Defending Joe Paterno’s Legacy With Franco Harris

The former Steelers star and Penn State alum is determined to prove Joe Pa's innocence in the Sandusky scandal. Is he crazy, or the only one telling the truth?

It is this unfortunate observation that explains the most about Harris: “In Joe’s death and involvement in this, Joe has brought—I don’t think there’s been any one incident that’s gotten the attention on child sexual abuse,” he tells me, sincerely. “Even though Joe wasn’t a part of this, he helped this cause so much. Just furthered the cause in a big way.”

This is where Harris loses me. I understand why he and the remaining JoePa faithful want to throw the board of trustees out on their asses. And if you want to argue that public relations was more important to them than the lives Sandusky ruined, or Paterno’s lifetime of good deeds, I’ll listen. But tell me that Paterno should be remembered as someone who raised awareness of child sexual abuse, and there’s not much left for us to say. For the truthers, even in his failings, Paterno is forever a hero, the government flew planes into the World Trade Center, and crisis actors put on a sick show in Newtown.

As our conversation winds down, Harris reflects on last year’s football season. “They played for each other, they believed in each other, they looked out for each other,” he says. “To me, that’s the true meaning of Penn State. We don’t need to change who we are. Some people tried to destroy and remove our 61 years of tradition. But when we needed it most, it came through. And Joe’s boys came through big-time.”

Like so many Penn Staters, athletes and otherwise, Harris will forever be one of Joe’s boys. Few alums have achieved more than Harris has. That’s why no one’s fighting harder to preserve Paterno’s good name and protect his school from what he sees as a rogue band of cowards on its board. Unless the upcoming trials of the PSU Three—ex-president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and administrator Gary Schultz—prove Paterno knew Sandusky was a pedophile, Harris will never lose faith.

With the sun heading down, Harris shakes my hand and says goodbye. There’s something about his demeanor—earnest, not abrasive; certain but calm—that’s likeable, despite our differences. He isn’t crazy. Like the Steelers die-hards who believe in his Immaculate Reception miracle, he’s sure the Paterno he knew isn’t the one depicted in the Freeh Report.

Now Harris and his coach are bound together in ways neither could have imagined, with critics and conspiracies clouding their gridiron legacies. When I think back later on our lunch, I’m reminded of the site where Paterno’s statue was torn down outside Beaver Stadium. More striking than the missing sculpture is the faded outline of the players who were shown running behind him, following him onto the field and into the future. They’re ghosts now, apparitions of regret and anger. They serve as a reminder that no matter what version of the truth you believe, Sandusky and Paterno, forever linked, will haunt Harris, and so many others, for a long, long time.