|Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris carries the ball into the end zone for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl game with the Dallas Cowboys in Miami, in this Jan. 21, 1979. (AP Photo)|
Franco Harris ended career with Seahawks
DETROIT --Franco Harris and the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't be more closely linked. The Immaculate Reception. The four Super Bowls. His pursuit of the NFL career rushing record.
It's no coincidence the Steelers went 11-3 when Harris arrived in 1972, following eight consecutive losing seasons. Or that they were losers again a year after he left in 1984.
So consider this curiosity: When the Steelers play the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Harris will be the only player who represents both teams in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It is widely forgotten, but Harris finished his career by playing eight games with Seattle in 1984. The Steelers had released him following a lengthy and unpleasant contract holdout during training camp, with Harris 363 yards away from breaking Jim Brown's NFL career rushing record.
"I had 12 great years in Pittsburgh, and that one doesn't matter," Harris said. "During my time with Seattle, they were great people, great teammates and I liked the town, the town was good to me. It just wasn't for me."
Even after cutting him, the Steelers kept Harris on the cover of their media guide. But the holdout and Harris' departure remain among those regrettable moments both player and team alike wish they could erase.
Both sides underestimated the other -- Harris misjudged the Steelers' stubbornness when it comes to contract issues, and the Steelers underestimated what Harris meant to their fans.
They discovered that when coach Chuck Noll referred to "Franco who?" while discussing Harris' holdout. Noll had used similar lines in the past to describe other absent players, but many fans felt the comment was unacceptably harsh, and Noll was long criticized for it.
"I don't even think about that now," said Harris, who has long since reconciled with the Steelers. "I'm still black and gold."
Harris, 34 at the time, knew his career was about over -- but didn't think he was finished. He had rushed for 1,007 yards in 1983, and the Steelers were preparing a major celebration in honor of him breaking Brown's record.
But Harris also understood his football moneymaking days were almost over, too, and he wanted more than the $385,000 he was due in the option year of a contract.
The money that separated the two sides would constitute a bonus clause in one of today's NFL player contracts. Yet it drove a wedge between one of the most popular teams in NFL history and one of its signature players.
Even today, Franco Harris is one of a relative few star athletes easily identifiable by only his first name.
He probably isn't recalled as fondly in Seattle, which has had only one other Hall of Fame player -- receiver Steve Largent.
Harris signed with the Seahawks in early September 1984 to replace star running back Curt Warner, who was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the season opener. But while Harris got the money he had wanted from Pittsburgh, estimated at $550,000 to $600,000, the Seahawks didn't get the running back they sought.
Harris, admittedly drained by the long Steelers impasse and with his enthusiasm flagging, was limited to 170 yards on 68 carries, a 2.8 average, before being cut after eight games. He never played in another NFL game.
"I wasn't ready to play for another team," he said. "I really couldn't envision myself in another uniform. Even though I felt good physically and thought I was in really good shape, I just wasn't ready mentally, and mentally is what it's all about.
"I just couldn't see myself doing it in a Seahawks uniform. Even though I tried to, I just couldn't do it," he said.
The Steelers got by without Harris that season, unexpectedly advancing to the AFC championship game. But they had losing records three of the next four seasons and didn't have another 1,000-rusher until seven years later, Barry Foster in 1992.
Of the Steelers' other eight Pro Football Hall of Famers of that era, only Mike Webster played with another team.
Harris, who now owns a Pittsburgh-based bakery, spoke to an estimated 800 Detroit business leaders and entrepreneurs at an NFL diversity forum this week and will stay in town for the Super Bowl. He predicts Pittsburgh will win the fifth Super Bowl title that eluded his final few Steelers teams.
"This is the one that completes the hand," Harris said. "This is the one for the thumb."