Franco Harris embraced his own Steelers legend during the final hours

PITTSBURGH — Sitting in front of his 22-year-old image, frozen in the moment of his historic play, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris beamed. He was recounting the tedious process of creating the mold used to sculpt his face for the iconic Immaculate Reception statues that greet visitors at the Pittsburgh International Airport and the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.

Harris recalled breathing through two straws stuck in her nose as the dental alginate sat on her face, covering every pore for more than 20 minutes. As the plaster-like material hardened, he captured every wrinkle and crevice in his face. The Vaseline he smeared on before applying the alginate was supposed to make it easier to remove the dried plaster, but some of his beard and eyebrow hairs remained embedded in the mask when artist Gerry Embelton carefully removed it.

“It wasn’t bad until they tried to remove it, and then they removed my beard,” Harris said with a laugh. “My beard hair grew back.”

For 15 minutes Tuesday morning, Harris sat across from me and told me about the statue and what it meant to him.

“I thought it would be a nice way to say hello to people coming to Pittsburgh,” Harris said, “…it was only supposed to last, I think, six months or a year. And I’m still standing.” “

Less than 24 hours later, Harris’s son, Dok, confirmed that his father died overnight. Waking up to the news was surreal. He was just with him. How could he have left?

If Harris was slowing down at 72, her schedule and zest for life weren’t showing it. He had the same twinkle in his eye when he told stories in his trademark deep, soft tone. Our interview was one of dozens of appearances and events he had scheduled this week for the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

A sold-out panel is scheduled for Thursday: Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception: 50 Years Later, featuring a Steelers trio of Harris, Joe Greene and John “Frenchy” Fuqua, and Oakland Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano , in the same museum where Harris spoke to me on Tuesday morning. There was also a smaller intimate dinner for his friends and family scheduled at the museum this week.

On Friday, the actual anniversary of the play, there would be a screening of a documentary about her life, followed by a public ceremony at the Immaculate Reception site at 3:41 p.m., the exact time of the play, a team photo featuring members of the 1972 cast, and a broadcast of the original radio broadcast of the play that changed the course of a franchise.

And on Saturday, the week-long celebration would culminate in halftime of a primetime game against the Las Vegas Raiders, where Harris’ number would be officially retired, the third in Steelers organization history.

That’s what made the news on Wednesday morning even more jarring.

“I don’t think they’re just putting someone up at the airport,” defensive captain. cameron heyward he said on Wednesday. “Franco was the guy. Despite all the praise he got, he always veered off to a lot of other people. It was nice meeting him. The way he respected people after him was amazing. It could be one of those things where’ I won and you have to do it my way,’ but he always welcomed everyone.

“He always had the utmost respect for every player, every person in the city. There was a level of humility when you talk to Franco. We lost a good one today.”

If the Fort Pitt Tunnel is the city’s main gate, the Harris Airport statue is the doorman, greeting every traveler to a region he embodied with a work that transformed a down-on-his-luck franchise into a dynasty.

The statue connects the older generation of soccer fans, like those who swear they were there that day, with soccer newbies, giving parents and grandparents the opportunity to educate their offspring about the play. miraculous each time they pass the milestone. Christian Brennan, a Pennsylvania native living in Denver, recently returned home and introduced his 4-year-old son, Miles, to Harris and his statue.

“After taking a selfie with Franco, we stopped at Primantis right there at the airport, had a kielbasa sandwich, and made [Miles] watch YouTube videos of the Immaculate Reception,” Brennan wrote to me in a message. “I’m not quite sure you understood the meaning. [But] It’s a great memory for me.”

Like Brennan, Heyward points out the statue of Harris to his son every time they pass it at the airport.

Heyward spoke with Harris Tuesday afternoon as the two recorded an episode for Heyward’s podcast.

“He would just tell me, ‘You still couldn’t just play me in practice if I was practicing.’ And I was like, ‘Franco, you’re not even playing football right now,'” Heyward said, smiling at the memory. “But he had a competitive spirit and you felt like he wanted to be there for you and just wanted to interact.”

Harris had that kind of affable relationship with everyone, whether he knew them five minutes ago or five years ago.

I saw it firsthand after our interview.

Brian Cook and his daughters, Mimi and Reese, waited quietly as Harris finished speaking, then approached him and asked for a photo in front of the statue. But before taking a photo, the trio received a history lesson.

“What do you know about the 1970s?” she asked the girls.

“Um, I think my mom was born then,” the 11-year-old Reese replied.

His dad laughed and reminded them that he too was born in the 1970s. Harris then quizzed the girls about the quarterback who threw him the Immaculate Catch and what number Harris wore. Harris filled them in not only with the play and the history of the Steelers, but after taking the photo, he asked the girls what sports they played (golf and tennis) and told them how he first played golf as a student at Pennsylvania state.

Harris’s schedule was completely packed that day, and while chatting with the Cook family, Harris’s wife, Dana, reminded him a couple of times that they had to go to their next event. But Harris wasn’t ready to go.

He told the Cooks that he thought a higher club, like a 9-iron, was the right one from 250 yards, and a 3-iron was the right choice for a shot closer to the green. He told them about playing with Lydell Mitchell, his Penn State teammate and fellow running back.

After about five minutes, Dana separated her husband from the group, and the Cooks, who were visiting Pittsburgh from their Northern Virginia home for the day so their mother could wrap Christmas presents, continued on their tour.

Before heading out, the girls went to the gift shop and picked out a T-shirt and a hoodie. On Tuesday night, Brian sent me a photo of the couple out shopping.

Arm in arm in front of their Christmas tree, Mimi and Reese beamed in their new gear that read “Franco’s Italian Army.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *