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Franco Harris: still goal-bound 'He has always known where he wanted to go'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He is best known for a single moment in a single game -- a mere 17 seconds, 24 years ago.

Even now at Koenig sporting goods store in the Ross Park Mall outside Pittsburgh, where his No. 32 jersey is for sale, it appears on videotape: The Immaculate Reception -- a deflected pass snared and taken 60 yards for a game-winning touchdown.

Down the hill along the same commercial strip, in a cluttered office where the men's room is out of order, Franco Harris is 24 years removed from the catch and haggling on the phone.

"We want to move volume," Harris says. "So can we revisit these numbers, please? What are the hog prices you're basing this on?"

Out of professional football for 12 years -- as long as he played -- Harris is 46, with a sprinkle of gray in his famous beard. But he is still enormous and fit. So enormous that it's hard to believe his mother once outlawed football because she feared that her baby would get hurt.

And, now as then, he's doing things his way.

That meant picking a college that made room not only for him but for his mustache. It meant defying Penn State Coach Joe Paterno to defend his pride even though it cost him his starting position in the Cotton Bowl. It meant doing without a car so that the neighborhood kids wouldn't think they had to drive a Cadillac to be somebody. It meant putting away four Super Bowl rings to learn another business.

"That's just Franco," his brother, Mario, said. "Franco is going to do what Franco is going to do."

Harris, in what comes as close to introspection as he'll permit, says being "just Franco" means "not feeling bad about not being at the top. Not letting people put pressure on me. Not worrying about other people's opinions."

He doesn't go much further. "I'm at a different stage in my life. I'm not so much public anymore."

What's left is a description by Paterno, who once described Harris as an enigma -- another way to say "just Franco."

Harris' move to a post-football life may have been smoother than many might imagine because for so long, he was indifferent about the sport that gave him fame and riches.

In fact, business came before football for Franco Harris.

"For Franco, life after football was not a matter of landing on your feet," said Lynn Swann, Harris' roommate with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "He has always known where he wanted to go."

Harris had known as a child. Work was something everyone in the family was expected to do.

Army Sgt. Cad Harris and Gina Parenti Harris, who met while he was stationed in Italy during World War II, settled in Mount Holly, N.J., near Fort Dix. When the elder Harris wasn't working at his $300-per-month job as a supply officer at the Fort Dix hospital, he did jobs at the PX or a snack bar.

Secret purchase

But Franco Harris' entrepreneurial streak probably comes from his mother. In addition to running the household, she tried briefly to start a business importing Italian coffins, and she also worked in school cafeterias.

It was Mrs. Harris who engineered the family's move from Mount Holly's housing projects by secretly spending her husband's $700 re-enlistment bonus on a lot next to Rancocas Valley Regional High School when Franco was a boy. She didn't tell her husband for seven years, until the family was ready to move.

"Something hit me when I was about 8 that I wanted to be in business," Harris said.

"My father was in the Army for a good part of my childhood, and he didn't make much money, so there was never extra money for anything," Harris recalled. "So we always worked."

Franco and Mario bused tables, bagged groceries, picked blueberries and sold newspapers. Through high school, the brothers would pay 40 cents to take the bus about 20 minutes to Fort Dix, where they shined shoes for a different regiment on every trip.

When Harris wasn't working, he played sports. "Baseball was my first sport, then came basketball," Harris said. "I had never watched a professional football game on television."

That changed suddenly and profoundly for Harris in his sophomore year in high school. That year, 1966, coach Bill Gordon called him into his office to tell him that Mario was going to Glassboro State College in New Jersey on a full scholarship.

"You mean if you can play football, you can go to college for free?" Harris asked.

From that moment, Harris said, he viewed football as a way to college. "A means to an end," he said. "I wasn't passionate about it."

The next year, Harris was named a high school All-American, and the letters from colleges started coming.

Choosing a college football program was done in typical Franco Harris style -- slowly and not altogether based upon matters involving the game.

It didn't matter that Syracuse University had produced Jim Brown and Larry Csonka. What mattered was that Syracuse wanted him to shave his mustache. He said no. It didn't matter that Notre Dame had the most storied football program in the country. What mattered was that the university put its new players through a brutal basketball game to test their toughness. Harris said no.

"His attitude was, 'You take me as a human being and respect who I am,' " Gordon said.

George Welsh, then an assistant coach, recalled meeting with Harris over steaks and salads at the same restaurant for six straight weekends, trying to persuade him to pick Penn State. "I don't know what took so long," Welsh said. "I couldn't close the deal."

Even Harris' friends started wondering when he would make a decision. "He was kind of private," said Bobby Smith, Harris' high school quarterback. "He would say, 'I don't know yet. I'm not sure. I'm having a tough time deciding.' "

Harris, of course, finally settled on Penn State. But not entirely because of its football program. The college offered two things that were important: a good hotel- and restaurant-management course and no athletic dorms. "I wanted some freedom," he said.

Winning Mom over

In the end, though, it may have been his mother who actually was won over.

Notre Dame had sent Gina Harris a beautiful crucifix. But Paterno showed up with a 25-pound box of candy. "I was mopping the floor when he came over," she said. "It was the biggest box I had ever seen."

Recalled Carm Cella, Harris' high school backfield coach: Paterno's "an Italian boy. Here's a lady from Italy. He promised he would take care of her son. You had to sell Mom."

