Franco Harris: still goal-bound 'He has always known where he wanted to go'

September 22, 1996|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

He is best known for a single moment in a single game -- a mere 17 seconds, 24 years ago.

Even now at Koenig sporting goods store in the Ross Park Mall outside Pittsburgh, where his No. 32 jersey is for sale, it appears on videotape: The Immaculate Reception -- a deflected pass snared and taken 60 yards for a game-winning touchdown.

Down the hill along the same commercial strip, in a cluttered office where the men's room is out of order, Franco Harris is 24 years removed from the catch and haggling on the phone.

"We want to move volume," Harris says. "So can we revisit these numbers, please? What are the hog prices you're basing this on?"

Out of professional football for 12 years -- as long as he played -- Harris is 46, with a sprinkle of gray in his famous beard. But he is still enormous and fit. So enormous that it's hard to believe his mother once outlawed football because she feared that her baby would get hurt.

And, now as then, he's doing things his way.

That meant picking a college that made room not only for him but for his mustache. It meant defying Penn State Coach Joe Paterno to defend his pride even though it cost him his starting position in the Cotton Bowl. It meant doing without a car so that the neighborhood kids wouldn't think they had to drive a Cadillac to be somebody. It meant putting away four Super Bowl rings to learn another business.

"That's just Franco," his brother, Mario, said. "Franco is going to do what Franco is going to do."

Harris, in what comes as close to introspection as he'll permit, says being "just Franco" means "not feeling bad about not being at the top. Not letting people put pressure on me. Not worrying about other people's opinions."

He doesn't go much further. "I'm at a different stage in my life. I'm not so much public anymore."

What's left is a description by Paterno, who once described Harris as an enigma -- another way to say "just Franco."

Harris' move to a post-football life may have been smoother than many might imagine because for so long, he was indifferent about the sport that gave him fame and riches.

In fact, business came before football for Franco Harris.

"For Franco, life after football was not a matter of landing on your feet," said Lynn Swann, Harris' roommate with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "He has always known where he wanted to go."

Harris had known as a child. Work was something everyone in the family was expected to do.

Army Sgt. Cad Harris and Gina Parenti Harris, who met while he was stationed in Italy during World War II, settled in Mount Holly, N.J., near Fort Dix. When the elder Harris wasn't working at his $300-per-month job as a supply officer at the Fort Dix hospital, he did jobs at the PX or a snack bar.

Secret purchase

But Franco Harris' entrepreneurial streak probably comes from his mother. In addition to running the household, she tried briefly to start a business importing Italian coffins, and she also worked in school cafeterias.

It was Mrs. Harris who engineered the family's move from Mount Holly's housing projects by secretly spending her husband's $700 re-enlistment bonus on a lot next to Rancocas Valley Regional High School when Franco was a boy. She didn't tell her husband for seven years, until the family was ready to move.

"Something hit me when I was about 8 that I wanted to be in business," Harris said.

"My father was in the Army for a good part of my childhood, and he didn't make much money, so there was never extra money for anything," Harris recalled. "So we always worked."

Franco and Mario bused tables, bagged groceries, picked blueberries and sold newspapers. Through high school, the brothers would pay 40 cents to take the bus about 20 minutes to Fort Dix, where they shined shoes for a different regiment on every trip.

When Harris wasn't working, he played sports. "Baseball was my first sport, then came basketball," Harris said. "I had never watched a professional football game on television."

That changed suddenly and profoundly for Harris in his sophomore year in high school. That year, 1966, coach Bill Gordon called him into his office to tell him that Mario was going to Glassboro State College in New Jersey on a full scholarship.

"You mean if you can play football, you can go to college for free?" Harris asked.

From that moment, Harris said, he viewed football as a way to college. "A means to an end," he said. "I wasn't passionate about it."

The next year, Harris was named a high school All-American, and the letters from colleges started coming.

Choosing a college football program was done in typical Franco Harris style -- slowly and not altogether based upon matters involving the game.

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