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Franco Harris: An immaculate catch & career

The Immaculate Reception. It goes down as one of the greatest plays in NFL history and the making of it stems from the Senior Bowl. Franco Harris, who needs no introduction, was the 13th overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers after a stellar performance in the 1972 game. The man who let him get away in that defining moment in NFL history, Phil Villapiano, was taken by the Oakland Raiders in the 1971 NFL Draft after impressing Raiders owner Al Davis in Mobile.

Villapiano won Super Bowl XI and Harris went on to a Hall of Fame career as he won four Super Bowls along the way.

“I tell people that the career was a dream,” Harris said in an interview with the Senior Bowl’s Patrick Woo. Inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1990, Harris said that enshrinement was “the summation of it all. All the practices, all the games in high school, all the games at Penn State, the Senior Bowl, all the Super Bowls.”

Before those titles, Harris had a title in Mobile, Ala. that he sought after: “Senior Bowl MVP” as he says he wanted to win Offensive MVP. 

Despite not winning the MVP, Harris still had a solid performance. “People say that because of my play in the Senior Bowl – that that did make a difference in the Draft. So my play there did have a big impact on my career,” he said. “The Senior Bowl is very special to me. No doubt it helped launch my career and I feel I owe a lot of it to the Senior Bowl back in 1972.”

Read the question and answer with Franco Harris below or listen to the full interview above.

Reese’s Senior Bowl: One of the 100 greatest NFL players according to media outlets, Franco thanks for the taking the time to catch up with us here on
Franco Harris: My pleasure, Patrick. The Senior Bowl is very special to me. No doubt it helped launch my career and I feel I owe a lot of it to the Senior Bowl back in 1972.

RSB: Which wasn’t that long ago. You remember everything like it was yesterday, right?
Harris: Well, there is a lot that I do remember. I’m sure there’s a lot of details that have slipped through the cracks here but as I said it was – I guess you look at the experience on how it turned out in the end. And in the end, the Senior Bowl being part of my journey turned out pretty good.

RSB: What’s the one most vivid memory for your week down here for the Senior Bowl?
Harris: it would really be the game itself. And my mindset during that game that I really wanted to have a good game. You’re down there with some of the best people in the country and can you compete in that game? I had this mindset, “Yeah I’d like to win MVP on the offensive side and really have a good game.” Now I didn’t win the MVP but I felt that I really had a good tough game and people say that because of my play in the Senior Bowl that that did make a difference in the draft. So my play there did have a big impact on my career.

RSB: Can you recall some of the connections you made during the week? On the field, there’s the players that you bonded with that you see again in the NFL and off the field, you meet the General Managers but also scouts that may be higher-up executives by the time you’re looking for your next contract in the NFL.
Harris: Well, you know we had the coaches from the New York Giants and after the game had dinner with a couple of them and I think it kind of surprised them the kind of game that I had. I mean some of the players you would see later on through your career but right after that game, what I remember is that I went back to Penn State and I had it in my mind I really need to go back to Penn State and really focus on working out and getting in great shape and I just remember when I came back that that was my focus. Now, back then, communication wasn’t like it is now, you know what I mean. Now with texting, emails and all that sort of stuff, you would be in touch with people a lot more but back then none of the coaches contacted me and other players that I played with, it wasn’t like we stayed in touch but I would see them through the years as I mentioned. But if we had all the ways to stay in touch today with Facebook and Twitter, texting and email and that kind of stuff and cell phones, it definitely would be a lot different today.

RSB: Franco, there’s this other guy we’ve talked to for these alumni interviews and I know you’ve kept in touch with him, Phil Villapiano. You encountered each other in the NFL and when I talked to him, he said he wants to fall to his death by tackling your statue in the Pittsburgh airport.
Harris: (Laughs) And you know what? He would still miss. He will still come up empty. So hey Phil, I’m gonna tell him, “Phil, you better live a long time. Keep dreaming.” But I do thank Phil all the time for not covering me well. I was his man on that play. And I say, “Nice job Phil. You did a nice job and I thank you for the job that you did on that play.” But we do have a lot of fun with that and as you know the anniversary, will be December 23rd and we do talk every December 23rd. I mean we do other times through the year but me, Frenchy (John Fuqua) and Phil Villapiano, we all talk on December 23rd. That’s a big day for us.

