Franco Harris’ ethnicity — Everything about Harris’ parents

Franco Harris

Franco Harris was the cornerstone of the Steelers’ domination of American Football in the 1970s. Harris hit the ground running following his selection by the Steelers in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft. In December 1972, Harris completed a play dubbed the Immaculate Reception, which he considered the touchdown that sparked the Steelers’ era of dominance. 

“When people look back at the great success that the Steelers have had the last 40 years and wonder where it all started, well, it all began right there,” Harris told The New York Times in 2012.

Franco Harris died on 20th December 2022, three days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. 

Franco’s father was a black Army medic who met his mother in Italy

Franco Harris parents
Franco Harris parents | Photo by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Franco Harris was born on 7th March 1950, to Gina Parenti and Cad Haris. Cad, a Black man, and Gina met in Parenti’s native Italy, where Cad served as an Army medic during WWII. Therefore, Franco was Italian and Black. 

Franco’ most vocal supporters were Franco’s Italian Army, an exuberant group of fans named after Franco’s Italian roots. Per Vault, the name was coined after a security guard at Three Rivers Stadium described Franco as a Soul Brother with Italian legs. 

With the help of Tony Stagno, one of Pittsburgh’s biggest Italian bakeries, Franco’s Italian Army was born. Franco’s high-spirited performers stood out, wearing khaki-colored helmet liners and waving Italian flags while gorging on cheese and wine. 

Franco’ mom banned football in the household for fear of the children’s safety

Franco and his eight siblings – Daniella, Mario, Marisa, Alvara, Luana, Piero, Guiseppe, and Michele – grew up in Fort Dix, New Jersey. He didn’t grow up playing football as his mother banned the sport for fear of the children’s safety. 

“Baseball was my first sport,” Harris told The Baltimore Sun. “I had never watched a professional football game on television.” 

Franco decided to try football after learning that the sport could earn him a college scholarship. “I wasn’t passionate about it,” Franco said. Regardless, He was good, earning the admiration of many college football programs. 

Franco could have gone to Syracuse, but joining the school meant he had to shave his iconic mustache, so he rejected their offer. Notre Dame was another attractive prospect, but the school’s methods didn’t appeal to Franco. 

He eventually chose Penn State, possibly because they convinced his mother that it was the right school for him. Notre Dame wooed Gina by sending her a beautiful crucifix; Penn State’s coach Joe Paterno sealed the deal by showing up at the Harris home with a 25-pound box of candy and a promise to take care of him. 

“He promised to take care of her son,” Carm Cella, Franco’ high school backfield coach, said. “You had to sell mom.” 

“I was mopping the floor when he came over. It was the biggest box I had ever seen,” Gina talked to The Baltimore Sun about Paterno’s gift. 

Franco inherited his entrepreneurial spirit from his mother

Franco would likely have become a business owner if he hadn’t excelled in sports. Harris told The Baltimore Sun that the family’s dire financial situation forced the kids to start working from a young age. Franco said:

“Something hit me when I was about 8 that I wanted to be in business. My father was in the Army for a good part of my childhood, and he didn’t make much money, so there was never extra money for anything. So we always worked.”

Franco sold newspapers, bagged groceries, bused tables, and shined shoes for different regiments at Fort Dix. He likely inherited his entrepreneurial spirit from Gina, who briefly tried to start a coffin importation business and worked in school cafeterias. 

Gina secretly used $700 of her husband’s money to buy a lot next to Rancocas Valley Regional High School. She kept the purchase secret for seven years, revealing it to the family when they were ready to move. 

When Franco retired, he knew exactly what he wanted to do – getting into business. He engaged in several business ventures, including partnering with Lydell Mitchell to rescue the Parks Sausage Company. 

Franco’ parents died long before his passing. Harris left behind his son, Franco ‘Dok’ Harris, his wife, Dana, and five siblings.