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

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

It didn't matter that Syracuse University had produced Jim Brown and Larry Csonka. What mattered was that Syracuse wanted him to shave his mustache. He said no. It didn't matter that Notre Dame had the most storied football program in the country. What mattered was that the university put its new players through a brutal basketball game to test their toughness. Harris said no.

"His attitude was, 'You take me as a human being and respect who I am,' " Gordon said.

George Welsh, then an assistant coach, recalled meeting with Harris over steaks and salads at the same restaurant for six straight weekends, trying to persuade him to pick Penn State. "I don't know what took so long," Welsh said. "I couldn't close the deal."

Even Harris' friends started wondering when he would make a decision. "He was kind of private," said Bobby Smith, Harris' high school quarterback. "He would say, 'I don't know yet. I'm not sure. I'm having a tough time deciding.' "

Harris, of course, finally settled on Penn State. But not entirely because of its football program. The college offered two things that were important: a good hotel- and restaurant-management course and no athletic dorms. "I wanted some freedom," he said.

Winning Mom over

In the end, though, it may have been his mother who actually was won over.

Notre Dame had sent Gina Harris a beautiful crucifix. But Paterno showed up with a 25-pound box of candy. "I was mopping the floor when he came over," she said. "It was the biggest box I had ever seen."

Recalled Carm Cella, Harris' high school backfield coach: Paterno's "an Italian boy. Here's a lady from Italy. He promised he would take care of her son. You had to sell Mom."

Harris wasn't just slow in picking a university. Friends and associates say there's a time zone for everyone else, then one for Harris, whom they describe as a mixture of analysis, deliberation and patience.

"The thing that struck you about Franco was that he had his own rhythm about things," said Ron Rossi, a close friend and classmate of Harris and Lydell Mitchell at Penn State. "He wasn't pressured by other people or other things."

Paterno puts it this way: "If I told Lydell and Franco to run through a brick wall, Lydell would say, 'Where's the wall, coach?' and run through it. Franco would go up to the wall, touch the bricks, look around for a soft spot and then go through it."

Those who know Harris well often arrive for a meeting with him 30 minutes late because they know he's running on "Franco Time."

He negotiated for seven months before finalizing the acquisition of Parks Sausage Co.

"He doesn't shoot from the hip; when he makes decisions, he's giving it real thought," said Raymond V. Haysbert, the former owner of Parks.

"I think he might been one of the few who understood that you can try to rush it, but you can't rush it," said city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who took part in the negotiations.

Franco Time has gotten him into trouble, though. Almost always the last one on the field for practice, Harris angered Paterno when he arrived late as Penn State prepared for the 1972 Cotton Bowl against Texas. Paterno berated him in front of his teammates, then warned if it happened again, he would wear a "green jersey" -- shorthand for the loss of his starting position.

The next day, Harris didn't budge as the team left the locker room for practice. "I'm thinking, it's a big game. He's my friend. What can I do to save him?" Lydell Mitchell recalled.

"C'mon, let's go," Mitchell prodded. "He just sat there. I guess he was going to see what Joe would do." A few minutes after Paterno blew his whistle to signal practice had started, Harris trotted onto the field. Late again.

Out came the green jersey. Harris had risked -- and lost -- his starting position in a critical game that would be watched closely professional scouts.

Paterno says now that he handled the issue wrong because he embarrassed Harris in front of others, forcing him to defend his pride.

"That was the worst thing you could do to Franco," he said, "because Franco would never embarrass anyone."

Harris sums himself up this way: "Being controlled in any kind of way is definitely against my nature. But I think my bigger picture is for the good of everybody, for the good of the team. If I can get the same or better results doing it a different way, why can't I?"

Just as Franco Time got Harris into trouble in college, his independence attracted flak in the pros. Huge for a running back, Harris preferred avoiding defenders to plowing over them.

In his 1979 book, "They Call Me Assassin," Jack Tatum, then a defensive back for the Raiders, wrote: "If Franco doesn't run for the sidelines, slip and fall or cake out before any one gets near him someone else is wearing his jersey."

Harris, without the disabilities of many former pro football players, said he had stepped out of bounds only when it was apparent that he wouldn't gain more yardage.

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