When No. 34 of the Seahawks joined the fray at the Seattle Kingdome Sunday, there was no mistaking him. Oh, sure, he was dressed out in blue and silver instead of the black and gold he wore for 12 glorious seasons, and he was no longer No. 32, but he trotted onto the field as he always has, gingerly, like a man late for an appointment with his podiatrist. Franco Harris was back where he belongs, seven yards behind the center, hands lightly resting on his thigh pads.
The crowd had roared when he entered the game. "Let's go, Fran-co!" called a few fans now, lightly suggesting what used to be a thunderous chant in Pittsburgh. Six-fifty remained in the first quarter, with Seattle trailing San Diego 3-0. Harris was a decoy as quarterback Dave Krieg threw a third-down incompletion. Punt. On San Diego's next series, Charger wide receiver Bobby Duckworth reincarnated Harris's Immaculate Reception on a 61-yard TD pass that bounced off Seahawk safety Kenny Easley's heel. Now it was 10-0. With 2:20 left in the quarter, Harris came in again.
The Seattle offense is nothing without a gifted running back. Harris had been signed earlier in the week, in the wake of a season-ending knee injury to Curt Warner in Seattle's opening 33-0 win over Cleveland, to display the gifts that had gotten him 11,950 yards rushing and made him a sure bet to break Jim Brown's career record of 12,312 yards until the Steelers cut him on Aug. 20. This time Harris spoke to his teammates. "Let's go!" he said. He took the ball and went left, between center Blair Bush and guard Reggie McKenzie, for six yards on eight steps, an economical thrust that led to his first contact since a playoff game last New Year's Day against the Raiders. Harris then sifted right for three more. On third-and-one from the Seattle 46, he bowed his neck, blasted off right guard for four and a first down, then left the field. And 61,314 new converts roared their approval again.
"He was saying, 'Stay on your blocks, fellas, I'm close to breaking one,' " said McKenzie. "I believed him. Franco's entitled to lose a step, but all the other qualities that got him here, he still has." That first drive Harris carried the ball in led to Seattle's first touchdown. Ultimately, it was a Seahawk defense that took advantage of eight turnovers that enabled Seattle to beat the Chargers 31-17, but Harris's contribution was unmistakable. "The key wasn't his game [46 yards, 14 carries]," said Bush, "it was signing him. It was a statement by the franchise that we weren't going to let the season drift away."
When Warner went down, Seattle had wasted no time in seeking aid. Team president Mike McCormack made trade inquiries, and the Seahawks tried out six free-agent backs. But Seahawk coach Chuck Knox wanted a known quantity. "You saw Franco. He was always moving forward," said Knox, after Sunday's game. "And he only practiced two days. He'll help our football team." Harris visited Warner at Swedish Hospital on Wednesday, the day he arrived in town, and each day thereafter until Sunday. After his surgery, Warner had autographed an enlarged photo of himself and Harris, fellow Penn State alums, taken before the Steelers and Seahawks met last season, and given it to Harris. Warner wrote, "Take care and break the record, Franco." Harris gained 132 yards against the Seahawks last year, his most productive rushing day since 1979. Knox remembered that game and, possibly, a cut or two further back.
Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll's memories of Harris include a play from last year's Tampa Bay game. Hugh Green knocked Harris backward into quarterback Cliff Stoudt, who fell as if shot. Green never laid a hand on Stoudt but was awarded a sack. "We made Franco a fair offer," says Steeler president Dan Rooney. The offer: $557,000 in base salary, plus incentives, including $100,000 for breaking The Record. But Harris held out and when he finally called to accept Pittsburgh's terms, the Steelers said it was too late.
Harris was then rejected by the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears. "I felt the general attitude was that I'd be a problem," he says. Harris, the problem with four Super Bowl rings, signed with Seattle for a base salary of $385,000, plus incentives that could earn him another $215,000. "The record is important," says Harris. "But I wasn't going to retire. If I had to wait and come back next year I would've done it because I still love to play football.
"I have no regrets. I had 12 great years in Pittsburgh with the Steelers. Great memories. How could they be anything but? Chuck Noll, the Rooneys—it's all a big part of my life, and I choose not to be bitter about it."
On his final carry Sunday, Harris began a sweep left, only to tilt back to the right, moved by a marvelous instinct. Two San Diego defenders bore in on him while he made his cut, jitter-stepping like a man stomping on ants. Then he was between the two, stretched out for four yards. The gyroscope remains balanced. The odometer still runs. And so will the Seahawks.
"When Franco came here, the first thing he talked about was us winning the Super Bowl," says McKenzie. "Not going to the Super Bowl; winning it. Oh, it's going to be such a great year."