It was a quiet weekday morning in the early 1990s in Station Square.
Station Square is an entertainment complex in Pittsburgh. Back then, it was like a very cool mall, built in a renovated 19th Century railroad passenger terminal that in its time was quite the travel hub. It had a mish-mash of interesting shops, restaurants, and a kind of infamous nightclub called Chauncy’s.
I was married to my first wife at the time, and she was an assistant manager of a store in Station Square that sold all kinds of gifts both decorative and edible and offered custom gift baskets made on the spot. I had just been laid off from my first “real job” out of college, and was helping out part-time at this store to earn some extra money while hunting for my next job. One very slow morning while I was working at the store, soon after opening, a very familiar face came in and walked up to the register.
NFL Hall of Famer and former Pittsburgh Steeler and Penn State running back Franco Harris had an instantly recognizable face. The beard, square jaw, etc. all combined to make a face that was simultaneously tough as nails and friendly. Franco, on this morning, had the face of someone in a hurry.
He had a plane to catch but heard on the way to the airport that one of the business colleagues he was visiting on the trip had just had her baby prematurely. She was going to be fine, but he wanted a gift basket filled with treats for the new mom and asked if it was possible to pull one together in about 5-10 minutes so he could still catch his flight. I told him sure, I can do that.
I don’t remember much of the details, such as what Franco chose to put in it, or much about the process of putting it together. As someone who was both a fan and avid participant in sports, I do recall being under a ton of pressure. I couldn’t let down a legend! But I got it to him, and I remember him saying with a broad smile as he paid and ran out the door, “thanks so much for doing this for me so quickly!” I am not ashamed to say, this made my day.
I think I told everyone I saw that story for weeks after it happened, and I thought about it for the first time in a while last Tuesday when I saw that he died unexpectedly at age 72. It was quintessential Franco, as he was doing something business related and he was also doing something kind at the same time.
Franco was involved in all sorts of businesses, from owning a professional bicycling team to running a fat-free donut bakery during the fat-free product craze of the 1990s. He was also, by many accounts, a wonderful fellow.
Franco’s death came at a remarkable time, just three days before a huge celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. This refers to an absolutely incredible moment in the history of sports, an improbable play that won a playoff game for the Steelers and launched a decade where they won four Super Bowls. As part of the ceremony, Franco’s number 32 was to be retired.
What once was going to be joyous event quickly turned into a wake in remembrance of not just a football player, but a treasured member of the greater Pittsburgh community. Along with his business acumen, Franco was involved in multiple good causes, including education, childhood nutrition, energy assistance for low-income families, and the Special Olympics, just to name a few.
While he was known for his good works on a large scale, he was also remembered for kindness and graciousness on a personal level. There are probably tens of thousands of photos out there of people posing with Franco. He always had time for his fans.
In addition, Franco was very interested in politics. He was a fixture at Democratic political rallies in the Pittsburgh area, as his incredible level of popularity made him a valuable resource to any Democratic candidate, including those running for president. I remember him seeing him at a Michael Dukakis rally in the Pittsburgh area in 1988, and then again seeing him at an October 1992 supporting Bill Clinton. In 2008, he was a delegate for Barack Obama. His last major political appearance was with Obama at a Pittsburgh rally last month in support of John Fetterman’s successful senate run.
He was quite a person, and the news of his death hit me and many other Pennsylvanians hard. He was remembered not just for his exploits on the gridiron, but his contribution to his community in ways both large and small.
I hope that new mother liked Franco’s gift. I’ll never forget the day he made a boring, slow morning at a Pittsburgh gift store a memorable day for me.
The last word goes to The Heavy. Franco answered the question they raise in this song.