As tributes pour in from teammates and opponents of the past in the wake of Franco Harris’ death at the age of 72, current Steelers have also taken time Wednesday to reflect on the legendary Pittsburgh running back.
Speaking after practice, head coach Mike Tomlin set the tone ahead of a Steelers-Raiders game that was already slated to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Harris' "Immaculate Reception" -- and will now serve to honor the Pro Football Hall of Famer's life and legacy, as well.
"We had a productive day, obviously we did so with a heavy heart," Tomlin told reporters after practice. "This organization, this community, the football world, we lost a great one in Franco Harris. Obviously, we're all heartbroken, but we do look forward to honoring him and his legacy this weekend. And obviously, where our attention needs to be is on the preparation required to put together the type of performance that's fitting of a great man like Franco."
Veterans such as defensive lineman Cameron Heyward spoke on Harris' impact as a Steelers legend, but more importantly as a human being.
"Any time I got to talk to him, he always had a smile on his face," Heyward said. "You can talk about the player he was on the field, you know, without him there is no dynasty because he was kind of a jumping off point for their group. But then you talk about the man off the field, and to know the standard was set with guys like him. The way he was involved in the community. And the way he always invited everybody to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Franco meant so much to so many people. He lived a full life, and I think a lot of people are gonna miss him."
The deep well of appreciation both men have for Harris stems from their longtime ties to the organization. Tomlin has served as the team's head coach for 16 seasons, and Heyward has been a defensive stalwart there since 2011. But Harris has continued to make a profound impact on every generation of Steelers nation despite last playing a snap for the club in 1983, nearly 40 years ago.
He sat with current Steelers workhorse Najee Harris to break down the "Immaculate Reception" as part of NFL Generations, and he announced Pittsburgh's selection of tight end Pat Freiermuth, a fellow Penn State alum, in the 2021 NFL Draft.
"That's something that we talk openly about and we appreciate," Tomlin said about Franco Harris' continued impact on burgeoning playmakers like Najee Harris and Freiermuth. "The support that these current players get from those that have come before them. And Franco is just such a shining example of that. When those guys spent time with him they realized that he didn't want anything from them, he just wanted the absolute best for them. That unconditional love, guys feel that, and that's why they felt about him the way they felt about him."
Freiermuth tweeted Wednesday thanking Harris for announcing him and for his friendship, and he later echoed his coach's esteem for the former RB.
"He went to Penn State, him and his wife Dana, I just built that relationship through that," Freiermuth said. "And then obviously getting drafted by the Steelers, him announcing my pick, it was just cool and a huge honor. Then learning more about him and his legacy in Pittsburgh throughout my time here. You know, me and him and his wife Dana, we've eaten dinner a couple times. We built our relationship, and it's definitely sad. Obviously, this weekend was for him. It still is for him."
The weekend indeed remains for Harris as the Steelers renew their rivalry against the Raiders with heavy hearts, and they're sure to remember that on the field while taking the memories and lessons parsed from him away from it.
"I just admire and love the man," Tomlin said. "So much to be learned from him in terms of how he conducted himself, how he embraced the responsibilities of being Franco. For Steeler nation, for this community, you know, for the Penn State followers, he embraced it all. And he did it with such grace and class, and patience and time for people."