To many, Franco Harris was known as the man who made the Immaculate Reception — the greatest play in pro football history — and as a four-time Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame running back.
But in Pittsburgh, he was also known for the little moments he shared with Steelers fans that showed he was a caring and thoughtful community member, both during and after his football career.
Tuesday, a week after he died at 72, thousands of people paid their respects to Harris at his visitation at Acrisure Stadium, and they remembered a man who became a key player for Pittsburgh both on and off the football field.
“Franco was just such an incredible person — that’s why I’m here today,” said Cecily Dichov, 69, of Monaca. “He’s done so much for the city, and you kind of take it for granted. He was everywhere.”
Following his retirement from football in 1984, Harris became known for his support of charitable causes, including the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Promise.
It seems like every Pittsburgher has an Immaculate Reception story that reminds them of Harris.
Dichov said she remembers driving across the Monaca Rochester Bridge on Dec. 23, 1972, when all of a sudden people started honking their car horns and jumping out of their vehicles. She didn’t know what was happening because she was listening to music on the radio, but she soon found out that people were celebrating Harris’ Immaculate Reception.
“I’ll never forget that,” she said. “Just like where I was when Kennedy was assassinated.”
Sharon Burnheimer, 70, of Shaler, met Harris in 1978 while working at Divine Providence Hospital on the North Side, where Steelers players would be taken to be treated for injuries after games.
One time when Harris was visiting some teammates who were in the hospital, he noticed Burnheimer looking at him in the hallway.
“He said, ‘I’ll shake your hand, I am who you think I am,’ ” Burnheimer said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ “
Burnheimer asked Harris for an autograph, and he happily obliged. She said she still has the piece of notebook paper that he signed in a frame at her house.
Although many Pittsburghers have a story about Harris’ kindness, Gino Bianchi, 55, of Pitcairn, said the former Steelers running back once helped him improve his golf swing.
The two were paired up on a golf course in East Canton, Ohio, owned by a mutual friend — Renee Powell — and Bianchi, attempting to account for a slice in his swing, was aiming his shot at an angle so that it would go straight.
“So Franco is sitting there, and he says, ‘Where are you hitting that ball?’ ” Bianchi said. “I said, ‘Franco, I have a terrible slice. I always have to go this way.’ “
Harris then said, “I’ll tell you what, roll the club head over and then it will straighten out your ball.”
“So that’s what I did,” Bianchi said. “It worked.”
Rodney and Alicia Saulsberry, of Memphis, Tenn., came to town for the football game but remained in Pittsburgh on Tuesday because their flight home was canceled due to the winter storm that impacted a large part of the country.
“It may have been God’s plan for us to be here to pay respects,” Rodney Saulsberry said. “Obviously, not living in this area, we don’t get to come too often.”
Rodney Saulsberry was born and raised in Memphis but grew to love the Steelers after watching his first football game — Super Bowl XIII, in which Pittsburgh defeated the Dallas Cowboys with help from a Harris touchdown.
Although he has no connection to Pittsburgh, Raffi Beshirian became a Steelers fan after working with a relative of former running back Willie Parker and doing business with Art Rooney II’s law firm.
When the Immaculate Reception monument was being built on General Robinson Street, the Glendale, Calif., resident made a donation and received a plaque and certificate that he still displays on his desk.
“Just by being at my desk at home, it brings memories of the Immaculate Reception site,” he said.
Beshirian was in town with his girlfriend, Myrna Lopez, and her son, Lorenzo Cruz, for the Steelers game Saturday night against the Las Vegas Raiders, and also ended up getting stuck in Pittsburgh.
“I guess this was meant to be, in a way, to come see this,” Beshirian said.
Even those who never had a run-in with Harris said they came to the viewing because they wanted to honor a man who had given back to the community even after his playing days were over.
John Schake, 74, of Greensburg, said he remembered watching the Steelers in the 1970s, and although he never met Harris, he knew of the good work that the former Steelers player did in the community.
“He stepped up when he didn’t have to,” Schake said. “You hear a lot of things now about current players, but he’s doing things as a former player. He didn’t have to do that. He’s already made his mark. But he stayed with it, which does show his genuine commitment to Pittsburgh.”