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Franco Harris: Made Through Mentorship

A few decades is all that separates millions of American students from NFL legend Franco Harris, who 45 years ago saw no future beyond a high school degree and a career in a factory. With worn textbooks, shabby supplies and unkempt classrooms, motivation to finish high school was questionable and college was so removed from reality it wasn’t even brought up.

Sadly, this trend did not die with the flared jeans and afros that graced Harris’ generation. Today, millions of students across America find themselves in similar situations, as one in four kids do not finish high school on time. But unlike 40 years ago, Harris now finds himself in a position to help.

“Growing up, I never even thought about my future,” the son of an African-American war veteran and Italian war wife said. “When you have nothing, you expect nothing, and I didn’t really know any better.”

Harris added that it was his eighth grade teacher, Mr. Thurston, who really opened his eyes to a world beyond the one he knew. Aside from typical math and English lessons—eighth grade changed his perspective on life.

“[Mr. Thurston] asked our class to donate food cans to the needy,” Harris recalled. “That was huge. I’d never realized there were people poorer than me, or that I could help them.”

Mr. Thurston was the first of many mentors to touch Harris’ life, as he soon recognized the power of one person to change his entire plan. It was Penn State’s historic football coach, Joe Paterno, who first saw young Harris as college material. Paterno’s challenge? Convincing this 18-year-old Jersey boy to see himself the same way.

“College was a game changer,” the now 63-year-old legend said nostalgically, “But even when I was there, it seemed too good to be true.”

Still endearingly naive of his athletic potential, Harris made sure to pick an industry that would always have jobs available. He was told hospitality was it, and he liked the idea of “being able to go anywhere in the world.”

“My senior year, I really just wanted to graduate and go to work, but then this little thing called football got in the way,” Harris said with a chuckle. “Next thing I knew, 13 years had gone by and I had to ask myself ‘what do I do now?’ and ‘what do I still know?’”

Harris’ unfulfilled hunger led to him starting a food business in 1990. Dusting off his old degree, the entrepreneur not only applied his industry insights to his business but he also added a charitable twist. His company’s mission was to provide schoolchildren with healthy, nutrition-oriented food options. It seemed that even as an NFL veteran and experienced adult, Harris couldn’t shake the passion for education and helping others instilled in him by his mentors growing up.

His love of learning and genuine good nature did not go unrecognized, though, as he was picked up by United Way in 1974 as one of their first NFL advocates, a highly-regarded position. Donning a full-fledged afro and patterned sport coat, Harris starred in one of the organization’s first TV spots promoting the college graduation rate. Forty years later, Harris has trimmed the fro but finds himself reunited with United Way as they continue their efforts in education, income, and health.

When Harris started with United Way forty years ago, America’s education system was ranked number one in the world—a far cry from our current ranking of twenty-one. The economy was booming and healthcare was agreeable. Despite decades of effort, it’s no secret there’s still work to be done in communities both close to home and overseas. 

“Not many things last 40 years anymore,” the NFL advocate said. “But I’ve always been a big believer in United Way because it’s a global organization with a local perspective. Once I got to Pittsburgh, I saw United Way as an opportunity to really be part of the community as more than just a football player.”

Harris said he’s also a “big believer” that athletes have a social responsibility to be good role models for kids, but noted that every adult figure should strive for the same goal. Now, it’s just a matter of finding adults willing and eager to do so.

United Way has accepted the challenge of finding mentors for disadvantaged students through its TEAM NFL initiative to recruit 99,000 volunteer readers, tutors and mentors with the help of current NFL players.

“It’s great to see younger [NFL] guys getting involved,” Harris said of the legacy he started along with other NFL United Way veterans like Roger Staubach. “But in the end, it’s up to all of us to help keep these kids in school. It takes a team to accomplish anything.”

Harris’ PSA made the top 10 list of fan favorites in the NFL-United Way 40th Anniversary Promotion with USA TODAY Ad Meter. See his spot at www.nfl.com/unitedway.