Tomlin appreciated Harris' love of the Steelers

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is close to a number of the franchise's former stars, as he never shies away from embracing the team's past.

That's why the death of Steelers legend Franco Harris hit him hard Wednesday morning. Harris passed away overnight. He was 72 years old and just days away from being honored by the franchise by having his No. 32 jersey retired on the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

"Sixteen years is a long time," Tomlin said of his relationship with Harris.

As Tomlin noted at his press conference on Tuesday here at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex, he was just eight months old when Harris performed the Immaculate Reception Dec. 23, 1972, against the Raiders.

And he was barely pushing into his teens when Harris retired from football in 1984. But the two had a very good relationship, one formed from their love of the organization.

"I just admire and loved the man," Tomlin said Wednesday afternoon. "There was so much to be learned from him in terms of how he conducted himself, how he embraced the responsibilities of being Franco. For Steelers Nation, this community, the Penn State followers, he just embraced it all and did it with grace and class and patience and time for people."

And that always included the young players on the Steelers roster.

Like many of the team's former stars, Harris took a keen interest in the young players the Steelers brought in each year.

Harris attended a Steelers practice earlier this season prior to the announcement the team would be retiring his jersey. He chatted with Tomlin and team president Art Rooney II for a good portion of the practice, but also had conversations with young players such as running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth.

"That's something we talk openly about and we appreciate – the support these current players get from those who have come before them," Tomlin said. "Franco was just such a shining example of that. When those guys spent time with him, they realized he didn't want anything from them.

"He just wanted the absolute best for them. That unconditional love, guys feel that. That's why they felt about him the way they felt about him."