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Cardinals receivers coach Shawn Jefferson admires Franco Harris for more than just football

Howard Balzer Avatar
December 29, 2022

I often remember what Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp said to me during an interview in Canton about six years after he had been enshrined in 2013.

When asked if he could believe it had been that long since his special weekend and whether that was an example of how time flies, he quickly said, “I’ve always believed that days drag, years fly and decades zoom.”

The more you think about it, the truer it is.

That hit home last week when the stunning news spread throughout the NFL world that iconic running back Franco Harris had passed away at the age of 72, only three days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and four days before his No. 32 would be retired at halftime of the Steelers’ Christmas Eve game against the Raiders, the team Harris and the Steelers beat on Dec. 23, 1972, for the first post-season victory in franchise history.

It just so happens that Sapp turned 50-years-old this month. In fact, his day of birth is Dec. 19, four days before the Immaculate Reception.

Yes, the decades zoom.

Meanwhile, a supremely prescient Cardinals receivers coach Shawn Jefferson understood the enormity of the moment and made sure his players knew about it.

In the meeting room last week, as shown on Hard Knocks, Jefferson played the tape of the famous touchdown and had some stirring words for the players, the oldest of whom, A.J. Green, was born almost 16 years after Harris’ catch.

Jefferson said, “Franco Harris was a bad boy. This guy was a beast, man. A beast. On that Immaculate Reception, he was probably in the right spot, in some area, right where he was supposed to be to be able to get that. If he’d been loafing on that play, never would have got there. This is one of our heroes, guys. Big time, man.”

The truth is, Harris was always told by his college coach, Penn State’s Joe Paterno, to run downfield after the quarterback threw a pass. That’s what Harris did that day, putting himself in position to pluck the ball inches off the turf.

Jefferson then said, “Pull up his credentials. I want to show what type of bad boy he was.”

Receiver Hollywood Brown is seen checking his phone and saying, “It says he’s a four-time Super Bowl champion.” To which Jefferson says, “Keep reading. Four-time Super Bowl champion, right?”

Brown continues, “Offensive Rookie of the Year. First-team All—Pro. Two-time second-team All-Pro. Nine-time Pro Bowl. NFL rushing touchdowns leader. 1970s All-Decade Team.”

Heck, he didn’t even mention Hall of Famer! Guess he didn’t have to.

Jefferson then added what is also important: “I’ll tell you about this man. He was a giver. NFL Man of the Year, right? That tells you he cares about people. I thank him for paving the way for me. For all of you, really. God rest his soul. Bad man. Bad man. Bad man. Bad man.

“All those Christmas gifts you’re getting people this year? That money? Thank him for it.”

Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy was signed by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent defensive back in 1977. He had watched the Immaculate Reception game with his dad five years before and after the Harris catch remarked that it was the luckiest play he had ever seen in sports.

Dungy thought different after a few days in training camp.

He told the33rdteam.com the day after Harris died, “I’m watching him practice and after about a week, I called my dad and said, ‘That wasn’t a lucky play.’ It might have been fortunate that the ball bounced up, but that was Franco to the T. He hustled every moment, he practices hard, he plays hard. He showed me how to practice and get ready to be a champion.

“And off the field, to see him interact with fans, to see him welcome all the rookies in and treat you like you’re somebody special, even if you’re an undrafted free agent like I was. To see him in the community and go to charity events with him — to become part of the atmosphere of Pittsburgh; I can’t tell you the impact he had on me as a person, as well as a player.”

Many people are saying the same things about Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt, whose career will be over after the team’s next two games.

There was another person Harris had a profound impact on and that was none other than the President of the United States.

On Dec. 18, 1972, five days before the Immaculate Reception, Joe Biden was in Washington, D.C., setting up his office after being elected to his first term as a Senator the previous month.

The phone call that changed his life came with news that his wife Neilia and 13-month-old daughter Naomi had been killed in a car accident in Delaware. Biden’s sons, Hunter and Beau, survived, but were hospitalized with serious injuries.

Biden rushed home and learned that the tragedy happened when the family was going shopping for a Christmas tree.

The remainder of the story is told by the President in a statement issued last week after Harris passed:

“Say the name Franco Harris and most everyone talks about the catch, the Super Bowls, and the glory he brought to the game of football. But in the fifty years we bonded a friends, I always talked about his character and compassion.”

He then explained why “the Pittsburgh Steelers and Harris were ”close to my heart.

“I rarely left my boys’ bedside until they got better. But one day I did go shopping for them. When I returned, they were smiling for the first time since the accident. Art Rooney, the generous and honorable owner if the Steelers, had flown out with a couple of players, including Franco, and the tough as nails Rocky Bleier. Busy with their own lives, they took the time to be with my boys, sign footballs, and then left with no publicity. A small act of kindness that meant the word to us.

“Sports have a powerful way of brining people together. As families gather for Christmas this weekend, there will be countless Pittsburgh Steeler and Penn State fans telling stories of Franco with their children and grandchildren who will discover his greatness on the field. But I know there will also be countless families like mine that will remember him for all that he did to lift our spirits when we needed it – in the most quiet, personal, and American of ways. We don’t have to ask. We show up. We reach out. We share a compassion that is a source of our enduring strength as a nation.

“The last few times I saw Franco were in September and November of 2020 on the campaign trail in Latrobe and Pittsburgh. This week of all weeks, my family remembers him and keeps him close to our hearts.

“May God bless, Franco Harris, dear friend, a good man, and a great American.”

At this time of year, as joyous as it can be, we all surely have memories of those no longer with us and the impact they had on our lives.

Fifty years ago, I watched that Steelers-Raiders game with my father in California as he battled terminal cancer that had been diagnosed only four months before. It was his dream to be in California and my mom didn’t want to move from Philadelphia because of his illness.

But he told her, “Am I supposed to just wait here to die?”

My dad battled, but a mere 27 days after that game, he succumbed on a business strip in Tucson, Ariz. (only 97 miles from where I know live), more from the experimental chemotherapy that was being constantly circulated in his body than the cancer. He died one day after his 50th birthday and Jan. 18 is the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Life and loss are always inextricably entwined and it teaches us (or should) what it is that is truly important. It’s why we must cherish every moment we are given and reach out to those in need.

Any why maybe, just maybe, as emotional as the games we watch can be, we should sometimes take a step back and heed the words of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who in a 1910 speech (one year after he left office), said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Happy New Year as another year has flown by.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com

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