MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Certainly there was no intention to write about Franco Harris two times in a row; because, very sadly, they are both two very different occasions.

Franco Harris died Wednesday morning at the age of 72.

Yes, he was 72, though 72 in this day is not what 72 once was in the day — which is to say like hitting the lottery. Yet people like Franco Harris … I won’t say they’re not supposed to die, because we all die. But Franco Harris has always been one of those people for whom the thought of dying neither crosses a mind nor enters a notion of anybody who has been aware for the past 50-plus years that, very thankfully, Franco Harris has been amongst us.

The spirit of Franco Harris, you see, will never die.

As we touched upon on Tuesday, for those of you who know who Franco was but were not old enough to see or appreciate what he still means today, Franco Harris was one of the greatest football players who ever lived, yes. He helped to define the direction, the spirit and the soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers and, in fact, the National Football League as we know it today.

(Though, quite truthfully, today’s NFL is an absolute insult by the standards of the NFL of the ’60s, ‘70s and ‘80s when it was becoming America’s favorite game.)

There wasn’t anything he could not do on the football field and all of America saw that, beginning in his days at Penn State as the second-fiddle fullback to All-American halfback Lydell Mitchell.

Once he got to the hapless Steelers franchise in 1972, which had something brewing with the previous additions of head coach Chuck Noll, defensive tackle Joe Greene, linebacker Jack Hamm and quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris was suddenly and forever nobody’s second fiddle. He became and remained the man, and this is coming from a football fan who has rooted against the Steelers, and continues to, since Dec. 23, 1972 when Franco Harris gave us all the Immaculate Reception, the single greatest play in the history of football and, perhaps, all of sports.

Franco Harris holds more pro football records, particularly in the playoffs and in the Super Bowl where those Steelers made their mark in history, than just about everybody. He was a cinch first-year Hall of Famer, we can go on and on …

But that isn’t who Franco Harris was. It’s not even close to why so many of us have been, and remain, so upset and unsettled since learning the news Wednesday morning, three days before the Steelers will retire his Steelers jersey No. 32 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

My friend Bill Feeney and I were discussing this Wednesday afternoon over lunch. Bill is not a Steelers fan; never has been. Nor, as previously stated, have I ever been a Steelers fan, but we both certainly recognize quality and goodness.

Bill met Franco Harris once. As manager of a Landover Pizza Hut, Bill voiced his displeasure more than once on the quality of the product packaging his restaurant was receiving from Parks Sausage in our beloved Baltimore. Harris, who had purchased Parks Sausage, at the time one of the oldest Black-owned businesses in the United States, partnering with his former Penn State teammate and Baltimore Colts great Lydell Mitchell, drove down from Baltimore to Landover to discuss the issue and have lunch with Bill.

“We talked and had lunch for over an hour,” Bill said on Wednesday. “He looked at some of the packages we received and said he understood what I was saying. Nothing was really done afterward, but he came to our door as more or less a goodwill ambassador. He thanked me for bringing this to his attention, for our business, the afternoon and then he left.

“Nothing really changed, but I never complained about the packaging again. He was such a kind, friendly person. He took care of and spent time with a lot of our customers who recognized him. I was more than satisfied.”

I, too, met Franco Harris once, at the Rocky Gap Music Festival the year it was held at Allegany College of Maryland. Franco was here to meet and greet, hobnob and be goodwill ambassador in helping create good will and good feelings for the Parks Sausage enterprise with all of the Annapolis folks who attended the Rocky Gap festival each year (good thing we got rid of that, right?).

Franco sat down with us media types for over an hour and answered every question; and he asked a lot of questions himself – about Cumberland, about us, why we used to root for the Baltimore Colts, but then suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers?

When the unanimous answer to that question was, “because of you,” Franco Harris, one of the greatest football players who ever lived, blushed and then changed the subject.

Anybody who has ever known me knows The Standard – for everything – begins and ends with Brooks Robinson.

Franco Harris was the first person I ever compared in print to Brooks Robinson. Steve Bazarnic is the only other one. This is how gracious and genuinely kind Franco Harris was.

Like Brooks Robinson, to paraphrase the words of the great John Steadman, There’s not a man who knows him who wouldn’t swear for his integrity and honesty and give testimony to his consideration of others. He’s an extraordinary human being, which is important, and one of the world’s greatest football players of all time, which is incidental.

Franco Harris was Superman. Most importantly, Franco Harris remains Everyman.

This is why so many of us will need some time to get over the passing of Franco Harris.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT