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Harris is larger than life in Steel City -- and a Pens fan

by Dave Lozo /
PITTSBURGH -- Franco Harris is kind of a big deal in the Steel City. People know him. That's comes with the territory when you're a key part of the Pittsburgh Steelers' four Super Bowl titles between 1975 and 1980.

Harris is so popular that his life-sized replica can be found at the Pittsburgh International Airport standing next to another popular figure in American history -- George Washington.

Is Harris a bigger deal in Pittsburgh than America's first president?

"Just during certain times of the year," Harris said with a laugh Thursday as he toured Heinz Field just two days before the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Penguins and Washington Capitals.

The nine-time Pro Bowler has no shortage of fans who want nothing more than to get a quick picture with him, but Harris sounds like he's just as big a fan of the Penguins -- although it didn't start out that way.

"When I came in 1972, I was from the Philadelphia area," Harris said, "and I was a Philadelphia fan. But over time, I became a big Penguin fan. I watch them on television and get to games once in a while. I really do enjoy it."

Harris was about as light on his feet as a 6-foot-2, 230-pound running back could be during his playing days. His athleticism and balance were on full display during the Immaculate Reception, one of the most famous plays in NFL history. While running at full speed, Harris reached down to his knees and caught a deflected pass and ran it for a touchdown to beat the Oakland Raiders in December 1972.

Perhaps some of that can be attributed to his time on skates as a youngster.

"I used to skate when I was young until I was about 13 and the ice-skating rink left our hometown," Harris said. "I like the beauty of skating. I always thought our Penguin team could skate so well."

Harris also appreciates the overall athletic ability that is required to play professional hockey.

"I realize the hard work and dedication it takes for someone to be a pro in any sport and I respect that very much," Harris said.  "These guys are great athletes and are in great shape. The conditioning is incredible. I look at it as a combination of football and soccer. There's the physical contact of football, but they also have to have the grace and athleticism of passing and positioning and then to score the goal. I say, 'Wow, how did someone come up with that combination and on skates?' "

Seeing NHL players up close also opened Harris' eyes to the size that comes with that grace.

"No doubt. I have to admit I was surprised how big the guys are," Harris said. "I would just envision skaters as being smaller. Even Mario (Lemieux) was a big guy and it was like, 'Wow, these guys are big guys.' And on top of that with the speed of the skating and hitting into each other and into the boards."

Harris, who wore No. 32 during his playing days, predicted the Pens would come away with a 3-2 victory on New Year's Day. But does he see Sidney Crosby one day having his own statue at the Pittsburgh Airport?

"Absolutely," said Harris, before thinking it over for a second. "But before Mario's? I'm not sure."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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