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Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier unaware they set rushing streak for '70s Steelers that has become so meaningful to Ravens

But Harris added Harbaugh was right to run final play and tie the record. Harris and Bleier have both been successful in post playing-careers.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this Dec. 23, 1972, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers' Franco Harris (32) eludes a tackle by Oakland Raiders' Jimmy Warren as he runs 42-yards for a touchdown after catching a deflected pass during an AFC Divisional NFL football playoff game in Pittsburgh. Harris' scoop of a deflected pass and subsequent run for the winning touchdown, forever known as the "Immaculate Reception." (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck, File)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A seldom considered upshot to a player or team chasing a sports record is that no matter how nefarious the pursuit, it can conjure up reminders of those who set it.

John Harbaugh, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, made the controversial decision Sunday of making a final-play-of-the-game rushing attempt, instead of the usual kneel down, despite a large lead against the Broncos because he felt his team tying the NFL record of 100 yards rushing in 43 consecutive games was “meaningful” and something his players and coaches would “have for the rest of our lives.’’

But how meaningful can a record be if the parties who set it didn’t knew they did so, and just spent the past 44 years of their lives not knowing they did?

“I wish I would have known that we held that record,’’ former Steelers’ running back Rocky Bleier said in a Zoom interview Wednesday with 9NEWS and his longtime friend and fellow  Steelers’ ball-carrier Franco Harris. “The first time I heard about it was when I got this text message, "Hey, would you like to do this interview?’ About what? “You set a record 43 consecutive games of 100 yards.’’ You’re kidding me? I wish I would have known that. I would have sold that and marketed that all these years.’’

Led by the fullback Harris and halfback Bleier, the Pittsburgh Steelers had run off 43 consecutive games of at least 100 yards starting from Game 13 of a 14-game schedule in 1974 until game 13 of the 1977 season. Harris, who along with his bronze bust has long been inducted into football immortality, led those great Steelers of the 70s with at least 1,000 yards rushing each of those four seasons. Bleier, who was often used as a lead blocker on Franco’s runs, was second on the team in rushing each of those four seasons, including 1976 when he joined Harris for the rare 1,000-1,000 double.

The Steelers accomplished much in the 1970s, most notably four Super Bowl titles. The most memorable play of that era was Harris' Immaculate Reception in the 1972 playoffs against the Oakland Raiders, Franco's rookie season.

But 43 consecutive games of 100 yards?

“I did not even know there was such a record,’’ Harris said. “I definitely didn’t know we held the record. But now thinking about it, and looking back, we had quite a run during the 70s. It’s amazing that back then, it just seemed like we didn’t pay attention too much to that stuff. You think about it, the NFL started in the (1920s), ‘30s and ‘40s, and in the ‘70s it’s not that old of a league yet.

“Now almost 50 years later, looking back and we held something for so long, I’m amazed that stat was being kept. But it’s nice to know that me and Rock accomplished some things back then that are still standing right now. We’ll see if it ends this coming weekend. Which I’m thinking the Ravens will focus on and will get it.”

They’ll got for it, all right. In almost every other circumstance when a team has a 16-point lead and less than 40 seconds left on the play clock – there were but 3 seconds remaining in this case -- that team will take a knee. For two reasons. One, to not put players at any more at risk of injury, and, secondly, because it’s sportsmanlike to not run up any more points or statistics.

But with the Ravens’ streak so tantalizing close at 42 straight games – one shy of the record -- and just 3 yards shy of 100, Harbaugh called for his star quarterback Lamar Jackson to run around left end. When Jackson picked up 5 yards against a relaxed Denver defense to continue the streak and tie it, Broncos head coach Vic Fangio slammed down his headset in disgust while defensive line coach Bill Kollar filled the mile-high air with expletives. Defensive linemen Shelby Harris and Mike Purcell also expressed their anger.

In Harbaugh’s defense, Harris agreed with his decision. In Fangio’s defense, Harris could understood the Broncos’ fury. But Harris still supports Harbaugh’s decision.

“I thought the players on Denver were expecting a knee,’’ Harris said. “And I can see where they were a little upset. But you can’t worry about their feelings. I think the Ravens did the right thing to go for the record.

“What would have been interesting is if this (next) game would have been against the Steelers. I’m sure the Colts could care less. But I want to say they absolutely had to go for it. That was the right thing to do. You know this record is there, it’s within your grasp, and make some new history. They had to do it. That was the right call.

“And Jackson is probably the most exciting player you could say in the NFL at this time. And also it brought attention to what we accomplished in the 70s.’’

Credit: AP
Franco Harris (32), hard-running Pittsburgh Steelers running back, picked his way through a Washington Redskin defense behind the blocking of teammate Rocky Bleier (20) on Jan. 6, 1976. (AP Photo)

Franco and Rocky successful after playing days

NFL players didn’t start making huge money until the mid-1990s with the advent of free agent and FOX joined the competition with other networks to skyrocket the league’s television rights fees. Harris and Bleier were long retired by then.

Neither is resentful. Because they had to keep working to pay the ball they both stayed busy, active in their second-career pursuits. Some of today’s players may be challenged by living a post-playing career life with millions in the bank. It also may be a challenge many people would like to have.  But both Bleier, 75, and Harris, 71, appear younger than their years and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Hey, listen, there’s nothing we can resent,’’ Harris said. “We had a great run. I know it can be argued we had one of the greatest, if not the greatest team of all time. We had a lot of great players on our team that are great friends today and still enjoy. We’re around each other today and now because of what we accomplished, things still come to light. It was a dream run that we had.

“There’s no doubt that a lot of guys had a tough time with the transition in life. But a lot of our guys made that transition. We were very fortunate and we’re still very fortune.”