RSB: I know you’ve probably run through it a million times but take us through what was going through your mind during the Immaculate Reception?
Harris: Well first I wanna say that you know I went to Penn State and Joe (Paterno) would always holler “Harris, go to the ball! Go to the ball!” And when you’re in college you never pay attention right? “Yeah, OK coach.” But when I got to the pros, this was my first training camp and it was like that Joe’s voice rang in my head again “Harris go to the ball!’ So during practice, right from the first day, I just went to the ball. It didn’t matter if (Terry) Bradshaw threw it five yards or fifty yards, I went to where the player caught the ball. The whole thing was about running, staying in shape and mentally prepared and so I would always be around the ball. That was something that kind of drove me and then during that play when Bradshaw threw the ball, my assignment was to stay in the backfield and help block so I really didn’t have any assignment beside that. But when Bradshaw started to scramble, I said OK Franco go out for an outlet pass just in case he can find you. And when he threw the ball I started going towards the ball and before I knew it, the ball was coming to me and we kind of met somewhere in the middle there and I got the football and the rest is history. But that was 1972, December 23rd. And I would say the next decade of football was pretty for incredible for us.

RSB: It was quite the turnaround for your Pittsburgh Steelers franchise.
Harris: Oh yeah because from 1933 to 1971, they had the worst record ever in professional football. And boom the 70s was just an incredible run. Incredible.

RSB: How do you feel about the statue in the Pittsburgh airport?
Harris: It’s so great but it just feels funny passing it a number of times. Sometimes I pat that guy on the head.

RSB: Growing up in New Jersey, there’s Penn State and the Steelers are in that region of the country too but growing up what teams did you think about playing for and what led you to Penn State?
Harris: It never crossed my mind about playing professional football when I was growing up and we never really thought about college either. My dad was a career man in the military. He wasn’t an officer, just an enlisted man, but a career man and so the pay the military got back in the 50s and 60s you definitely weren’t thinking about going to college. We were just military kids and we were going in the military. But then sports started to become a big part of our life and my older brother Mario got a football scholarship and we were like, “Wow you go to college and play football and go for free and so he got a scholarship and the next year I made high school All-American at my high school called Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly. Then all these colleges started recruiting me and in the end my gut feeling was Penn State. All the schools were great schools, I visited Michigan, Pitt, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Cornell – and with Cornell I just thought I had to study hotel and food, hotel administration food management but Penn State had that curriculum also so that really helped me in my gut decision also to go to Penn State and it worked out great. I played for a legendary coach Joe Paterno and a great program there, graduated in four years which most of us do at Penn State, and went on to professional football and then I got into the bakery business after that using my degree so it’s all good.

RSB: Joe Paterno is a polarizing figure now because of some things that have happened recently but without getting into all of that, is Joe Paterno the greatest man and the greatest coach you played for?
Harris: Oh there’s no doubt about it. No doubt he’s the greatest coach in college football history. What he accomplished really on and off the field. And it makes it tough because as you said the stuff that happened the last four years but once like the truth will come out because it always does. The truth always comes out. And for Joe to go through what he went through the last four years and we know the truth. Now, we know everything, or like I’d say, most of it, and what we’ll find is that not many institutions and not many people could’ve withstood what happened the last four years. But when you look at what Joe stands for and what he is and what Penn State stands for, it should not be surprising to people that when the truth comes out, it will make Joe shine brighter, make Penn State shine brighter more than ever.

RSB: What is your take on how the running back position has changed from your time to today’s time?
Harris: It’s quite disappointing. I still think that running backs can play a major part of the game if they’d make a commitment to it. But with the rule changes, a lot of teams have gotten away from that commitment. But to me the running game and defense can still control a game and can manage the game a lot better. But the opening up offenses and look at the Steelers now the last number of games, 30-some points and all that sort of stuff, people like that kind of stuff. If you go to a running and defense game, you’re not going to have those kinds of points a lot of times. I’m not gonna say I’m not a fan of the game, I’m a big fan of the game but at certain points, when you need to control the ball and control and manage the game, can a team do it with the running game? And I’m not sure if a lot of teams can do that anymore.

