This week I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to speak with Pittsburgh Steelers legendary running back Franco Harris. Not only did we talk about his current work, but he shared some of his thoughts on today's game, and memories from his playing days.
Franco is currently working with Van Heusen and the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the Fan's Choice Campaign. The campaign is designed to provide fans with a forum to voice their choice for the Hall of Fame Class of 2011 at www.fanschoice.com. To-date there have been over 2.2 million votes and after the first cut down of the candidate list, the Fan’s Choice for the Class of 2011 is in lock-step with the selectors on 10 nominees, including Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Dermontti Dawson, Marshall Faulk, Kevin Greene, Ray Guy, Lester Hayes, Andre Reed, and Aeneas Williams.
For this year, the campaign has launched an exciting new component to the program—Smack Talk Your Way to the Super Bowl—enabling one lucky fan to announce the Fans’ Choice for the Class of 2011 on national television in February during Super Bowl week. The program gives fans the opportunity to make a passionate case for their top choice for the 2011 Class through a 60-second sound bite at fanschoice.com. The winner will be selected by a panel of Hall of Famers and representatives from Phillips-Van Heusen and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As Franco explained, "I think this is a pretty exciting program so that fans have a voice, and we are going to give that choice on national television Super Bowl week, and we will see if it will make a difference."
After discussing the Fan's Choice Campaign, we moved into talking about some of the current issues in professional football today starting with the NFL's recent crackdown on tackling by defensive players.
When asked, Harris explained that "I think that it is something that is needed, but they need to define the judgement a little bit closer so that there is this range that officials can go by with making a call. Making a call can really change a game. That penalty because of something like that, for a play that a guy is used to making—all of a sudden they think they are making a big play and a big hit, and they get peanalized 15-yards the other way. On top of that they can be fined."
While Harris believes that there needs to be better clarity around enforcement, he did go on to say that, "I think that it is something that is needed—looking at the long range quality of life for players afterwards. A lot of players, and it could be from the hits to the head, are finding it very, very tough in their transition in life after playing this game."
In light of the flags and fines of the past few months, I had to ask Franco for his opinion on whether he felt that the Steelers were being singled out as an example to the rest of the NFL.
Franco was very straight forward and replied without hesitation, "Yes, I do. I think there have been some calls, especially on James Harrison, that to me are very questionable. Because they [the League office] are watching, I think the refs are, if it is something on the fine line, they're going to go with the flag."
When Franco retired from football in the early 1980s, his long list of accomplishments included placing 2nd on the NFL's All-Time rushing yardage list—finishing just a few yards short of Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer Jim Brown's career mark of 12,312 yards.
Considering his experience, I was interested in hearing about which running backs in today's game he felt were the most impressive.
Harris shared that his personal interests were in rooting for Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson. "Every running back has their own style and to me it is going to have to be over the course of time." Continuing Franco felt that, "If over eight, nine, ten years they are still being consistent then that makes that football player for me."
We next talked about whether there were a few defenders that he played against that really stuck out in his mind—ones that he respected in terms of their ability. Franco talked about viewing a defense in terms of the entire team, and not singling out any one particular player even thought there may have been some Hall of Famers on those teams.
"I look at the Houston Oilers, the Dallas Cowboys, and having some tough games against the Raiders. At different years and at different times, different players would stand out—like when we played the Denver Broncos Tommy Jackson would stand out." Franco continued on to say that while you could always pick some individuals out, he felt the most beat up after the Houston games during the days of Ken Houston, Elvin Bethea, and Curley Culp.
I also enjoyed hearing a story from his rookie year as he discussed being in awe at the prospect of playing the Kansas City Chiefs. Facing great players such as Bobby Bell and Willie Lainer, tt did not help matters when he heard that, "Bradshaw [the Steelers quarterback] went over there an told those guys, 'hey man we're going to beat you guys' and I'm thinking to myself hey I'm the running back here."
From a personal perspective I also found it interesting when Franco talked about how he approached the game, "I really had it in my mind while playing, don't look at who tackled you. Don't even pay attention, don't acknowledge them, because you don't want them on your mind."
The Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl in four of the last six years of the 1970s. Franco was named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl IX in 1975 when he rushed for 158 yards on 34 carries and a touchdown to lead the Steelers to a 16-6 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
With that as the backdrop, I wondered which of the Steelers Super Bowls he viewed as the most memorable and personally gratifying. With out hesitation Franco responded that as far as memorable went, "Super Bowl XIII was that game, the 35-31 game against the Dallas Cowboys. Everyone thought they were the number one team, number one defense, this and that—that was one heck of a game."
As for the second part about personal gratification he stated that, "As you said the one that is always the special one to me would be the first one, Super Bowl IX, that was our first one, and that is always special."
I've always enjoyed hearing some of the Steelers of the 1970s talk about the architect of those great teams, head coach Chuck Noll. While a Hall of Famer and the only coach with four Super Bowl victories, I rarely hear Noll mentioned in discussions of the coaching greats.
Asking Harris about Noll he said that, "most of the time when someone is quiet and as you were talking about earlier, doesn't go out and really promote themselves—someone who really wants the players and the team to be out front rather than himself—that's why sometimes he doesn't get that much attention for what he does. He never wanted it."
Continuing Franco said that, "To me that is one of the things—with the focus on the team and on the players—to me that's where it needs to be. To set that goal where we are working to be the best, that we want to have people on the team that want to be the best—that's what he expected. He gave us enough room, but he knew when he had to take authority and I thought that was a great balance that we had during those years. He just seem to read our team very well, prepared us well, and gave us a vision that we needed."
Considering all of Franco's great work in the Pittsburgh community since his playing days, I wanted to finish up our time by finding out if there were any local causes that he would like to bring some attention to.
He was very enthusiastic to share about a program in the Steel City called the Pittsburgh Promise. "What we're doing is that for any kid that is in Pittsburgh Public High School, if they are there all four years and graduate meeting a certain criteria, there is a four-year scholarship waiting for them. It is an increadible program becasue it involves kids now planning to go to college."
Harris continued by saying that "With this we are trying to give kids a vision, hope and a plan for the future, and to let them know that we will pay for that. The money is there for them to go to college or a technical school after they are done with high school. It is having a big impact in our city and touching on a lot of different aspects of the kid's lives hear in the city."
You can learn more about the PIttsburgh Promise at www.pittsburghpromise.org.
I wanted to finish by saying that I very much appreciated Franco taking some time out of his day to talk with Bleacher Report. I found him to be an engaging and very generous person and would encourage everyone to check out both the Fan's Choice and the Pittsburgh Promise.