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?’”
There’s no debating that Harris is a conspiracy theorist. The problem with trying to have a conversation with a truther of any variety—9/11, birthers, Sandy Hook—is that there’s always at least one essential fact the two sides can’t agree on. Reach that point, and it’s the conversational equivalent of pulling the parking brake while you’re driving 80 on the Schuylkill. In this case, for Harris, the fact in question is whether assistant coach Mike McQueary really saw something sexual occur between Sandusky and the child known now as “Victim Number 2” in the football facility’s showers, and if so, whether he clearly expressed that to Paterno. The coach himself testified before the grand jury that McQueary told him he “had seen a person, an older [person] … fondling, or whatever you might call it … a young boy. … It was of a sexual nature. I didn’t push Mike to describe exactly what it was because he was already upset.” In a statement following his firing, Paterno expressed regret about his lack of action: “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
That was the moment, most people agree, when Paterno took on a share of blame for not stopping Sandusky. But Harris doesn’t believe McQueary. The grand jury presentment stated that McQueary “saw a naked boy … with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky.” McQueary would later back away from that exact account, although he agreed with Paterno’s recollection that he’d informed his coach he’d witnessed something “sexual.” Harris tells me he spoke with McQueary after Paterno’s viewing and grilled him about what he saw: Intercourse? Sodomy? An erection? Harris says McQueary answered, “No.”
The board of trustees acted on the belief that after Paterno learned Sandusky raped a 10-year-old, he did little more than call his boss. But Harris doesn’t even believe the “sexual nature” version of what Paterno himself said he was told. He suggests that Paterno’s memory was influenced by the narrative built by prosecutors around their only witness—McQueary. “There’s also a theory,” Harris tells me, “that Joe called Mike and said, ‘Mike, I cannot remember, what did you tell me?’”
That we can’t agree on how much Paterno really knew about what happened in those showers creates a divide that Harris and I, struggle as we do for hours, can’t bridge. From there, he spins a narrative of conspiracy that’s supported on websites like PS4RS.org (Penn Staters For Responsible Stewardship), where the Freeh Report—which labeled Paterno among those who “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade”—has been picked apart, line by line, and rebutted with a 57-page brief. Some of Harris’s postulates strike me as nuthouse ranting—including murmurs of vendettas against Paterno by relatives of board members and collusion between Tom Corbett, then-state attorney general Linda Kelly and then-board vice chairman John Surma Jr. to use Paterno and the athletic department as scapegoats. “Isn’t it amazing that they don’t have any new evidence on the other side?” Harris says. “The only thing they have is Mike McQueary.”
Harris says the real failure to stop Sandusky was in 1998, when the Centre County district attorney’s office declined to press charges despite Sandusky’s own apology to his victim’s mother and his statement that “I wish I were dead.” That failure, Harris insists, created a false sense of security concerning Sandusky. He wonders if by the time of the shower incident, a logical explanation had already been established in Paterno’s mind—“Jerry’s weird with kids, but he’s not doing anything illegal.” Paterno was also 75 years old then. Say what you will about what you would have done in his shoes; folks of Paterno’s generation are as familiar with handling sex predators as they are with interpreting hip-hop lyrics.
I realize that I never ordered lunch. We’ve spent hours debating, poring over evidence. Harris knew his talking points so well that he never opened his notebook. For a minute, he almost had me convinced that I’ve got Paterno all wrong.
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.