RSB: Since your football career ended, you’ve done a lot of different things. You’ve got the bakery, Super Donut, and you’ve developed a clothing line: Silversport. Odor-free socks from, what I understand.
Harris: When football ended, as you know transitions in life – we all have to go through those transitions and at times transitions can be tough but I was able to make a transition using my education at Penn State and I got into the bakery business and our main product is called a Super Donut: a donut with minerals vitamins and protein and it’s just been a lot of fun working in this industry. And once again we have been in business for 25 years with the Super Donut and it has been great. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a great business. Lydell Mitchell, my teammate at Penn State is a part of this and another guy named Ron Rossi, the three of us met our freshman year of Penn State and so we’ve been working together on this project all these years. So once again it’s been fun, it’s been a great business and Super Donut is a great product. And as you mentioned, Silversport, this is pretty exciting also. You mentioned our odor free socks and our odor free and clean towels. So what we do is we take silver particles and we put it within these products and within our socks and within our towels. And this technology called our Silverclean technology will keep the towel or keep the socks clean and odor-free between washes. So it’s up to you when you wanna wash it and we tell people that it works anywhere from normal to extreme conditions. So the normal way you handle your workouts or your sporting events or hunting or anything you wanna do, and the way you handle that wash them, which is fine. But if you’re in extreme conditions also to where you can’t wash your socks for one week or two weeks, whatever, then that’s no problem also. The socks will stay odor-free and they’ll stay clean. And by clean I mean free of odor causing bacteria, free of bacteria, not if you have mud on them or something, our Silverclean technology doesn’t do that. But if you’re using our socks, our towels or other products, like I said from normal to extreme, the product will always be clean and odor-free. And people can go to and check it out. It’s pretty exciting, it really is.

RSB: That’s and also the Super Donuts.
Harris: The Super Donuts! Woohoo!

RSB: You’ve accomplished so much in your life. When you think about, there’s the NFL Hall of Fame, being a first round draft pick, the Immaculate Reception, Walter Payton Man of the Year, Super Bowl champion…
Harris: Four time Super Bowl champions! Well I tell people that the career was a dream but and I didn’t think anything could be better than that. Well the number one thing is always the birth of my son, you know is number one. But away from that that would be the Hall of Fame. I mean wow. To me, when I put that gold jacket on, that was like the culmination of everything. Where it all came together. As you know there’s less than 300 people in the NFL Hall of Fame and tens of millions of people who played football through history. It just breaks it down to what that means. And it was like as I said the summation of it all. All the practices, all the games in high school, all the games at Penn State, the Senior Bowl, all the Super Bowls, all the games in the NFL, it was like all of it came together and this is the ultimate, to be part of this team and part of this enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. So I think that kind of sums it up right there.

RSB: It sure does. Before I let you go, what would your advice be for the next wave of players going into the NFL, especially for those that have a chance to come down and play in the Senior Bowl?
Harris: it would be to love the game and really respect the game and treat the game with a lot of respect. And then off-the-field to love life and to have the same sort of character and drive and determination off the field as you have on the field. And you know along with sportsmanship and teamwork and all that sort of stuff. Football is just a great sport. I love it. Like the friends that you’ve gotten from it, by having great coaches, and I’ve had great coaches all the way through my high school coach Bill Gordon, my college coach Joe Paterno, and Chuck Noll in the pros, that having great coaches and great leaders help shape you also. And it’s just a great sport. And how we can contribute on the field but then we also have to contribute off the field in things that we can do for people and for our community and for our country. I think that’s very important.

RSB: Great advice from the one and only Franco Harris from the 1972 Senior Bowl, NFL Hall of Fame class of 1990, 4-time Super Bowl champion. I know you’re a busy man and I sincerely thank you for taking the time to catch up with us and we’re so glad things have gone well for you.
Harris: My pleasure, Patrick. And good luck to you and remember “We Are” (Penn State) and I want to thank the Senior Bowl for being part of my incredible journey and being a big part of it.