Franco Harris is the reason I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan
With the passing of Franco Harris today, I felt the need to tell the story of a 9-year-old boy whose life was changed when he met his football idol.
Growing up in New York in the mid-to late-1970s, it seemed like everyone was a Jets or Giants fan, with the occasional Bills fan sprinkled in. In our house, thanks to my mother, it was all about the Black and Gold and Steeler Nation. This might not make sense to most, but let me explain.
My mother, an Italian/Irish woman, and my father, an African American, are pivotal figures in this story. Watching Steeler football games with my mother was a huge joy of my childhood, and the player she rooted for the loudest was Franco Harris.
I remember when my mother explained to me that Franco was also Italian and Black, just like me. As a 9-year-old boy of mixed race, I had never seen someone that looked like me in sports or on television, for that matter. So, of course, I too rooted the loudest for Franco and became part of Franco’s Italian Army.
The first time I met meet my football idol
In December of 1977, my mother and aunt had plans to go to the 1978 Pro Bowl at Tampa Stadium, which had ten Steelers voted into that Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, I was not included in their plans. I was devastated. With my eyes full of tears, my mother and aunt couldn’t take it and sold their 2 premium tickets to buy 3 tickets in the upper deck so that I could go with them.
Back in those days, the players were more accessible to the fans than they are now. So, before the game, they had these great meet-and-greet areas along the sidelines. My mother, aunt, and I were down on the field behind the barricades, where we watched some of the most amazing football players of that time walk right up to you.
We met some legendary Steelers waiting for Franco Harris
Before we saw any Steelers players, I got to meet and get autographs from Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett, Roger Staubach, Lyle Alzado, Earl Campbell, and Bob Griese. Shortly after the parade of other teams’ players, here come the Steelers. The first few we got to meet were Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, and Lynn Swann, who was my aunt’s favorite Steeler. She almost fainted when he handed her the pen back that she gave him to sign the program with.
Franco Harris was working his way down to us, but before he did, a sudden shadow overcame my tiny body to the point where I couldn’t see the sun anymore. It was Mean Joe Green. He asked us where we were from and stuck his hand out for a shake. I’ll never forget looking up at this larger-than-life man and watching Joe Green’s hand completely engulf mine. It was quite funny. He even laughed and smiled about it.
Franco Harris made an impact on my life
Franco appeared out of nowhere. My mother, being the fan of his that she was, couldn’t contain herself when we saw him coming our way. She yelled, “Franco!” Over here!” He was so polite to us, even after my mother was yelling his name louder than anyone else. While he was signing our programs, he asked me who my favorite player was.
Of course, I told him he was, as I pointed to the Franco Harris Steelers jersey I was wearing. I also told him, “I am also in the Franco’s Italian Army because I’m Italian and Black, just like you!” As he chuckled and my mother’s face turned red, he bent down and told me, “Thank you for being in my Italian Army and wearing my jersey.”
He continued by saying something I have taken with me ever since. Franco said, “I’m happy you’re in the Army for that reason because you should always be proud of who you are.”
I later played running back in Pop Warner football trying to emulate my idol on every down I played. I continued to follow Franco after his football career, which included his business endeavors, his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990, and all the extraordinary contributions he made to the community and city of Pittsburgh.
Franco Harris will always be remembered
Harris will always be someone I look up to and have tried to be like in the eyes of others. People have said he was a true gentleman, something that you don’t hear these days. I like to consider myself a gentleman thanks to my amazing mother and the late great Franco Harris. He was a true gentleman, and he will be missed.
Thank you for sharing your greatness and kindness with all of us. Rest in Paradise Franco Harris. My idol, and the reason I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.