Saturday, March 7, 2015

Quote of the Day (Roy Blount Jr., on Franco Harris)

“His carriage suggests that his shoulders are connected to his feet by elastic cords that can only with effort be stretched. ‘Breaks down better than any big man I have seen,’ wrote a Steeler scout, on the plus side, when Harris was at Penn State. To break down is to maintain in action a good football position: balanced, gathered, cocked fluently at the knees and hips. Franco walks as if on the verge of that (and perhaps also the automotive) kind of breakdown. Or it may be more as though his body is a horse that feels like itself only in the strain of full stride, and his mind is a rider broodily aware that it’s a long while between times to burst out.”—Roy Blount Jr., About Three Bricks Shy: And The Load Filled Up (2004)

Roy Blount Jr. wrote this profile of Franco Harris—born on this date 65 years ago in Fort Dix, N.J.—in August 1982, when the great running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, nearing the end of his career, was closing in on Jim Brown’s career record for rushing yards. Blount’s profile hints that the great running back had lost a step by this time. But a year later, at age 33, the durable back still managed to gain more than 1,000 yards.

But, to his (and the team's) astonishment, Harris would not finish his career as a Steeler. A contract dispute and a refusal to attend training camp led the team to part ways with him in August 1984. A little less than 400 yards from the record—a total he could have achieved with a season similar to his 1983 one—he ended up about 200 yards shy as a Seattle Seahawk.

But nobody remembers Harris as a Seahawk, any more than they recall Johnny Unitas as a San Diego Charger or Joe Namath as a Los Angeles Ram. He is identified for life with the Steelers’ black and gold colors and that iconic Number 32 jersey, a uniform worn by no other team member since he retired 31 years ago.

Harris’ career totals—including more than 12,000 yards and 91 touchdowns rushing—don’t begin to tell how important he was to the dominant National Football League team of the 1970s. For the team’s passing game to shine as it did, it was necessary that the running game give quarterback Terry Bradshaw balance and options.

As Dick Hoag, Steeler running back coach from 1972 to 2006, recalled in a blog post for written by Scott Brown, Harris would not run over defenders, the way Jerome Bettis would for the team three decades later. But Harris was probably faster than “Bus,” and possessed of “great, great vision.”

The team received a terrible reminder of how they would fare without Harris in the 1976 AFC Championship game. The Steelers, coming off two straight Super Bowl wins, looked for much of the season ready to win a third straight, especially with Harris and backfield mate Rocky Bleier each gaining 1,000 yards. 

But because of injuries in a lopsided playoff win against the Baltimore Colts, both Harris and Bleier were unable to play. In the championship against the Oakland Raiders, a team they had eliminated in three of the past four playoffs, the Steeler offense could not control the game and Bradshaw was consistently stifled, resulting in a 24-7 loss. That was the closest any NFL team has come to winning three straight Super Bowls.

But more often than not, Harris—elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990—was able to maintain the balanced force that Blount hailed. He brought his adopted city joy and hope in the Seventies, when a declining manufacturing base gave the locals precious little else to cheer. 

In all the years since, they remember a back that, while not as fast as others, seemed to possess an uncanny pigskin version of a global positioning system, finding his way repeatedly in the end zone (including in the 1972 playoff game that featured his astounding and controversial “Immaculate Reception” play, discussed in greater detail in a prior post of mine.) Though old football injuries might hinder his gait these days, he remains an unstoppable, ubiquitous presence when it comes to stumping for local charities.

This also should be said: In marked contrast to other players, of his generation and later, Harris has remained with his college sweetheart for more than four decades. In a sense, he retained his "balance" off the field as well as on.

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