Among the many accomplishments of legendary NFL running back Franco Harris, who died Wednesday at age 72, is this: He was the first player who put on a Seahawks uniform to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And though Harris’ eight-game, 56-day stint with the Seahawks in 1984 is generally regarded as an afterthought to a historic 12-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers that came before, his arrival in Seattle was greeted with as much fanfare as anything that had happened in this city.
“He was in the first 10 days as a Seahawk the most celebrated, and perhaps most well-known, athlete in Seattle sports history,” Seattle Times columnist Blaine Newnham wrote after Harris had been released by the Seahawks on Oct. 31, 1984. “It was damn exciting.”
Indeed, what could have been bigger at the time for a Seahawks franchise in just its ninth year and coming off its first playoff berth than signing a player who was then the second-leading rusher in NFL history and one of the biggest names in the game? Harris had helped lead the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s.
Harris was available due to a contract dispute with the Steelers that led to his release shortly before the season.
At the time, Harris was 34 and coming off a season in which he’d rushed for just 3.6 yards per carry, a half-yard off his career average.
Harris’ representatives reportedly reached out to the Seahawks after his release at the end of training camp to see if they were interested.
Seattle wasn’t interested at the time due to the presence of second-year running back Curt Warner, who had led the AFC the previous year as a rookie with 1,481 yards.
But that changed in the first week of the season when Warner tore an ACL in a victory over Cleveland at the Kingdome.
A Seahawks team coming off a Cinderella run to the AFC title game the year before and thinking Super Bowl was suddenly thrown into disarray.
But the Seahawks and Harris reconnected. After a day of rumors sweeping the Seattle area about Harris trying out for the team, a signing was announced — a signing reported by The Seattle Times to have occurred almost exactly 51 hours after Warner’s injury.
Harris wanted to keep playing not only for the money (he reportedly received a contract for about $300,000) but because he was 363 yards from breaking Jim Brown’s all-time NFL rushing record.
The Seahawks hoped Harris, who the year before had rushed for 1,007 yards, could help replace Warner.
But just as important, many felt at the time, was the message being sent.
As Seahawks beat writer Gil Lyons wrote in The Seattle Times: “The signing of Harris was a signal to players and fans that the team’s ownership and management were willing to do whatever was required to build a winner.”
Or as general manager Mike McCormack said: “On the Tuesday that it was learned that Curt Warner was out for the year our people were really down. But on Wednesday when we signed Franco the whole atmosphere changed.”
At a celebratory news conference, Harris said, “Our goal here is the Super Bowl.”
The relationship began well enough.
Six days after Warner’s injury, Harris suited up as a Seahawk against the Chargers in the Kingdome. He wore No. 34 instead of the 32 he made famous with the Steelers (32 having been taken by running back Cullen Bryant).
Times columnist Steve Kelley noted that every move Harris made before, during and after the game was wildly cheered. “He had the city eating out of his hand,” Kelley wrote.
Harris entered the game with the Seahawks trailing 10-0. He gained six yards on his first carry to jump-start a touchdown drive that helped the Seahawks rally for a 31-17 victory, finishing with 46 yards on 14 carries.
Harris talked long after the game about the fresh start and feeling Seattle would be a good fit, and teammates concurred.
“He gave us a shot in the arm when we needed it,” veteran guard Reggie McKenzie said.
The good times didn’t last.
Harris rushed for just 36 yards on 24 carries the next two games, as age and adjusting to a new system appeared to take a toll.
He had one last moment of glory in a 20-12 victory at Minnesota with a 16-yard run on Seattle’s second play of the game that helped key a touchdown drive. He finished with 52 yards on nine carries.
But Harris was held to 36 yards on 21 carries over the next four games, a period in which coach Chuck Knox continued to transition the offense to a passing attack led by quarterback Dave Krieg and receiver Steve Largent.
Harris was released following a 24-0 victory over the Chargers in which he had three yards on three carries.
Harris finished his Seattle stint with 170 yards on 68 carries, 192 yards behind Brown. And by the time of his release he had been passed on the NFL’s career rushing list by the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton, who did so during a game against Harris and the Seahawks at the Kingdome (a 38-9 Seattle victory).
Seattle, though, won six of Harris’ eight games on its way to a 12-4 record that then was the best in team history and remains tied for the third-best.
“He gave us a lift when we needed it,” Knox said on the day of Harris’ release.
Harris never played again, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years later, in 1990, the first player to have worn a Seahawks uniform to make the hall.
When the Seahawks and Steelers played in the Super Bowl in 2006, Seattle’s first, an Associated Press story on Harris highlighted his time with the Seahawks.
“I wasn’t ready to play for another team,” Harris was quoted as saying. “I really couldn’t envision myself in another uniform. Even though I felt good physically and thought I was in really good shape, I just wasn’t ready mentally, and mentally is what it’s all about. … Seattle, they were great people, great teammates and I liked the town, the town was good to me. It just wasn’t for me.”
But even if his time as a Seahawk was brief and not what he envisioned, it left an impression on those who were there.
“It is a very sad day for NFL fans, especially fans who love the history of the league like I do,” tweeted former Seahawk Mike Tice — a starting tight end on the 1984 team — Wednesday. “Franco Harris my teammate with the Seahawks in 1984 passed away. He was a very gracious man and treated fans like real people. Rest in Peace Franco. God Bless You.”