Franco Harris is running late. I’m sitting in an Italian chain restaurant in Pittsburgh down the street from his office, waiting for arguably the greatest football player in the history of Penn State University, and inarguably the greatest player in the history of Rancocas Valley High in Mount Holly, New Jersey. He has four Super Bowl rings, nine Pro Bowls, and the starring role in one of the most celebrated plays in football history—the Immaculate Reception, a fluke deflected catch that sparked a comeback playoff win and a decade of Steelers dominance.
Thanks to that moment, Harris has also been at the center of a decades-long
controversy. Footage of his shoestring catch has been likened to the Zapruder film. Was it a clean grab? Clips have been studied; conspiracy theories have been built. If you’re a Steelers fan, there’s no debate: Harris caught the ball. In a hardscrabble town that’s almost collegiate in its devotion to the Steelers, Harris is a legend. Visitors arriving at the Pittsburgh airport are greeted by two statues—one of George Washington and one of Franco Harris.
Although this past December marked the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, Harris has been making headlines for something else. That’s why I’m here: to ask him about his current role as the most outspoken member of what you might call the Penn State Truthers—folks who believe Joe Paterno was a scapegoat in the Jerry Sandusky child-sex scandal. Harris has been doing some strange things lately to further the cause, like verbally ambushing the NCAA president and showing up at a Nittany Lions game last September with a life-size cardboard cutout of Paterno. As I look over the restaurant menu, I wonder—will he arrive for our lunch interview with similar visual aids? Wearing his old navy-and-white jersey? As much as I want to hear if he has any evidence that would lead me to reconsider Paterno, what I really want to know is this: Has Franco Harris lost his mind?
From a sports perspective, I have no skin in this game. I didn’t go to Penn State. College football wasn’t a tradition in my house when I was a kid. Penn State grads I’ve spoken with about the Sandusky scandal are eager to leave it in the past. They still have a unique devotion to their alma mater, one forged by years in a small town where nothing much matters but the school and its football team. Now, they want to move on. But for Harris and a growing number of alums who question the university’s response to Sandusky’s crimes, it’s a story that’s far from over.
The first thing I notice when Harris arrives is that at 62, he looks almost the same as he did in his glory years of the ’70s. Dressed in jeans and a tartan button-down, he’s heavier than his playing weight; his trademark beard is trim, and there are traces of gray among the black curls that have retreated from his forehead. All he’s carrying is a well-worn notebook. As he shakes my hand, my next thought is that I can’t imagine trying to tackle this guy—saucer-sized palms, shoulders that could double as wrecking balls, and the same quiet intensity he had on the football field. “I just kept hearing, ‘Do it again, do it again,’” he says, chuckling as he remembers Paterno’s mantra during practice.
Harris’s years at Penn State were marked by the turbulence of the times. He watched students occupy Old Main to protest the Vietnam War. Paterno, he says, encouraged his players to get involved: “He said, ‘Go and learn.’ He didn’t try to shelter us. That really showed what you’re supposed to get out of the college experience.” Harris credits his success—in football and in business—to Paterno and Penn State. He now owns a baking company and a line of antibacterial workout gear. (After our interview ends, he’ll come back to give me gym towels to try out.)
As news of the Sandusky charges broke, Harris counted himself among the manipulated. Harris says that while he barely knew Sandusky, who was a graduate assistant during his playing days, he agreed to a role on the Second Mile’s advisory board after the two had dinner together sometime in the ’90s. He attended golf fund-raisers, and estimates he donated a total of $75,000 to the charity. At a 2010 banquet honoring his work with Second Mile, Harris says, he was told Sandusky wasn’t there because he was “being investigated. I really thought no more about it, to tell you the truth.” What’s more memorable for him is November 9, 2011, a date Harris refers to frequently. That night, from his home in Pittsburgh, he watched on television as Penn State’s board of trustees announced that Paterno had been fired. “I was in shock,” he says. “I was pissed off.”
A few days later, Harris drove to Happy Valley. As he approached the modest rancher that Paterno and his wife Sue bought in 1969, he saw TV news trucks and journalists parked across the street, prepared to lay siege. “My first visit, Joe wasn’t grasping the whole thing,” Harris recalls. “I mean, how do you? It was very tough.” Harris began telling reporters that the board “showed no courage” in letting Paterno go. Others spoke out to defend Paterno’s moral fiber, including Dick Vermeil and Mike Krzyzewski, fellow coaches of esteem. Harris’s support came from a deeper place. “This was a personal attack on [Paterno’s] character,” he says, “on his football program and what we stand for. … This stuff was a lie. This is not the truth.”
As Harris began to drive from Pittsburgh to State College nearly every week to check in on his coach, his outrage over Paterno’s dismissal—which seemed to be based solely on the grand jury presentment—grew. Right up to his last visit with Paterno the day before his death, Harris says, his coach would “never show weakness. He’s a fighter.” When Paterno couldn’t fight any more, Harris took it upon himself to clear his name and try to clean out the board of trustees. He started traveling and giving a pro-Paterno presentation called “Upon Further Review,” displayed the Paterno cutout at a home game in a demand for “due process,” and peppered the NCAA’s president with questions about “find[ing] Joe Paterno guilty” at a public appearance in Los Angeles last December. For his efforts, Harris has been mocked in blogs, excoriated in columns, and fired from his role as spokesman for a Pittsburgh-area casino. None of this bothers him.
“They were attacking all of us—me and all the football lettermen,” he says. “It’s the type of battle you have to fight sometimes. You don’t want to look back and say, ‘Man, why did we sit back and do nothing?’”