National Columnist

NFL legend Harris doing himself no favors by defending the defenseless Paterno

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Franco Harris has the mic taken away from him while speaking to the Penn State Board of Trustees. (AP)  
Franco Harris has the mic taken away from him while speaking to the Penn State Board of Trustees. (AP)  

So this is how Franco Harris will be remembered. Not as one of the NFL's great running backs. Not for the Immaculate Reception or the Super Bowls.

He'll be the crank who wouldn't stop defending Joe Paterno.

Harris is too late, of course, because the verdicts are already in. Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of abusing boys by a jury of his peers. Paterno and his cronies, cowardly monsters like Graham Spanier and a few others, have been judged guilty by the reasonable outsiders among us, the millions who watched this story unfold in horror and then experienced the horrific aftershock that Paterno knew about Sandusky at least a decade before his arrest -- but didn't make sure he was stopped.

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The fight is over. The bad guys lost. Sandusky will die in jail. Paterno is dead. His famous statue is somewhere gathering dust, perhaps roach droppings. The reasonable outsiders among us haven't moved on, because that would make us monstrous, and we are not Paterno or Spanier. We are not monsters. We remember the victims and we mourn for them.

If we think of Paterno or Spanier, we think poorly. We shudder that an author is profiting from a new book that tries to muddle the issue of what Paterno knew, when he knew it, and what he tried to do about it. We cringe that a movie is being discussed, that an actor as respected as Al Pacino would lend his credibility to Joe Paterno.

And we watch as Franco Harris ruins his own legacy.

People like me, we grew up on Franco Harris. He ran for 12,120 yards, retiring ahead of everyone but Jim Brown. We've seen the Immaculate Reception so many times that we can close our eyes and watch it. Until about a year ago, those were the things I thought of when I thought of Franco Harris: That incredible catch. All those yards. That decorated career. Those Super Bowl rings with the Steelers.

Not anymore. Forevermore, when I think of Franco Harris, I'll think of his increasingly bizarre defense of an indefensible man.

In November when Penn State fired Paterno, Harris was one of the most vocal attackers of the school and defenders of the coach. After state police commissioner Frank Noonan said Paterno had abandoned his "moral obligation" to contact police when told of the shower incident involving Sandusky and a young boy, Harris lashed out.

"When I heard that, it blew my mind," Harris said. "Why would they bring the moral into the legal? Now, everyone gets to interpret in their own way. That's what really bothers me: Joe did what was right for him to do. He forwarded the information to his superiors. That's the legal procedure at Penn State."

With stakes as high as the lives of young children, Harris is satisfied that Paterno did the legal minimum. Paterno passed along what he knew to someone else, then washed his hands of it. No matter that Sandusky kept coming to the Penn State football building. No matter that Sandusky kept himself wrapped in the cloak of Penn State as he worked with a charity that made him a mentor, even an idol, to local boys.

To Franco Harris, Paterno "did what was right for him to do."

That was November, and that was the heat of the moment. Listen, the heat of the moment did strange things to lots of us. That same month, when accusations of a pedophile assistant arose at Syracuse, Orange coach Jim Boeheim attacked the alleged victims as opportunists and liars -- and I wrote a screed demanding Syracuse fire Boeheim. Why? Because emotions were raw. I wrote that Boeheim story from my heart and meant every word of it, but time has passed and maybe I wouldn't write the exact same story today.

Time and distance allow you to think more clearly, though they've done nothing for Franco Harris. That stuff he said in November 2011? That was nothing. Here's what he did in September 2012:

Franco Harris watched Penn State's opener against Ohio from a suite at Beaver Stadium, where he sat next to a cardboard cutout of Joe Paterno.

Harris is so blinded by devotion to the Paterno he thought he knew that he can't see who Joe Paterno actually was. Paterno valued Penn State football above all else, and since he knew that "Penn State football" was synonymous with "Joe Paterno," well, you see what I'm getting at. Paterno was a passive-aggressive egomaniac, placing the program he built, and therefore the builder himself, above the children of State College.

And Sandusky got his hands on lots of them.

Meanwhile, Franco Harris continues to fight his fight. On Friday he crashed a meeting of the Penn State Board of Trustees, grabbing the microphone without permission and ranting about the Freeh Report until the microphone was turned off. Harris kept speaking, kept ranting, even as the BOT meeting continued.

That was Friday. On Saturday he spoke at a rally organized by Paterno sycophants who seek the resignation of Penn State's president and Board of Trustees because of the way they handled the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal -- firing Joe Paterno, and letting the NCAA vacate so many victories that Paterno is no longer the all-time winningest coach in major college football.

While most of us mourn for the boys Sandusky abused, Franco Harris mourns for the legacy of the man who protected Jerry Sandusky. Harris never knew the real Joe Paterno, and he refuses to see it now.

Don't make the same mistake as you look at Franco Harris.

See Harris not for what he was in the 1970s. See him for what he is today -- and remember him like this.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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