Wednesday December 21, 2022
Franco Harris (1950-2022)
The Raiders, the announcers, everybody thought it was over.
It must've been the spring of 1973—in my memory there are mounds of crusty, dirty snow along the periphery of everything—but maybe it was the next fall or the next winter. I guess fall makes more sense because isn't that when they begin selling football cards? The point is, my friend Dave Budge and I were kids hanging around the 54th and Lyndale area in South Minneapolis. There were two main stopoffs in this little enclave, Rexall Drugs, which we called Salk's, and Little General, and each had their appeal. Salk's was a little more adult and sedate, while Little General had a parking lot and felt more dangerous. The bad kids hung out there. Little General was the B movie, basically, and Dave and I were in the Little General parking lot thumbing through the football packs we'd just bought, probably concentrating, a stick of gum hanging out of our mouths, when Dave began to shout.
He got Franco Harris!
And we began to cheer and exalt. We jumped into each other's arms. I remember we were being watched by an amused adult woman, but I didn't care. It was Franco Harris. I don't remember ever being so excited about one of us getting a trading card—baseball, football, Wacky Packages, any of it.
This was after the Immaculate Reception, of course, but Franco was a big story even before then. He was a rookie in 1972 and rushed for over 1,000 yards, back when that was the touchstone, and he had the best RB yards-per-attempt in the NFL: 5.6. I'm looking at the '72 NFL leaders and I guess it was an odd time. The names among the quarterbacks, for example, feel like they have at least one foot set firmly in the past: Billy Kilmer, Earl Morrall, John Hadl. They're doughy white guys. I think '72 was my first year of watching football, and my team, the Vikings, went 7-7, and in the other league the Miami Dolphins couldn't lose, they went 14-0. But there was this upstart team, the Steelers, that was fun, with its rookie running back, and his legion of fans who called themselves “Franco's Army.” I also remember I heard his name wrong at first. I thought he was Frank O'Harris. You know, nice Irish kid. These were the days when, even if you saw a game, you didn't necessarily see it clearly on your little black and white TV. We also had a color TV in the living room, and I believe that's where I was watching the game, the Steelers vs. the Raiders in the divisional round, Dec. 23, 1972, the battle to see who would get to lose to the Dolphins. And I was so, so rooting for the Steelers. I hated the Raiders. I have no idea why. Something about their vibe.
I'd forgotten it was such a low-scoring game: 0-0 at half, 3-0 until the 4th quarter. You can see the stats of the game at Football Reference but the Football Reference site isn't like the Baseball Reference site. Baseball has practically every pitch. Football, you don't even get times of scores.
“60 yard pass from Terry Bradshaw.” I love that. Great job, Bradshaw!
The Stabler run? Apparently that happened with less than two minutes in the game, and the George Blanda extra point seemed to seal the deal. (Talk about players with a foot set firmly in the past: Blanda was 45 at the time.) You can see the catch on YouTube, original broadcast, not-bad quality. That's my memory of it. That camera angle. I'd forgotten the specifics—4th and 10 at their own 40, 20 or so seconds remaining—I just remember how it went from hopelessness to miraculous, from depression to absolute elation, how the camera didn't even pick up the moment, it happened out of camera range, because it was over, so over. And then it wasn't. And then it was the Player of the Moment being in the exact right spot and paying absolute attention. I like how much the Raiders players are caught off guard. They're flat-footed. That's how he scores. They're done and he's still playing.
I also remember it wasn't immediate, that it took a while for the refs to agree that he'd caught the ball, that it was in fact a touchdown. Afterwards, apparently, like a forerunner to Trump, Raiders owner Al Davis stormed around the press box “screaming at league officials that the play was illegal.” (Maybe Davis was why I didn't like the Raiders.) I think one of the things the announcers were mulling over was “Did any Steeler touch the ball before Franco Harris?” If they had, apparently, it was a dead ball. Instead, it was what it was: miraculous. Has any athlete, who was our new player of the moment, ever made a bigger play? There's Willie Mays in '54, and others I'm sure, but Franco in '72 has to be near the top. It was the guy we were all talking about making the postseason play we're still talking about.
He became a Pro Bowler nine times, a Super Bowl champ four times. When he retired in 1984, he was third all-time in rushing yards, behind only Walter Payton and Jim Brown, with 12,120. Here's his Times obit. He was 72.