Credit: KUSA / Mike Klis

Bleier, a Vietnam War hero whose inspirational story has put him in demand as a motivational speaker, has also been in the construction business, and has his own commercial construction company.

“We do a lot of federal government work,’’ he said. “It keeps me busy. I go to the office all the time, gives me a place to go and people to yell at. And I get a chance to travel around the country every now and then and give some speeches.’’

Harris still has three ventures going with Superdonut.com, his own food distribution company, where he made his post-playing-career mark.

“We knew we were not going to be able to live off the money we made during our playing days,’’ Harris said. “I always had that entrepreneurial business bug. I just love being in business. I started a little distribution business and did it the old fashioned way where I did most of it myself. I loaded trucks, unloaded trucks. It’s funny because once I was carrying boxes into a store. And this couple was getting back in their car and the husband says, “Hey, I think that’s Franco Harris.’ And the woman said, “No, that’s not Franco, he wouldn’t be carrying boxes in a store.’ It kind of hit me, here I had this NFL career and I’m carrying boxes in a store. That doesn’t click with people. But luckily things happened and right now it’s beyond my wildest dreams what you can get.”

Credit: AP
Pittsburgh Steelers' running back Franco Harris (32) follows a block by teammate Rocky Bleier as he runs for short yardage against the Bengals in Pittsburgh, Dec. 3, 1979. (Charles Kenneth Lucas)

No two rushing streaks are alike

Bleier wonders if the Ravens-Steelers’ rivalry – which developed into one of the most intense after the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1996 – was a factor in Baltimore wanting that 100-yard rushing streak.

“When we were going through (the 100-yard streak) in the 70s that was not part of our thought process,’’ Bleier said. “It just happened. That’s the way the game was played. What’s transpired over the years there’s been this great rivalry between the Ravens and the Steelers. So it’s amazing how important it was – we didn’t know about it – but someone in that (Ravens’) organization said, “Hey, here’s the record, we’re going to tie those son of a guns over there in Pittsburgh, we hate them to begin with. So let’s tie their record, then let’s beat them.

“So, that’s the competition that takes place. Records, as we say, trite as it may be, are made to be broken, and it’s fortunate that the Steelers were able to hold on to that record that we didn’t know about for all those many years and let’s see how long the Ravens will hold it.”

It really is apples and oranges how the ‘70s Steelers and current Ravens put together their respective 100-yard rushing streaks. While the running back likes of Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins contributed, the Ravens’ 43-game streak began with Jackson’s first start at quarterback. You figure out who deserves the bulk of the credit.

The Steelers of the ‘70s had a true running game with a fullback – yes, Franco was a fullback, as was the great Jim Brown – and  halfback Bleier with a Frenchy Fuqua, Preston Pearson and Reggie Harrison mixed in, along with quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who started picking up a few yards in the latter half of the 100-yard run none of the Steelers knew about.

“Back in that time it was more about the running game and the defenses were stacked up for the running game,’’ Harris said. “Really, what we did in 1976 when they knew what Rock and I were trying to do (both rush for 1,000 yards in a 14-game season), they knew it, and we still got it accomplished so to keep it going through ‘76 was quite a feat. The defense was stacked against us, they were playing the running game and we still got it done.

“That doesn’t diminish anything we accomplished in the 70s. I think it highlights even more. It will be interesting to see how (the Ravens) handle things this coming week knowing they want to break the record. And it’s not going to mean anything to the Colts. They just want to win the game. Although a big part of winning it is to stop Lamar.”

Last week, the Broncos’ couldn’t handle the passing of Jackson, a star in his ascent. This week, the Broncos take on Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is hearing chatter he is in decline.

“The evolution of this year, a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive line coach, we’ve got a young offensive line,’’ Bleier said. “We’ve got four rookies that are starters on that offense. So there are some adjustments in this process. Ben has not looked great in the last several games. So it will be interesting for us to see what kind of adjustments will they make.

Credit: KUSA / Mike Klis

“Do they change their offensive scheme? Dropped balls happen and so do overthrown balls, but not on a consistent basis and that’s what happening here. So let’s see what kind of adjustments they make. And it’s still early in the season. With 17 games and we’ll see if we’re going to be sitting with a  2-3 record if we should prevail this weekend and hopefully have some momentum to take into the remaining part of the season.”

Harris agrees with Bleier on his point of patience.

“It’s still early in the season. I remember last year, boy did we have a great start and then COVID hit and it’s amazing to the team what happened that started,’’ Harris said. “But we need some more work. I don’t feel we’re a very good team right now. But going through the league, there have been years where we didn’t start out well and ended up in the Super Bowl. So how they’re starting right now, it’s not good where they are, but keep the faith and I guess we’ll see in the next two games what adjustments are made. I’m concerned, I don’t like our level of play, but it’s still early and we can get it turned around.’

Time flies, whether over 44 years since Harris and Bleier established the 100-yard streak, or in 2021 where here it is week 5 already. While the running back duo’s Steelers will be playing Sunday afternoon (11 a.m. MDT kickoff) against the Broncos in Pittsburgh, the Ravens will try to break the 100-yard rushing streak set by Harris, Bleier and those great Steelers’ teams of the 70s against the Indianapolis Colts in Baltimore on Monday night.

“I want to know if we’re going to be on the sideline during their game,’’ Bleier joked, referring to how the current record holder is sometimes brought in to attend the game in which his record may be broken. “We haven’t got an invitation, yet.”

Come to think of it, maybe it’s good Lamar Jackson didn’t take a knee on the final play against the Broncos. The NFL got one more week to celebrate the legacies of Franco and Rocky and those great ‘70s Steelers.

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