WALL STREET JOURNAL – After retiring from football in 1984, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, whose “Immaculate Reception” is a highlight-reel regular, had no idea what he wanted to do; he just knew he wanted to work.
“I told myself that no matter what, you can’t be idle,” he recalls. Mr. Harris had no debt and some career earnings socked away. But in the 1970s and ’80s, star athletes didn’t earn multimillion-dollar salaries and often needed second careers.
At Pennsylvania State University, Mr. Harris majored in food service and hotel administration. “I never thought I’d actually end up playing pro football,” he says. “I figured I’d just end up managing a hotel someplace.”
Instead, he was drafted by the Steelers, and he helped them win four Super Bowls. One of the highlights of his 13-year career was the Immaculate Reception, in his rookie year. In the waning seconds of a game against the Oakland Raiders, Mr. Harris caught a wildly deflected pass and ran for a touchdown, giving the Steelers their first playoff win.
A year into post-NFL life, Mr. Harris was approached by a company that sold fruit bars. He took on distribution, and after a year of hawking the bars throughout the Midwest, he launched a distribution company called Franco’s All Naturel. He’d always been a healthy eater, and he wanted to promote that lifestyle with frozen snacks.
It started as a one-man operation. Mr. Harris loaded his truck in Pittsburgh by moonlight, driving to Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia to fill orders for convenience stores. “It was hard work, but I discovered I really enjoyed the food-distribution business,” Mr. Harris says. He also began reading business books. “I needed to do a lot of catching up,” he says.
In 1989, Mr. Harris was approached by a small baked-goods company that wanted him to sell its doughnuts. He agreed to join if the company removed preservatives from the recipe and added vitamins and minerals. The company complied. A year later, Mr. Harris bought Super Donut and rolled his All Naturel products into a new company: Super Bakery Inc.
The company’s success encouraged Mr. Harris to buy Parks Sausage Co. The 48-year-old Baltimore brand was the first black-owned public company and a source of jobs for the depressed area, but the company was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “Parks had a lot of history that was worth saving,” says Mr. Harris, who partnered with former Baltimore Colts star Lydell Mitchell to buy Parks. The two raised flagging sales by 50%, but it wasn’t enough; they kept the brand but sold the facility.
Sales at the Super Bakery have been good, and Mr. Harris says he is lucky to have done so well as a running back and a CEO.
“People have a tendency to put all athletes in a single can and say this is what they are,” Mr. Mitchell says. “That’s not the case. When we were playing, football was really a means to get into that next step. So where we are now is where we’ve been trying to get to all along.”
This story was written for the WSJ Second Acts column.