Franco Harris transcended football in retirement with array of business ventures, interests
Franco Harris never stopped running.
From his gridiron glory days at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, N.J., to his Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harris became a larger-than-life sports hero.
But he was more than just an athlete. After learning of his death Wednesday, Ed Rendell, a two-term governor and former Philadelphia mayor, lauded the Immaculate Receiver as one of the state’s “most popular citizens” — and not because of the storied shoestring catch that helped catapult the Steelers into a Super Bowl dynasty.
“He spoke out about everything,” Rendell said. “He cared about every issue that came across his desk, and he wasn’t afraid to get people mad at him.”
While some sports superstars fade into the background upon retirement, content to rest on their laurels and enjoy their money, Harris perpetually flung himself into a dizzying array of activities after his pro football career concluded with the 1984 season.
From launching business ventures and doing charitable good works to stumping for the political campaigns of Barack Obama and Rendell and even wading headlong into controversy surrounding his alma mater Penn State and his college coach Joe Paterno, Harris always kept moving.
It’s what the great ones do, said Jon Kolb, who like Harris won four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers during their 1970s-era dynasty.
An Oklahoma native, Kolb stayed in the Pittsburgh area after retirement and started a nonprofit, Adventures in Training with a Purpose, which helps military veterans and people with chronic health issues whose physical therapy is no longer covered by insurance.
Harris always helped out with fundraising, Kolb said Wednesday as he headed to an impromptu gathering of Steelers at the home of another former teammate, John Banaszak, as word spread about Harris’ death.
Kolb conjured an image of Harris from a half-century earlier, that perpetual motor gussied up in black and gold, running, running, running. During practices, no matter how long they lasted, no matter where he was on the field, Harris always sprinted full tilt to the goal line after the play ended.
“Somebody that has that inside, when their career is over, they’re still running to the goal line every time they get the opportunity,” Kolb said. “There’s speed, there’s strength, there’s acceleration, but the great ones had that heart. They’ve got that Secretariat heart. They’re not going to win the race, they’re going to win the race by 10 lengths, 15 lengths.”
One of Harris’ oldest friends had a similar take. Robert Sapp, a year older than Harris, played high school football as a senior with the future star during an enchanted, undefeated season at Rancocas Valley in 1966.
These days, Sapp runs a charity golf tournament through the school, where he was the longtime business administrator. Harris donated money, helping to keep things afloat during the pandemic, and two years ago returned to play in the event.
“I would say, ‘I retired; what are you doing?’” Sapp said. “He just didn’t seem to want to rest.”
As Harris’ offensive tackle for the Rancocas Valley Red Devils, Sapp opened holes for the young running back while the team blazed to its wonder season.
They made a dynamic duo, and over the years, as Harris would return to his Mount Holly hometown, Sapp developed a running gag. He would tell everyone in earshot that he made Harris’ career. After a while, Harris went along with the joke and started perpetuating it himself.
About 20 years ago at a Rotary Club event, Sapp was gifted a replica of his high school jersey — complete with a pair of insoles glued to the back.
“Here’s Franco’s footprints as he ran over Bob,” one wag offered.
Sapp described Harris’ running style this way: “Big long strides, powerful strides.”
Mel Blount, a Steelers teammate and Hall of Fame cornerback, called it “poetry in motion,” according to NBC News.
And a 1983 New York Times profile sized him up this way: “Because of his size, Harris runs with the power of a fullback. Because of his quickness, he moves with the dexterity of a halfback. He gains more yardage by slipping past would-be tacklers than butting them head-on.”
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Harris blended power and agility. He transmitted those attributes to his post-football life — but with professional sports behind him, now it was his star power and nimble mind that propelled him.
Armed with a degree from Penn State in hotel and restaurant management, Harris launched Super Bakery, billed as a healthy junk food business. The Super Donut, its flagship product, is packed with vitamins, minerals and protein.
The donuts flopped with Rancocas Valley students during a trial run. But the pastry business succeeded with other institutional clients.
Later, Harris would bail out struggling Parks Sausage Co., a venerable Baltimore company started by an African-American businessman. Harris’ investment — pegged by the Baltimore Sun at $1.7 million — put him on the cover of the September 1996 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.
