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Franco Harris gets down to business

By John Harris
Sunday, August 10, 2008

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No matter how hard he might try, Franco Harris, businessman, has never stopped being Franco Harris, Steelers Hall of Fame running back.

The years since his playing days have taught Harris a valuable lesson: that the man he is today represents an evolution from his former, more famous self.

He welcomes the transformation.

"Football will always be a part of my life," Harris said. "No matter how hard I try to separate it, it's just not going to happen. I realize that. To me, it was just a big platform to build upon, and that's what I try to do. It's still part of me, a big part of my foundation, but I have to keep building on that foundation in new aspects of my life, and that's what I'm doing. It's all connected."

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Harris, the MVP of Super Bowl IX in 1975 and a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, put his degree in business administration and food services from Penn State to good use after football, establishing Super Bakery Inc. in 1990.

The North Hills-based firm makes nutritionally enriched pastries such as the protein-fortified Daily Donut, which are served in nursing homes and to the military, and specially fortified donuts approved for sale in schools and Giant Eagle supermarkets.

Rocky Bleier, Harris' partner in the Steelers backfield, said his former teammate made the transition to the business world the same way he played football.

Harris was meticulous, resolute and totally prepared, said Bleier, who might know Harris as well as anyone from those Super Bowl teams.

"If you talk to Franco about football, he always had a plan. He had an idea. He just didn't play," Bleier said. "When he talks about running and a style of running, there's a reason, he said, because in a game, the hole's not always there, and you have to improvise as you go along. He thought about that as a rookie all the way through his career, even at Penn State.

"If you take that and transfer it over into business, Franco had an idea. He wanted to be in the restaurant business because it was part of his background; that's what he studied. He's been very flexible, but he had a plan, and he's implemented that plan, and he has expanded that business. Franco has used his skills, his notoriety, what he's accomplished, to his best benefit. He's done well."

In addition to being a fixture in Pittsburgh business circles, Harris is absorbed in community work.

He is spokesman for the Pennsylvania Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income people pay their heating bills through grants.

Harris' wife, Dana, says he is involved with charities in Pittsburgh and around the country -- "many I'm not aware of until a thank you note arrives."

Last year, he was named chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise, a $250 million scholarship program for students in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The Pittsburgh Promise was established in December with a $100 million commitment from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, including $10 million for the Class of 2008. The fund will provide students with as much as $5,000 a year for four years of college.

This year, students were required to graduate with a 2.0 grade-point average and to have attended a city school since the ninth grade to be eligible. More than 90 percent of the district's approximately 1,280 eligible seniors are using the Pittsburgh Promise, according to the Pittsburgh School District.

Harris was an obvious choice to become chairman because of his fame and commitment to educational excellence, said Richard Reed, executive director of the Pittsburgh Foundation, which administers the program.

"Franco was someone we immediately thought of," Reed said. "He's not just 'Franco Harris, the football hero.' He is totally committed to Pittsburgh and the region and the kids, and he's very knowledgeable about the issues of education.

"He does not traffic in the use of his name. If it's not something he's committed to, he wouldn't be involved. He's doing it because he believes in it."

Reed was impressed by Harris' willingness to speak at a commencement ceremony for the class of 2008.

"He spent his whole weekend attending high school graduations," Reed said.

Part-cheerleader, part-concerned adult, Harris used a football analogy to make his point to students.

"College should be a great four years. But let's look at it like it's four quarters of a ball game, with each quarter becoming more important," Harris told the graduates.

"The first quarter, you are feeling your way. The second quarter, you're developing your comfort zone. At halftime, you're evaluating what you've done and what you hope to do. The third quarter, you are hitting your stride. And the fourth quarter is to play the game to the end and bring home a victory."

In a recent interview, Harris said he believes the city of Pittsburgh has an obligation to provide educational opportunities for its young people.

"And that's what Pittsburgh has done by making the Promise available," said Harris, a unanimous choice for the appointment by the Pittsburgh Promise board.

"The benefit of a scholarship was life-changing for me and life-changing for our family," said Harris, who attended Penn State on an athletic scholarship. "I realize this could be the same thing for a lot of kids and their families. This could be life-changing in a very positive way. It's great to be part of this."

Harris, 58, played 13 NFL seasons (including one season with Seattle). He rushed for 12,120 yards and scored 100 touchdowns (91 rushing) and was a major contributor for the Steelers in all of their first four Super Bowl wins. His career totals of 101 carries for 354 yards in four Super Bowls are a record.

While the Steelers no longer officially retire uniform numbers, they have not reissued his No. 32 since he left the team. There's a statue of Harris at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

"When I came here as a football player, I never knew I would have the career I had," Harris said. "No one would have expected it. But it just kind of happened. And it was an unbelievable ride. And it seemed to come during a time when Pittsburgh needed it. The Steelers just lifted this city's spirit, and it just caught fire all throughout the country."

Harris, who was born in Fort Dix, N.J., has developed a special relationship with his adopted hometown.

Harris expressed optimism regarding Pittsburgh's potential and how it could affect future generations. He emphasized the need for every segment of the population to benefit from industry, business and educational opportunities that haven't always been available to everyone.

"We're celebrating our 250th anniversary this year, and everybody is getting involved to look for ways to make this city better," Harris said. "People are building Downtown or in Point State Park, the new arena; Westinghouse is bringing more people here.

"We have affordable housing. We have beautiful geography. We have a rich history. We have an unbelievable cultural district. We have great universities. We have so much going for us, but we have to find ways for our young people to see a future here and to make a future here.

"We have so many great neighborhoods, and our neighborhoods can really make a difference. Like now, we have the North Side starting to develop. I've always been connected to the North Side. There's new energy there, but we have to make sure that everybody on the North Side gets an opportunity," he said.

Harris first bought a house on the North Side in 1973. More recently, he has been trying to open a Mediterranean-style restaurant on the site of the old Park View Cafe at Federal Street and North Avenue, but the project hasn't come to fruition.

"We have the Hill (District) connected to Downtown. We have to make sure that the Hill develops in a great way, and that their population really contributes to making our city great. We have to make sure that everybody's involved in this phase of where we want to go to the next level."

No matter what Harris accomplishes professionally, he understands that as long as he's in Pittsburgh, he always will be judged first and foremost as a Steeler. He's involved with the team now only in a ceremonial capacity.

"I always wanted to be in business, and football enabled me to do that," Harris said. "It's great to have in your professional life one thing you love to do, but to have it happen again it's like 'Wow, great' from the business end.

"I'm living my dream again. Now, if I can help other people live their dream, what could be better than that? With the Pittsburgh Promise, I'm able to help people try to live their dreams and to see their future."

John Harris can be reached at or 412-481-5432.
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