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Franco Harris has three things only the best in football history can claim — a Pro Football Hall of Fame Gold Jacket, a Ring of Excellence and a bronze bust in Canton.
It’s not hard to understand why when you consider he ranked third all-time with 12,120 rushing yards and 14,622 net yards when he retired in 1984.
Harris is one of six former Penn State football players to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, about three and a half hours away from the university. The others are linebacker Jack Ham, guard Mike Michalske, running back Lenny Moore, guard Mike Munchak and linebacker Dave Robinson.
There will be 295 hall of famers, 168 of them living, after August’s induction ceremony.
“Probably the greatest moment was when I put on that gold jacket,” Harris said of his 1990 induction. “There are many ceremonies that weekend, and when I put on that gold jacket the whole history and universe of football just totally surrounded me. It was such an awesome moment.”
There are a few other memorable moments Harris was a part of, like the debatable Immaculate Reception, commemorated in the annals of the hall of fame.
Harris was pass blocking for Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw on the play, one in which the Steelers were down 7-6 with about 20 seconds left in the 1972 AFC Divisional Round.
Bradshaw barely avoided a sack in the pocket when Harris looked over his shoulder to see his quarterback under siege. The former Penn State running back, then a star rookie in the NFL, ditched his blocking assignment and ran down field to give Bradshaw an open receiver.
Bradshaw instead heaved a pass to running back Frenchy Fuqua, who collided with safety Jack Tatum and possibly the ball.
That is where the play gets foggy.
Only Fuqua and Tatum know who touched the ball. If it was Fuqua, Harris would not have been allowed to touch it next due to the league’s ancient, and now banned, rule that two offensive players could not touch a pass in succession. Replays over the years have only muddied the debate.
What can’t be disputed is Harris caught the ball at his shoelaces, beat everyone to the end zone for a game-winning touchdown and in effect launched a Steelers dynasty that would win four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
The patch of turf where Harris caught the ball is on display in the hall of fame.
An elevator plate is also on display from that day.
Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. was on the elevator during the play, because he wanted to be inside the locker room to console Harris and the rest of the team for what he thought was a sure loss.
Harris undoubtedly changed the speech Rooney Sr., who is also enshrined in the hall of fame, prepared.
The play is just one piece, though arguably the most memorable moment, of history the hall of fame celebrates.
The hall of fame, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, also completed its largest renovation and expansion the same year. The Future 50 project cost $27 million and expanded the facility from 85,000 square feet to 118,000 square feet, 38,000 of which was renovated in the gallery for a new grand entrance, lobby and visitor orientation theater.
The hall of fame is also in the beginning stages of a $250 million expansion, which was approved by its board in October.
“We’re in the process of developing the entire campus into a Hall of Fame village,” hall of fame vice president of communications and special assistant to the president Pete Fierle said. “The key to developing the hall of fame is the programming behind it, and everything we do is rooted in honoring the heroes of the game, preserving the game’s history, promoting its values and celebrating excellence everywhere.”
Fierle said the hall of fame has changed a lot since he interviewed for a job there in the 1980s, but its mission has remained intact.
“I’d never been here, and I think my experience was the same as any fan,” he said. “It’s a thrill to be here and to walk into the building. Once your’re inside there’s so much to see here, and it can take all day. It’s the ultimate football fan experience.”
Even if you don’t have a hall of fame gold jacket, ring and bronze bust, the experience isn’t too far away.