In this episode of The Italian American Podcast, we speak with four-time Super Bowl champion Franco Harris. Harris began his professional football career when the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him in the first round of the 1972 National Football League Draft—the 13th player chosen overall. In his first NFL season, he became only the fourth rookie in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards or more. But what most fans remember even more than his stats was his roof-raising catch in the famous “Immaculate Reception” pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw that gave the Steelers a 13-7 over the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh its first-ever playoff victory. Harris was named the league’s Rookie of the Year by both The Sporting News and United Press International.
Steelers fans, and especially its large fan base of Italian Americans, adored him. His most loyal fans dubbed themselves “Franco’s Italian Army” and wore army helmets with his number on them. Even Frank Sinatra joined Franco’s Italian Army.
He rushed for 1,000 yards or more eight seasons and totaled 47 100-yards-or-more games. At the time of his retirement, his career totals in rushing and combined net yardage of 14,622 ranked third highest in professional football history.
Harris earned All-AFC honors in 1972, 1975, 1976 and 1977; and All-Pro six times. He was named to nine Pro Bowls; and played in five AFC championships and four Super Bowls. In Super Bowl IX, when the Steelers won their first-ever league title, Harris rushed for 158 yards and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
In 1990, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Born in Fort Dix, N.J., Harris graduated from Penn State in hotel and hospitality and food. After retiring from the NFL, with Penn State teammate and NFL great Lydell Mitchell, he founded Super Bakery to produce nutrition-oriented foods for schools, hospitals, and other food-service customers. Best known for marketing a nutritious Super Donut, in 2006 Harris launched RSuper Foods to distribute the Super Donut and other products across the country.
The Italian American Stories Segment
In the Italian American Stories segment of the episode we feature a wonderful story from one of our listeners, Bryan Mazzarello, a listener who took back his Italian name after his grandfather gave it up.
“Before they passed, my grandfather and grandmother talked to me regularly about the great Steelers teams of the 1970s. They talked about the hated Raiders, Bum’s Oilers and Landry “Crybabies.” They also talked about Swann’s and Stallworth’s theatrics, the nastiness of the Steel Curtain, the grit of Rocky Bleier (BLY-ER), and the beauty of watching one of Terry’s long bombs fall gently into the arms of the receiver. But the thing that always brought a smile to their faces was Franco Harris, a player that transcends generations and continues to be a beloved Steeler to this day.” – Bryan DeArdo
- “My mother didn’t understand why people didn’t refer to her Italian heritage more and more.” – Franco Harris on his Italian mother
- “For us, multicultural was our life, it was our surroundings.” – Franco Harris on growing up in a multicultural family
- “You’re not the only person with a vocal Italian mother.” – Anthony Fasano speaking to Franco Harris on The Italian American Podcast
- “Oh yeah, we had the plastic cover on the couch.” – Franco Harris discussing his Italian Mother
- “I feel like I can spot an Italian house from the outside.” – Dolores Alfieri during an interview with Franco Harris
- “Mr. Paterno, he bringing me the biggest box of chocolates I’ve ever seen.” – Franco Harris’s mother when he was getting recruited
- “She was all about keeping her house clean and raising her kids.” – Franco Harris on his Italian mother
- “Isn’t that amazing, when you think about it.” – Franco Harris speaking about Franco’s Italian Army
- “I’m getting this wine in the stadium if it’s the last thing I do.” – Dolores Alfieri speaking about Franco’s Italian Army
- “Frank Sinatra joined the Italian Army, who would have ever thought that.” – Franco Harris
- “My mom put Ava Maria on the radio, and then the Immaculate Reception happened.” – Franco Harris on the Immaculate Reception
Here are some key points from the interview with Franco Harris:
- Franco discussed growing up in a multi-cultural family, with his mother being an Italian immigrant from Pisa and his father an African American who grew up in Mississippi. They grew up in a military neighborhood that had a multicultural personality.
- Playing football, and especially having success early on with it, helped Franco to identify with both his father and mother’s cultures and not have challenges with identity. He defined himself through excelling with sports.
- Franco talked about how his mother was a very traditional Italian. She worked hard to keep their house spotless and even had a plastic cover on the couch.
- Franco first visited Italy when he was 19 years old with his mother to visit her family.
- Franco talked about how his mother never really understood the game of football. She didn’t go to any of his high school games.
- When Franco moved to Pittsburgh as an NFL rookie, he wasn’t aware that the Bloomfield neighborhood was considered the Italian American section, yet he was drawn there and ended up renting an apartment in this “Little Italy.”
- He talked about Franco’s Italian Army, and how much energy the group brought to the entire town of Pittsburgh. He still keeps in touch with Al Vento, who co-founded Franco’s Italian Army.
- Franco attributed his success to his upbringing and how his parents raised him.
- Harris talked about how Tommy Lasorda told him that the way he acts with fans and people in the community is really important, and that people will always remember that.