His partner in both ventures: Nittany Lions teammate and fellow running back Lydell Mitchell, who also went on to an NFL career. A photo in Black Enterprise shows the two side by side at the Parks factory, having traded their football uniforms for hair nets, hard hats, ties and white butcher coats.
From there, Harris turned to another business: Silversport, a line of odor-free, antimicrobial fitness attire and products. And he lent a hand to the Pittsburgh Passion, the women’s football team, becoming a part-owner.
As he kept investing, he also kept giving back. He became one of those venerated Steelers who integrated himself into the fabric of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, like Rocky Bleier and Lynn Swann.
He also was the general of Franco’s Italian Army, the fan club that paid homage to his roots as the son of a Black World War II veteran and his Italian immigrant bride. His face appeared on cereal boxes and marinara sauce jars. In 2005, Pittsburgh International Airport installed a statue of Harris crouched in the iconic Immaculate Reception pose beside a statue of George Washington.
Kolb said that when his three granddaughters from Germany once visited, the 8-year-old pointed to the statue of Harris and asked, “Who’s that funny-looking guy next to Franco?”
Harris got involved in the Pittsburgh Promise, which gives scholarships to city public school graduates. Executive Director Saleem Ghubril saluted Harris in a website post.
“Franco was coached to ‘play to the end.’ And that he did. He played to the end on the field, and for nearly four decades off the field, the last 15 of which he shared with us, with our kids and with the promise we made to Pittsburgh,” Ghubril wrote.
“He loved our board and served so faithfully on it. He did so when our praises were being sung, and when our necks were being wrung. He never thought the price was too high to do right by our mission. He played to the end for our mission.”
Not only did Harris go to bat for kids, he also stuck up for his elders.
He felt that critics had unfairly tarnished Paterno’s reputation and legacy following the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State. After Paterno was fired, Harris became outspoken in the coach’s defense, consequences be damned. And there were consequences.
The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington County suspended its relationship with Harris as a pitchman.
Sapp remembered Harris telling him once about a dust-up he had with Paterno during a Penn State bowl game, but that didn’t stop the spirited support for JoePa.
“He understood who good people were who took care of him, and he was going to return that,” Sapp said.
Despite his fame, Harris didn’t forget his roots.
“He never lost track of his friends,” Sapp said. “I just think he was so grounded. … His head was on straight, and he knew that as good as his life had been, he could make other people’s lives just as happy, and he did that from the moment you met him.”
Harris, a stalwart Democrat, decided to back Rendell in his 2006 race for governor against Swann, his old teammate. He publicly campaigned for the politician. Rendell thought there was no way he could count on Harris’ support, but Harris surprised him.
“When the Republicans nominated Swann, I called Franco and I said, ‘Listen, I know you have to be for Lynn, but try not to say anything bad about me,’” Rendell recalled. “And he said, ‘No, I’m for you. I won’t say anything bad about Lynn.’”
Rendell cruised to victory. He always remembered Harris’ backing. In 2008, when the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced that his cancer had returned, Rendell took calls from people jockeying to fill the term in the event of Specter’s death.
Rendell said he thought it “ghoulish,” but the governor was pragmatic.
“I finally came to the conclusion that I would appoint Franco because it would be a popular choice, because he had an interest in government and politics and had an interest in issues, and because we never had a minority U.S. senator,” Rendell said.
It never came to pass.
Rendell had put his faith in Harris’ ability to ascend to the rarefied position of United States senator, and not just as a figurehead. It was clear at least in Rendell’s mind that the former running back had truly transcended his exploits on the field.
“Franco was a very serious person who cared very much about non-football-related stuff,” Rendell said. “Cared very much about trying to make it a better place for all citizens, particularly for disadvantaged citizens, for African Americans, for Hispanics.”
Through the nearly four decades after his playing days ended, Harris’ football career wouldn’t hold him back — or define him. The motor kept churning.
Kolb invoked a sentiment among some old jocks.
“Guys have said, ‘I don’t want the Steelers to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me,’” he said.
Only Harris could know whether he felt that his magical Steelers years were an apex or just another step. But there is no doubt that once he hung up his cleats, Harris kept his feet moving and never slowed down. He ran, and ran with a mission.
Jonathan D. Silver is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.