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Former Penn Stater Franco Harris defends Joe Paterno

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Franco Harris (Getty Images)

The recent issuing of the Freeh Report along with reports of an alleged cover up is not enough to deter former Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers star Franco Harris from defending the legacy of his former head coach, the late Joe Paterno.

A first round pick out of Penn State in 1972, Harris defended the longtime coach against recent attacks and criticism of complacency for his role in an alleged cover up of the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal. Recently, CNN reported that Paterno and university officials sought to cover up Sandusky's sexual abuse of young boys and last week's Freeh Report cited Penn State officials for a "total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State."

Despite what appears to be a mountain of evidence beginning to build against the once revered Paterno, Harris is steadfast in his belief that his former coach wouldn't be involved in a cover up.

"After I read the Freeh Report, I feel even more strongly about Joe and about his non-involvement in any type of cover-up. There was no cover up," Harris told WPXI in an exclusive interview. "No way would Joe ever cover-up anything like this. No way would Joe protect Sandusky or protect the football program."

Harris isn't the only Penn State player to fumble a defense of Paterno and their alma mater as ESPN analyst and former Nittany Lion great Matt Millen has been vehement in protecting his former coach's legacy. As recently as July 12 when the Freeh Report was filed, Millen was still trying to patronize Paterno, only acknowledging in an ESPN interview that a "mistake" was made in Paterno's role in handling Sandusky's known rape incidents.

But Harris especially seems to wearing blue and white colored glasses, perhaps tainting his credibility.

Last November shortly after Paterno was fired from Penn State, Harris was gung-ho in going after the university's Board of Trustees for the decision. He sought to distance the football program from the Sandusky scandal — a link that now appears stronger than ever.

"They really wouldn't give a reason. They're linking the football program to the scandal and, possibly, the cover-up. That's very disturbing to me," Harris told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about Paterno's firing. "I think there should be no more connection to the football program, only in the case that it happened at the football building with an ex-coach. I'm still trying to find out who gave him access to the building, who signed that contract."

Harris seems to still hold the image of Paterno that most of America had this time last year when the venerable legend of State College was hailed for his integrity as much as for his winning ways with the Nittany Lions. Despite Paterno's alleged role in the scandal -  a role that kept Sandusky walking the streets freely until his conviction on June 22 - Harris downplayed his former coach's involvement.

"All of the focus has been on Joe. People blame him more than anybody else and he played such a minor part in all of this," Harris said.

Follow Kristian R. Dyer @KristianRDyer

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