Franco Harris on Super Bowls, Super Dynasties and Super Donuts
A Q&A with the all time great on the Steelers dynasty, how he feels in retirement, how he feels about the Super Bowl 50 matchup and his new life in the donut business
PITTSBURGH — On a gloomy, gray morning in Western Pennsylvania, The MMQB’s Super Bowl 50 Road Trip sped through the outskirts of the city. The Allegheny River, Hot Metal Street… ah, Pittsburgh.
Day 2 of our cross-country trip began with breakfast and a Super Bowl hero. We met Franco Harris at the industrial-park office that houses his bakery business, Super Bakery Inc. Dressed in jeans and a black jacket, the Super Bowl IX MVP welcomed us into his office, walls decorated with old Steelers memorabilia. After retiring from the NFL in 1984, the Hall of Famer made the transition into the nutritional food business where he jokes that he serves as, “assistant to the president, and the president.” A pile of Super Donuts, Harris’s main product, covered the center of the table. (Our review? Decent flavor for a nutritional pastry. Plain and simple. Better than you’d expect. Harris himself downed two donuts during our conversation.)
In between bites, the four-time Super Bowl champ discussed baked goods, the film Concussion, the greatness of the Steelers dynasty and why this year’s Carolina Panthers remind him of some of his old teams.
THE MMQB: How did you get started in the nutritional baked goods business?
HARRIS: I graduated from Penn State in hotel and hospitality and food and didn’t have any specific plans when I retired. As you know, the transition can be a little tough from football to life after football, so I started Super Bakery Inc. in 1990. A donut with minerals, vitamins and protein. People deserve a nutritious Super Donut. It’s all natural, no artificial flavors, preservatives or colors and we sell to school systems across the country. We now we are in convenience stores like 7-Eleven, and some Walmarts.
THE MMQB: Have you heard from any people who have fond childhood memories of eating a Super Donut?
HARRIS: We really had quite a few people get in touch with us. About two years ago, we saw LeBron James put it on Instagram that it was his favorite thing in school. Adrian Payne from the Minnesota Timberwolves loves our Super Donuts so we sent him a case.
THE MMQB: Did you name the Super Donut?
HARRIS: You’d think so, right? Because Super Bowl, Super Donut. But it already had the name Super Donut, so it was just a natural fit.
THE MMQB: When you look back on your four Super Bowl victories, which one was the most meaningful to you?
HARRIS: The most meaningful is always the first one, in New Orleans. First of all, it’s a great city to have a Super Bowl. It was just an awesome feeling and it was early in my career too, my third year in the league, so that was exciting too, as a young player to be going to the Super Bowl already. The excitement and adrenaline and knowing that you have a chance to be the No. 1 team, the best in the world at what you do. We got to enjoy New Orleans, it was my first time there and it was just a great experience. Such a great experience that we said, You know, we have to do this again.
THE MMQB: Are the Steelers of the ’70s the greatest NFL dynasty of all time?
HARRIS: I think so, yes. Not only do I look at what we accomplished in the ’70s but I look at the players that we had during that time and how we really won the big games. Can you win the games against great teams and can you do it consistently? To me that shows how good a team is. And during the ’70s we had that down. When you look at our defense, we had the greatest trio of linebackers to ever play, with Jack Hamm, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell. There isn’t a better trio than those guys. And then when you look at the offense, passing, running, we had the whole nine yards on both sides of the ball. We were just so strong at every position. And we had great coaches that brought it all together. It starts with players but then you have to have the right system and great owners. Everything just clicked for us in the ‘70s.
THE MMQB: Is Franco’s Italian Army still alive today?
HARRIS: Absolutely, I might have to draft you guys into it. A lot of history there, Frank Sinatra joined Franco’s Italian Army. Those fan clubs were so unique to Pittsburgh and it set us apart from any other city. When you combine the fan clubs with an iconic symbol like the Terrible Towel, things came together. It was a very special time.
THE MMQB: One of your former teammates, Mike Webster, was a focus in the film Concussion. Have you seen it?
