‘He was super:’ Franco Harris was 3-sport star in New Jersey before NFL fame

Wednesday, December 21, 2022 | 9:04 PM

Before a legendary NFL career that elevated him to football royalty and before his proud college days at Penn State playing for Joe Paterno, the late Franco Harris was a standout three-sport star at a small high school in New Jersey.

Some swear Harris was from Pennsylvania because he is so well-known here, but he is actually a New Jerseyan.

Harris, who died early Wednesday, made his mark in the prep ranks playing football, basketball and baseball.

The future Hall of Fame running back lived right next to the parking lot of Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, N.J. — about 60 yards away, the length of an Immaculate Reception touchdown, from the school.

“It’s so sad. This was his weekend finally, for a change,” his former high school teammate, 1967 Rancoucas graduate Bob Sapp, told the Cherry Hill Courier-Post.

Harris’ death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of pro football’s most celebrated play. The Steelers are retiring his No. 32 this weekend when they host the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Eve night.

Harris’ famous play, which saw him snag a deflected pass out of the air before the ball or his knuckles could brush the turf at Three Rivers Stadium, spurred the Steelers on to four Super Bowl wins in a six-year span.

Harris graduated from high school in 1968. He helped lead Rancocas Valley to its first and only undefeated season.

Paterno soon came calling to pull Harris to Happy Valley.

“We never kicked the ball deep,” Steve Masters told to the Cherry Hill Courier-Post. Masters played for Moorestown High School against Harris. His father coached Moorestown.

“(My father) was afraid of a runback. (Rancocas Valley) put Franco in the middle to block the kicker. We dribbled a kick to try and give it to them at the 25. Kicker kicked a line drive. Franco caught it.

“We all turned and peeled back to set up a wall, and the next thing you know, we hear the whistles blowing and the official is raising his hands. Until we saw the film, we never saw the play. We had our backs to it. We were running back to the goal line to block, the kid kicked a line drive right to him, he took one step, dodged the kicker and ran for a touchdown.”

Harris played running back at 225 pounds, which was bigger than most of his lineman. Think Derrick Henry before Derrick Henry — in black and white photos.

He was said to have run in big strides, looking slow but moving faster than he appeared. He bulled defenders over.

More than a special athlete, Harris was known for giving back to his hometown. In 2016, the undefeated team had a reunion and Harris reportedly paid for the entire banquet.

“We have a thing called the Bill Gordon Pro Day (golf event), and Franco would come up and donate tickets to the Super Bowl and money would all go to recreation programs in the area,” Rancocas Valley athletic director Tony Lotierzo told the Courier-Post. “He was super.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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