Of all the Pittsburgh Steelers who knew Franco Harris, linebacker Jack Ham knew him the longest. Teammates at Penn State, both were drafted by the Steelers in consecutive years, Ham in 1971, Harris in 1972. Ham joined Stan Savran’s Show on iHeart Radio Wednesday to remember his now late-friend and how initially, the Steelers’ defense were skeptical of Harris’ selection. But they quickly realized they were wrong.
The 13th overall pick of the 1972 draft, Ham explains the Steelers used a recent pick on another RB, Bob Campbell. Drafted in the 4th round of the 1969 Draft, part of Chuck Noll’s inaugural draft class, Campbell didn’t pan out for the Steelers, trying but failing to make the switch from receiver to runner. So when another Penn State runner came through Pittsburgh’s doors, the defense wasn’t sure if they’d get a disappointing repeat performance. Before the 1972 regular season even began, they realized that was no longer a concern.
“They had question marks about a Penn State running back,” Ham told Savran. “Well, the third preseason game we played Atlanta. Franco gets the ball and he splits the defense and goes 80 yards for a touchdown. A running back of 225 pounds being able do that, able to outrun defensive backs, everyone on the defense realized if we have that kind of running back, we’re going to have that kind of running game to really get us over the top. There’s no question he was the final piece that made everything go.”
Though a 1972 preseason game might sound obscure, there is a clip of the play. Courtesy of the Old Football Film Twitter account, here’s Harris on that touchdown run against Atlanta.
In the full clip that you should watch by clicking here, Joe Greene narrates it and echoes what Ham says.
“I said ‘gee, we got one. We got one.’”
Pittsburgh indeed had one. Harris rushed for over 1000 yards his first year, winning Rookie of the Year, and in his first ever playoff game, made the greatest play in NFL history with the Immaculate Reception to beat the vaunted Oakland Raiders.
In the first half of the 70s, the Steelers were a run-first team. Though they drafted their eventual franchise and Hall of Fame quarterback in Terry Bradshaw, he took years to find his footing and went through struggles and benchings before landing on solid ground. Pittsburgh won their first two Super Bowls on the backs of their great defense and run game. In the team’s first Super Bowl run, Harris ran for 343 yards and six rushing scores, including a 158-yard performance in Super Bowl IX to beat the Minnesota Vikings and bring home the Steelers’ first of four Lombardi’s. Harris was named MVP for his efforts.
“We needed that big-time running back who could score anywhere on the field. And Franco brought that to this team.”
Franco brought more than that to the Steelers. He brought a great runner and a great person. He brought history with the Immaculate Receptions, four Super Bowl trophies, and a legacy that’ll never be forgotten.