fan of the People
Franco Harris made one of the most famous plays in NFL history but was better known for how he connected with Penn Staters, Pittsburghers, and everyone else.
Lydell Mitchell spent a lot of time traveling with Franco Harris, his Penn State backfield mate and longtime business partner. Sometimes it was a slow go, simply because there would always be a fan who wanted to stop the ever-recognizable Harris for a chat or an autograph. And Franco always obliged.
“He was so generous of his time,” says Mitchell ’72 Edu. “He’d take the time to stop to talk to people, and it was sincere. He didn’t have to do it. But that was his style.”
Harris ’72 H&HD, who died Dec. 20 in his home in Sewickley, Pa., at age 72, became a national sports icon because of his football heroics at Penn State and during a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But teammates and friends say it was the way he related to people—and his abiding love for his alma mater—that will be most remembered.
Jack Ham ’71 Bus matched up with Harris when he was a starting linebacker and the latter was a freshman tight end on the Penn State scout team in 1968 and would go on to be his teammate for 11 seasons with the Steelers. “I guess what I admire most about him is as he went through his career at Penn State or his career in Pittsburgh, Franco never changed because of whatever fame or fortune he had,” Ham says. “He was still the same Franco. He was still down-to-earth.”
Ham, who has been the Nittany Lions’ radio analyst since 2000, recalls countless instances of seeing Harris in the locker room chatting with players after games or talking to fans in the hotel. “That would be like his oxygen,” Ham says.
Tall, handsome, and wearing a distinctive beard, Harris was hard to miss in a crowd and harder to miss in Beaver Stadium on fall Saturdays, long after his playing career had ended. “He loved it there,” says former teammate George Landis ’71, ’72 MEd Edu. “And that’s why he came back so often and was so involved.”
Born in Fort Dix, N.J., Harris was one of the eight children of Cad and Gina Parenti Harris (his brothers Giuseppe ’00 H&HD and Piero “Pete” ’07 H&HD would also play for Penn State). He starred at Rancocas Regional Valley High School in New Jersey and met Mitchell for the first time on a recruiting visit during their senior year of high school. The duo would go on to form one of the great backfields in Penn State history—helping the Nittany Lions to a 29-4 record from 1969 to ’71—and a friendship that spanned more than six decades.
“He was just a cool, authentic dude,” Mitchell says. “Didn’t have a lot of worries about things. You knew he always had your back.”
Harris ran for more than 2,000 yards and accounted for 25 touchdowns at Penn State, then was selected with the 13th pick of the 1972 NFL Draft by the Steelers. In the first playoff game of his rookie season, the Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-6 with 22 seconds left. On fourth down, Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass toward receiver John Fuqua, but the ball bounced off the helmet of Oakland safety Jack Tatum. Harris, trailing the play, scooped up the carom just before it touched the ground and raced into the end zone. What became known as “The Immaculate Reception” gave the Steelers their first playoff win in franchise history and set the stage for four Super Bowl championships over the next eight seasons.
Harris set or tied 31 records and ran for 12,120 yards in 13 NFL seasons, which currently stands as the league’s 12th-best career rushing total. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990 and was set to become just the third player in the Steelers’ history to have his number—32—retired in a ceremony just days after his death.
Mitchell remembers the stack of business magazines Harris would have with him during flights and how he was always coming up with ideas that would become common practice years later. In 1990, the pair founded Super Bakery, which makes nutritional foods for schools and hospitals. A few years later, they also revived and became owners of the Parks Sausage Company in Baltimore.
As with football, Harris thrived as an entrepreneur when people expressed their doubts. “He always wanted to conquer something,” Mitchell says. “Always wanted to be the best at something. He liked the challenge.”
Harris was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 1982 and an Alumni Fellow in 2005, and he served as a Conti Visiting Professor in the School of Hospitality Management in 2009. He was an ardent supporter of Special Olympics, the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program, and numerous other charitable organizations. He is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich ’72 Edu, and his son, Dok.
Tributes included the entire Penn State team wearing jerseys with his college number, 34, during their pregame walkthrough at the Rose Bowl, and the Steelers—led by tight end Pat Freiermuth ’20 Lib—wearing No. 32 jerseys prior to their Christmas Eve game against the Raiders. The gestures reflected Harris’ impact on the game and his generosity of spirit.
“Franco Harris is known for the glory he brought to football,” wrote President Joe Biden in a tweet. “But I knew him for his character and compassion—someone who spent time with my boys after we lost my first wife and infant daughter.”
“He poured himself forth to a life of service to others,” Sue Pohland Paterno ’62 Lib wrote in a lengthy statement. “He was an example of integrity, selflessness, and loyalty.”
It’s not hard to envision Harris offering a handshake and a kind word to everyone who paid respects. Nor, says Ham, is it a stretch to think he would have been a bit embarrassed by the attention. “He would say, ‘Why are you making such a big deal?’” Ham says. “Which would be typical Franco.”