Harris wasn't just slow in picking a university. Friends and associates say there's a time zone for everyone else, then one for Harris, whom they describe as a mixture of analysis, deliberation and patience.

"The thing that struck you about Franco was that he had his own rhythm about things," said Ron Rossi, a close friend and classmate of Harris and Lydell Mitchell at Penn State. "He wasn't pressured by other people or other things."

Paterno puts it this way: "If I told Lydell and Franco to run through a brick wall, Lydell would say, 'Where's the wall, coach?' and run through it. Franco would go up to the wall, touch the bricks, look around for a soft spot and then go through it."

Those who know Harris well often arrive for a meeting with him 30 minutes late because they know he's running on "Franco Time."

He negotiated for seven months before finalizing the acquisition of Parks Sausage Co.

"He doesn't shoot from the hip; when he makes decisions, he's giving it real thought," said Raymond V. Haysbert, the former owner of Parks.

"I think he might been one of the few who understood that you can try to rush it, but you can't rush it," said city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who took part in the negotiations.

Franco Time has gotten him into trouble, though. Almost always the last one on the field for practice, Harris angered Paterno when he arrived late as Penn State prepared for the 1972 Cotton Bowl against Texas. Paterno berated him in front of his teammates, then warned if it happened again, he would wear a "green jersey" -- shorthand for the loss of his starting position.

The next day, Harris didn't budge as the team left the locker room for practice. "I'm thinking, it's a big game. He's my friend. What can I do to save him?" Lydell Mitchell recalled.

"C'mon, let's go," Mitchell prodded. "He just sat there. I guess he was going to see what Joe would do." A few minutes after Paterno blew his whistle to signal practice had started, Harris trotted onto the field. Late again.

Out came the green jersey. Harris had risked -- and lost -- his starting position in a critical game that would be watched closely professional scouts.

Paterno says now that he handled the issue wrong because he embarrassed Harris in front of others, forcing him to defend his pride.

"That was the worst thing you could do to Franco," he said, "because Franco would never embarrass anyone."

Harris sums himself up this way: "Being controlled in any kind of way is definitely against my nature. But I think my bigger picture is for the good of everybody, for the good of the team. If I can get the same or better results doing it a different way, why can't I?"

Just as Franco Time got Harris into trouble in college, his independence attracted flak in the pros. Huge for a running back, Harris preferred avoiding defenders to plowing over them.

In his 1979 book, "They Call Me Assassin," Jack Tatum, then a defensive back for the Raiders, wrote: "If Franco doesn't run for the sidelines, slip and fall or cake out before any one gets near him someone else is wearing his jersey."

Harris, without the disabilities of many former pro football players, said he had stepped out of bounds only when it was apparent that he wouldn't gain more yardage.

"Any back who wants to take a clear shot, I think, is crazy," he said.When Harris left football in 1984, he was sure of one thing: He wanted to get into business, fast. "It's time to move on. Just go ahead and get busy. Don't get idle," he said.

Harris, who had made investments as a player in T-shirt and fast-food businesses, ran into a person representing a frozen fruit bar company shortly after his retirement.

"I liked it, so I bought it," he said. "I knew it would be a great product."

That transition was done like everything else -- his way.

One day in 1985, David Jeffco, a convenience store chain executive, picked up his telephone to hear yet another pitch. For about 10 minutes, the caller talked about the virtues of his product -- a frozen fruit bar. Finally, Jeffco agreed to meet with the salesman.

That Saturday, Franco Harris walked into Jeffco's State College, Pa., office. Only then did Jeffco recall that Harris had given his name -- almost imperceptibly, and only after the appointment had been made.

"I was impressed, not because it was Franco Harris, but because he wasn't going to sell me frozen fruit bars because he was Franco Harris," Jeffco said.

Harris' philosophy: "Learn the business from the ground up. Don't buy yourself the presidency."

And don't just rely on your name. Paying $8,000 for about 1,000 boxes of frozen fruit bars, he made cold calls on potential customers. He loaded and unloaded his warehouse.

On weekends, he packed up his car with the product and sold it at fairs and festivals.

"The first year, I did everything myself," he said.

That raised more than a few eyebrows. At a convenience store, a man said to his wife, "Hey, isn't that Franco Harris?"

She replied: "Franco Harris wouldn't be carrying boxes."

Once, when Harris went to help a warehouse employee unload a truck, the worker said: "What if someone sees you?"

Harris said some fans don't want to see their heroes starting at the bottom. "People look at ballplayers and say, 'Aren't you above that?' "

Harris stopped selling frozen fruit bars in 1988 and started selling Super Doughnuts, a vitamin-packed doughnut marketed to schools and other institutions. Two years later, he bought the company that made them and changed the name to Super Bakery.

And earlier this month he expanded his business holdings with ** the acquisition of Parks Sausage Co.

"If I didn't have the last six years of experience, no way would I have tackled Parks," he said. "Super Bakery is what made this possible."

Along with having a dozen years of experience in business, Harris comes to Parks with a reputation of having a strong social conscience. When he played professional football, his house was always opened to neighborhood youngsters from poor families, whom he helped with homework and paid for chores.

Some friends say those sentiments figure in his purchase of Parks, a company that anchors some black families the way the military anchored his own.

"He's a businessman first," said Dave Joyner, a Penn State teammate and longtime friend. "But he would adhere to the idea of trying to do good while doing well."

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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