The first time I met Franco Harris was at Pat O'Brien's, the legendary New Orleans bar. It was February of 1991 and we were a few days out from Super Bowl XXV between the Giants and Bills.
Franco was signing autographs and posing for photos for anyone who asked, and he was surrounded all night by adoring fans, and he had time for every single one.
I was in New Orleans for a small South Jersey newspaper since the Hall of Fame announcement was scheduled for the Saturday before the Super Bowl, and Harris, a Mount Holly native, was a lock to go in.
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We were on Pat O'Brien's outdoor deck and I was blown away by how he engaged everybody who approached him. I finally had a window to talk to him and introduced myself, and just like that, we were best friends. At least he treated me that way.
He asked me about people he knew at my newspaper, asked about the basketball team at Rancocas Valley, his old high school, asked what was happening up in Mount Holly these days. I tried asking him about the Hall of Fame, but he was more interested in learning about his old hometown and people he knew from 25 years earlier.
Harris was always connected with Mount Holly and South Jersey. He returned home every year to play in a charity golf tournament put on by Bill Gordon, his old football coach at Rancocas Valley. Irving Fryar, another R.V. graduate, also supported the event.
I remember asking Franco that night about an old Parade Magazine cover story about his healthy doughnut business. The photo showed Harris impossibly balancing a doughnut on the top of his finger. I asked how they set up the shot, and he just laughed and wouldn't tell me. That became a running joke over the years. Every time I saw him, I'd ask about that doughnut.
Franco was a 1st-ballot Hall of Famer after a brilliant NFL career that included a then-record eight 1,000-yard seasons, nine straight Pro Bowls and some huge playoff games during all four Steelers Super Bowl championship seasons from 1974 through 1979.
His five 100-yard games in the postseason were a record for years, and his 1,556 postseason rushing yards are still 2nd-most ever, 30 fewer than Emmitt Smith. His 158 yards in the Steelers' win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IX was a Super Bowl record at the time and remains 4th-most in Super Bowl history.
We could go on and on about Harris' records and honors and achievements, but they only tell a small part of who Franco Harris was.
I was lucky enough to get to follow Harris around to various events in Canton that summer of 1991 before his Hall of Fame induction, and I saw the same guy I saw that night in New Orleans. Generous with his time, engaged with his fans, truly appreciative of the honor.
He has to be the most humble superstar I've ever been around. When they say, "Great player, even better person," I'll always think of Franco.
Canton is only 90 miles from Pittsburgh, and back then the induction ceremony was in front of the Hall of Fame building, not in the cavernous Canton-McKinley stadium next door like it is now. The entire field between the stage and I-77 and every other nearby nook and cranny was packed with adoring fans in No. 32 Steelers jerseys, and Franco rose to the moment.
His Hall of Fame acceptance speech was one of the most electrifying and deeply moving things I've ever witnessed. Franco was such a regular guy, and that's why he connected so well with everyone around him. I think everybody who was in Canton that day felt like they were going into the Hall of Fame along with Franco.
Franco loved talking about the Immaculate Reception, the miracle pass from Terry Bradshaw to John Fuqua on a 4th down with 22 seconds left in the Steelers-Raiders playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium in 1972. The ball bounced off either Fuqua's hands or Jack Tatum's helmet and either hit the ground -- or didn't -- before Franco snagged it and ran 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
It's one of the most iconic plays in NFL history, and we're only two days out from the 50th anniversary, which was going to be a huge day for Harris.
We lost Franco.
Harris, 72, died overnight just two days before the Steelers were scheduled to retire his No. 32 jersey at halftime of their game Saturday night against -- of course -- the Raiders.
Whenever I think of Harris I'll think first of what an incredible person he was and then what an incredible player he was, and I'll treasure the memories of the moments I got to spend with him, and I'll always wonder how he balanced that doughnut on his finger because he never did tell me.