This is the year, of all years, that Franco Harris should be in the news for making the greatest play in pro football history. This is the 40th anniversary season of his Immaculate Reception, which stunned the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 NFL playoffs and started the Super '70s Steelers on their way to a dynasty without equal. It is a moment in Pittsburgh sports history that should be celebrated and cherished forever.
But Harris is getting more attention these days for his unwavering support of late, disgraced Penn State coach Joe Paterno. He has been taking a beating since he criticized the university's decision to fire Paterno in November after news of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal broke. Remember Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl's absurd grandstanding view that Harris showed "a callous disregard and indifference for the victims of sexual assault at Penn State" when he demanded Harris resign as chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program? Well, the harsh criticism came in fresh waves Saturday after Harris had a life-size cutout of Paterno in his sky box at Beaver Stadium during Penn State's game against Ohio, the start of its first season without Paterno since President Harry Truman was in office.
The cardboard Paterno held a sign that read, "Due Process for PSU JVP," the JVP, of course, standing for Joseph Vincent Paterno. In the fallout, Harris was accused of everything from being insensitive to Sandusky's victims to being blindly loyal to Paterno, who was named in the Freeh Report as being involved in a cover-up for Sandusky, to detracting from the current Penn State players, who want the scandal behind them and want to make a fresh start.
Harris hardly is uncaring of Sandusky's victims. Harris is not a monster. He stayed in the area after his Hall of Fame career and, before the Paterno controversy, was an iconic figure as much for his work in the community as for his famous touchdown catch. He never did anything to embarrass himself, his family, the Steelers or Pittsburgh.
Harris won't argue that he's loyal to Paterno, but he would dispute the word "blindly." Like many, he believes the Freeh Report was one-sided and unfair because Paterno wasn't given the chance to defend himself.
"Highly flawed and factually insufficient," he has called the report. He feels it's up to him to fight the fight for his old coach.
It's hard for me to be critical of Harris' support for Paterno. Clearly, Paterno played a huge role in his life, not just during his playing days at Penn State, but long after he left. All of us should be so lucky to make an impact on someone in this life that generates that kind of passionate loyalty. It's almost impossible to imagine.
As for Harris detracting from the game Saturday? Please. That hardly happened. The Penn State players had no idea Harris and his cutout were in the sky box. The Ohio players demanded their full attention. It's safe to say those Penn State players are happy we're writing and talking about Harris and Paterno this morning. It beats rehashing their embarrassing second-half collapse and their 24-14 loss to a Mid-American Conference opponent.
I want to make it clear that I don't share Harris' beliefs. Paterno needed to be fired in November because he wasn't physically or mentally capable of dealing with the scrutiny that followed Sandusky's arrest. I also believe the Freeh Report to the extent that Paterno knew at least something about Sandusky's actions as far back as 1998 and should have done more to stop him.
That's why Penn State officials were right to take down the Paterno statue at Beaver Stadium. That's also why they were right not to include any mention of him in their moving, tasteful "moment of reflection" before the game Saturday, putting the attention on child sexual abuse victims, where it belonged.
But that doesn't make Harris' opinion any less legitimate than mine or yours. He certainly doesn't deserve the ridicule he's receiving or the ridiculous assertions that he condones child abuse. I applaud him for having the nerve to take and put his name on a public stance that many are criticizing. It's not easy to put yourself out there like that, especially after you've been a beloved public figure for so many years.
As the football season progresses and the anniversary of the Immaculate Reception Dec. 23 -- draws closer, there will be more glowing talk about Harris' place in NFL history and less scathing criticism about his support of Paterno.
That is how it should be.
This year, of all years, that's how it should be.
First published on September 4, 2012 at 12:00 am