PITTTSBURG (AP) — Hall of Famer running back Franco Harris whose personal reflection authored “Immaculate reception,” considered the most famous play in NFL history, had died. He was 72 years old.
Harris’ son, Doc, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his father passed away overnight. No cause of death was given.
His death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that provided the jolt that helped turn the Steelers from also running into the NFL’s elite and three days before Pittsburgh’s number 32 is set to retire. During a halftime ceremony of their game against the Las Vegas Raiders. Harris has been busy in the run-up to the ceremony, giving media interviews on Monday to talk about a moment he will forever associate with.
“It’s hard to find the right words to describe Franco Harris’ impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers, his teammates, the city of Pittsburgh, and the Steelers Nation,” team president Art Rooney II said in a statement. “From his rookie season, which included an immaculate reception, through the next 50 years, Franco brought joy to people on and off the field. He never stopped giving back in so many ways. He touched so many, and he was loved by so many.”
Even in retirement, Harris remains a staple of the community and team whose level of excellence began with a young New Jersey kid who saw the ball in the air and kept running. It wasn’t uncommon for Harris to stop by the Steelers’ training facility to chat with players who weren’t even born before his fateful game.
“I just admire the guy and love him,” said coach Mike Tomlin. “There’s so much to learn from him in terms of how he acted, how he shouldered the responsibilities of being Franco to the Steeler Nation, to this community… He embraced it all and did it with such grace and class and patience and it’s time for people.”
Harris ran for 12,120 yards and won four Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ’70s, a dynasty that began in earnest when Harris decided to keep running during the last second of Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw in a playoff game against Oakland in 1972.
With Pittsburgh trailing 7-6 and facing fourth-and-10 from the 40-yard line and 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Bradshaw drifted back and threw deep to running back Fuqua. Fuqua and Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum collided, sending the ball tumbling toward midfield in Harris’ direction. Game officials were unsure who deflected the pass; Replays were inconclusive.
While nearly everyone on the field stopped, Harris kept his legs churning, snatching the ball just inches from Three Rivers Stadium near the Oakland 45, then outplaying several stunned Raider defenders to give the Steelers their first playoff win in a four-way franchise. Date of contract.
“This play really represents our teams in the ’70s,” Harris said, after “Immaculate Reception” was voted the greatest play in NFL history. during the league’s centennial season in 2020.
Although the Raiders are brash for the time being, they have adopted their role somewhat into NFL lore over time. Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano, who was covering Harris’ play, even attended a celebration of the play’s 40th anniversary in 2012, when a small memorial was unveiled to commemorate the exact location of Harris’ history-altering catch. Still planning to attend the Saturday night retirement party for his former rival-turned-friend, Velapiano is okay with the mystery that still surrounds what really happened at 3:29 p.m. on December 23, 1972.
“There are so many angles and so many things. No one will ever find out,” said Villapiano. “Let’s just let it go on forever.”
While the Steelers fell the next week to Miami in the AFC Championship, Pittsburgh was well on its way to becoming the dominant team of the 1970s, winning two consecutive Super Bowls, first after the 1974 and 1975 seasons and again after the 1978 and 1979 seasons.
And it all started with a play that changed the fortunes of a series and, in some ways, a region.
“It’s hard to believe 50 years has passed, it’s such a long time,” Harris said in September when the team announced it was retiring his number. “And being alive, you know, is still exciting and exciting. It really says a lot. It means a lot.”
Harris, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound horse from Pennsylvania, found himself at the center of it all. He moved for a score of 158 yards rushing and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 16-6 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX on his way to winning the game’s MVP award. He has scored at least once in three of the four Super Bowls in which he has played, and his 354 career rushing yards on the largest stage in the NFL remains a record nearly four decades after his retirement.
“One of the nicest, nicest guys I ever knew,” Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, a teammate of Harris in Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, Posted on Twitter. “He was an amazing person and a great teammate. A Hall of Fame player but so much more than that. A huge role model for me!”
Born in Fort Dix, New Jersey on March 7, 1950, Harris played collegiately at Penn State, where his primary job was opening holes for fellow backfielder Liddell Mitchell. The Steelers, in the final stages of rebuilding led by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, saw enough in Harris to make him the 13th overall pick in the 1972 draft.
“When (Noll) drafted Franco Harris, he gave her the heart of the offense, he gave her the discipline, he gave her the desire, he gave her the ability to win a championship in Pittsburgh,” the roommate said on the team’s road trips.
Harris’ impact was immediate. He won the NFL’s Rookie of the Year award in 1972 after rushing for a then-rookie team record 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Steelers reached the postseason for only the second time in franchise history.
Harris was immediately embraced by the city’s Italian-American population, led by two local businessmen who established what became known as “Franco’s Italian Army”, a reference to Harris’ roots as the son of an African-American father and an Italian mother.
Immaculate Reception made Harris a star, though he usually prefers to let his play be left to him and not his mouth to speak. On a team that includes seniors Bradshaw, defensive tackle Joe Greene and linebacker Jack Lambert among others, the ultra-quiet Harris spent 12 seasons as a mover who helped get Pittsburgh’s offense going.
Eight times he exceeded 1,000 yards rushing in a season, including five times while playing a 14-game schedule. He compiled an additional 1,556 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns in the playoffs, both second all-time behind Emmitt Smith.
Despite his flashy numbers, Harris asserted that he was just one cog in an extraordinary machine that redefined greatness.
During that era, Harris said during his Hall of Fame induction in 1990, “every player brought their own little piece with them to make this great contract happen. Every player had their strengths and weaknesses, each their own thinking, each their own way, each their own way. But.” After that it was just amazing, everything came together, and they stuck together to make the greatest team of all time.”
Harris also made a habit of sticking with his teammates. When Bradshaw got what Harris felt was an illegal late hit from Dallas quarterback Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson in the second half of their Super Bowl meeting after the 1978 season, Harris essentially demanded that Bradshaw give him the ball on the next play. All Harris did was run down the middle 22 yards – straight by Henderson – for a touchdown that gave the Steelers an 11-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish on their way to their third championship in six years.
For all his success, his time in Pittsburgh came to a sharp end when he was cut short by the Steelers after he held out during training camp prior to the 1984 season. Knoll, who had relied on Harris heavily for so long, famously replied “Franco who?” When asked about Harris missing team camp at St. Vincent’s College.
Harris signed with Seattle, where he ran for just 170 yards in eight games before being released mid-season. He retired as the NFL’s third all-time leading rusher behind Walter Payton and Jim Brown.
Harris said in 2006: “I don’t think about it (anymore). I’m still black and gold.”
Harris remained in Pittsburgh after his retirement, opening a bakery and becoming heavily involved in various charities, including serving as chairman of the “Pittsburgh Promise,” which provides college scholarship opportunities to Pittsburgh Public School students.
“I think everyone knows Franco, not only for the work he does on the field but off the field,” Steelers defensive lineman and co-captain Cam Heyward said Wednesday. “I think he was out there making the change happen, participating in everything he could.”
Harris is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanović, and son, Doc.
San Francisco-based AP Pro football writer Josh Dubo contributed to this report.
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