HARRIS: Yes, I’ve seen it. I knew some Steelers were part of the story, Mike Webster being ground zero, so I wanted to check it out. It was pretty intense; it kept my interest all the way through. When I talked to other guys, they saw it and they thought it was very telling. I think it paints the picture of what players go through or what they can go through, so it’s something to be concerned about and something to address. I know the NFL is doing things to address it with different rules and different programs to help current players detect it. The whole thing is knowledge and knowing about it. None of us really knew what was going on back then. We knew Mike had some issues and we were meeting about that, but no one really knew exactly what [was going on with him]. Mike did feel it was related to football. That’s why in 2000, I decided to take some preventative steps and altered my diet and lifestyle. I started eating two packs of blueberries a day and taking fish oil, really to help prevent or delay the onset of problems with the brain, not knowing what it was at the time. I’ve been doing that for 15 years; I just took some things into my own hands. I didn’t do any baseline testing back then so I really can’t say for sure but today I feel fine. I don’t have any issues. At least I don’t think so, maybe people I talk to think I do.
THE MMQB: What were those meeting about Mike Webster like?
HARRIS: There were some other players and I that would meet with Sunny Jani, the guy that was helping Mike at that time. We would discuss what he was doing, what he was trying to accomplish with the NFL. As I said, no one knew anything because unfortunately it took Mike’s death for someone to really dig deeper into it and start to put the pieces together. Mike was a beautiful person and a beautiful human being. It was tough to see and hear about the lifestyle he was living at that time.
THE MMQB: Were there any scenes that were particularly hard to watch?
HARRIS: I wasn’t looking at the movie as being hard to watch, because the movie was so engaging. I had been there at that time and played with Mike and also Terry Long. I talked to Terry a couple times, and I heard he was having some problems, but once again, we didn’t understand. We thought it was all about a guy’s transition to life after football. Some people find it very hard making the transition, so you think that is the cause for struggles. But later on we find out that it was a lot more than that, actual damage to the brain that set certain patterns of behavior and actions.
THE MMQB: How many times have you been asked about the Immaculate Reception since that day in 1972? Hundreds?
HARRIS: Is that in a day, you mean? It’s a play that is connected to the ’70s and identifies the ’70s. It was my rookie year and people look at that as the start of the run. That year in 1972 it all came together. The Immaculate Reception, having a name for it always helps. I look at it as an unbelievable year. We were winning this playoff game and then all of the sudden we were losing. It had always been known that the Steelers would always find a way to lose, and so here it was again. We were winning and then we were losing and people were thinking, same old Steelers, when all of the sudden we found a way to win. That was the first playoff game we had ever won and we never looked back. I wasn’t supposed to do what happened. You do something and you react and it all comes together sometimes and then it’s, Wow, okay. This happened.
The MMQB: Who are you picking to win the Super Bowl?
HARRIS: I’m not a Broncos fan, but I’m a huge Peyton Manning fan, always have been. It would be great to see him go out with a Super Bowl win. But Carolina with their young players, they are a pretty good team. Denver is getting them at the wrong time, because the Panthers are peaking right now. I’m swaying back and forth on my decision. This Panthers team makes me think of us in the early ’70s. They aren’t intimidated at all. Our first time we went to the Super Bowl, we were like, No problem. We knew Minnesota had been there before, but we weren’t scared.
Life on the Road
Compiled by Jenny Vrentas, John DePetro and Gary Gramling
There might not be a region of the country richer in Super Bowl history than western Pennsylvania. After leaving Harris’ office north of Pittsburgh, we drove through Beaver Falls, birthplace of none other than Joe Namath.
We were on our way to have lunch near Negley, Ohio, hometown of Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe, one of the disruptive pass rushers who harassed Tom Brady all afternoon in Sunday’s AFC title game. In this rural area just across the Pennsylvania border, Wolfe spent part of his childhood living on a farm owned by a friend’s family. Lunch was at Hoge’s Restaurant in nearby East Liverpool, a family-owned diner where Wolfe has been known to eat breakfast. “He eats big,” one restaurant employee said.
From there, it was a 45-minute drive to meet with the man who recruited five of Super Bowl 50’s players to suit up for him at a (or should we say The) university in Ohio. That story is coming up Thursday. Plus, a stop in Cincinnati to learn about the prep school roots of one of Super Bowl 50’s headliners. Are they booing? Oh, no, they’re saying…