Nearly 50 years ago, Franco Harris capped off a memorable rookie season with the "Immaculate Reception," which resulted in the Steelers' first playoff victory. On Friday night, Harris will join several other vaccinated NFL legends in Cleveland to announce one of his former team's Day 2 draft picks.
A Hall of Fame running back who won four Super Bowls with the Steelers, Harris is a veteran when it comes to announcing draft picks. Four years ago, he announced Pittsburgh's selection of JuJu Smith-Schuster. Like Harris, Smith-Schuster enjoyed a memorable rookie season while helping the Steelers clinch a playoff berth.
"This is a big draft for the Steelers," Harris told CBS Sports this week. "I'm very excited to be a part of this. Once again, I get to drive over to Cleveland. The Steelers and Cleveland have a great history. I look forward to going back to Cleveland."
Harris laughed when asked if he has considered rubbing salt on Cleveland's wounds by wearing one of his Super Bowl rings in front of what will surely be a partisan Browns crowd.
"Oh, I'm sure they love me," Harris said, "and I'm going to tell them I love them. ... If they boo me, I'm going to take it as they're sending me love. ... I do really enjoy that the rivalry is back. We have a pretty tough division now, when you look at the four teams in there. And I like it like that. I like when it's tough, when it's close, and it gets down to the wire. To me, that's the excitement of it, and that's when you have to rise to the occasion. So to win our division will really say a lot, because our division is pretty tough. So I'm excited that Cleveland is back, but I don't want them to get all the way back."
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Harris did not hesitate when asked who he would like to see the Steelers take with the 24th overall pick.
"If he's available, I would like to see another Harris in the backfield," Harris said, alluding to Alabama running back Najee Harris. "We need a running game. I can't tell you how disappointing it was last year, we get to within the 5-yard line going into the end zone and we're throwing all the time. We're not pounding it in there and having running backs do their thing. We need a running back that can really make a difference. This Harris kid is a tough kid. I feel he could really make a difference. Him or Travis Etienne from Clemson.
"Right now, we have a lot of needs. There's no doubt that everybody always puts the focus on quarterbacks and offensive tackles. But I would like to see [the Steelers take a] running back, because I feel that a running back can make a huge difference in a game."
Harris was reminded of one of his own game-changing moments: his 22-yard run late in Super Bowl XIII that helped the Steelers pull away from the Cowboys. After being bottled up by the Cowboys' defense for most of the day, Harris had some extra motivation after watching Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson throw Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw down after the whistle.
"You have to make things happen in certain moments," Harris said. "You have to be able to make plays. And man, I was pissed with Henderson. When Bradshaw called my number, man was I pissed. And I probably ran like I was pissed. That was a big score. To go against Roger Staubach and those great Dallas teams during those times and to win those Super Bowls, that was big and that was important."
Harris is still beloved in Pittsburgh, where he helped transform the Steelers from cellar dwellers to perennial winners. The 13th pick in the 1972 draft, Harris said his "welcome to the NFL" moment came when he received a hard hit on special teams during the preseason. His regular-season debut, which came against John Madden's Raiders, was a baptism by fire.
"People were telling me, 'Well Franco, once the regular season starts, it's totally different,'" Harris recalled. "I'm saying to myself, 'How can it be that much different? I find that hard to believe.' I go in that game and I'm like a deer in the headlights. The speed, the violence, the temperament, everything was on a scale I've never seen before. They're saying, 'We're going to kill you, rookie.' … Punching me on the bottom of the pile and all sorts of things, and I didn't have a very good game."
A fumble in his second game furthered Harris' perceived spot in the "dog house." But after rushing for just 79 yards in Pittsburgh's first four games, Harris was given another chance during the Steelers' Week 5 game against the Oilers. He made the most of the opportunity, rushing for 115 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries while helping lead Pittsburgh to a 24-7 win.
"First 100-yard game, first NFL touchdown," Harris said of his breakout performance. "And went on to make over 1,000 yards and made Rookie of the Year. Who would have thought that? But there were some trying times my rookie season, and luckily I was able to get through those trying times. Then the rest of the '70s is really kind of history. … We went on to become the worst football team of all time, to what I'm going to say — and I know there's going to be some controversy on this — to the greatest football team of all time."
The success of the '72 Steelers created a buzz in Pittsburgh that continues to permeate. While Pittsburgh to that point had been primary a baseball city, the Steelers' run to the AFC Championship Game (where they fell to the undefeated Dolphins, 21-17) permanently changed the Pittsburgh sports landscape. It also created a new fan favorite in Harris, who months earlier didn't even think he was going to be drafted. Harris' popularity, similar to what Smith-Schuster experienced 45 years later, included the enlistment of Frank Sinatra into his "Italian Army".
"My rookie year was an incredible year," Harris recalled. "That year, [Steelers fans] went crazy. Franco's Italian Army popped up. And then we had all these fan clubs pop up. That generated so much enthusiasm and so much of a following. And it's still there today with Steelers Nation. That was a pretty incredible rookie year. I don't know if anybody ever had as much fun in their rookie year as I did. Going from the worst of all time to this incredible season, to an incredible base of fans to win our first playoff game the way that we won it and to go from there. It was a dream rookie season."
Harris stressed that the genesis of the '70s Steelers' success was the franchise's draft prowess. Harris specifically pointed to the '71 and '74 rookies classes as the ones that put the Steelers over the top. Key players that came from those rookie classes include Frank Lewis, Jack Ham, Gerry Mullins, Dwight White, Larry Brown, Ernie Holmes, Mike Wagner, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Donnie Shell and Randy Grossman. The '74 rookie class boasted five future Hall of Fame players who played a role in each of the franchise's four Super Bowl wins from 1974-79.
"Incredible," Harris said of the Steelers' scouting department, which included Art Rooney Jr. and 2021 Hall of Fame inductee Bill Nunn. "All of us kind of grew together. Just gelled and grew. And the great coaching staff that they put together. It just all connected. And then '74 came, the Hall of Famers made an incredible difference in our run with the four Super Bowls. ... The drafts that we had really contributed and shaped our team.
"It doesn't matter where you're drafted, everybody has that potential to contribute and to be a Hall of Famer. Everybody has an opportunity to show what they can do. … If you're able to get out there and produce and make it happen, to realize that now, you're in the top league in the world. You're playing with the best in the world. Can you compete and make it in that league? And that's what you have to feel confident about and get out there and make it happen."
While he is proud of the four Super Bowls he and his teammates won, Harris is equally proud of the fact that, during his first 12 seasons in Pittsburgh, the team appeared in six AFC title games. Both of those achievements, however, pale in comparison to what Harris treasures most.
"They had a couple of down years here and there, but the Steelers overall have kept their level of play at that great level," Harris said. "They went on to win a couple more Super Bowls and be the first one to win six. The history continues. The legacy continues. That's what I'm most proud of is that they've kept that winning spirit and that winning attitude there."
A new Harris in the backfield, Harris believes, can help keep that tradition going.
"I like running backs that can turn games around and change the momentum," Harris said. "I feel that this kid can do that."