Franco Harris has passed away. He was the Hall of Fame runningback who, with his head-up thinking, created the “Immaculate Reception”, which is considered to be the greatest play in NFL history. His age was 72.
Dok Harris, Harris’s son, said Wednesday to The Associated Press that his father had died over night. There was no cause of death.
He died two days prior to the 50th anniversary play that gave the Steelers their breakthrough. Three days earlier, Pittsburgh will be retiring his No. 32. At halftime, the Steelers’ game against Las Vegas Raiders, 32 was honored. Harris was busy during the week leading up to the celebration. He did media interviews Monday on Monday about the moment with which he will always be connected.
Art Rooney II, team president, stated that it was difficult to put into words the impact Franco Harris had on the Steelers, his teammates and the City of Pittsburgh. Franco was a joy for everyone, on and off the pitch, from his first season which saw him receive the Immaculate Reception. Franco never stopped giving back. His impact was immense and his love for others is unmatched.
Harris was a constant fixture of the Steelers community, a team that is known for its excellence and who even retired. Harris’s legacy began when a New Jersey boy saw the ball and ran. Harris would often stop at the Steelers practice facility and chat with Steelers players, even though he wasn’t born until his tragic play.
Coach Mike Tomlin stated, “I admire and love him.” He has a lot to teach us about how he handled himself and how he accepted the responsibility of Franco for Steeler Nation, this community. It was all embraced by him with grace, class, patience and plenty of time for everyone.
Harris ran 12,120 yards, winning four Super Bowl rings in 1970 with the Steelers. This dynasty began when Harris chose to continue running after Terry Bradshaw’s last-second throw in a playoff match against Oakland.
Pittsburgh was trailing 7-6 with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Pittenger faced fourth-and-10 at its 40 yard line. Bradshaw drifted back, and then threw deep for running back Frenchy Fqua. Fuqua collided with Oakland’s defensive back Jack Tatum, sending the ball flying back towards Harris. Officials weren’t able to determine who was behind the deflected pass. Replays of the incident were not conclusive.
Harris, who kept his legs moving while almost everyone on the field stopped, grabbed the ball from just inches above Three Rivers Stadium’s turf at the Oakland 45. He then outran several stunned Raider defenders, giving the Steelers their first playoff win in four decades.
Harris stated that “That play really represents the teams of the 1970s,” Harris added after Harris’ “Immaculate Reception”, which was named the best play in NFL history at the 100th anniversary season, 2020.
Although the Raiders were furious at the time, they eventually accepted their place in NFL history. Phil Villapiano from Oakland, a linebacker, was on Harris’ play and even went to a celebration in 2012 marking the 40th anniversary of the play. There, a small memorial was created that marks the precise location of Harris’ historic catch. Villapiano plans to continue attending Saturday’s jersey retirement ceremony in honor of his ex-rival-turned-friend. He is fine with all the mysteries surrounding what really happened on December 23, 1972 at 3:29 pm.
There are so many ways to look at things. Villapiano stated that nobody will ever be able to figure it out. Let’s just let this go on for ever.”
The Steelers lost the AFC title to Miami the following week, but Pittsburgh was well on its way towards becoming the dominating team of 1970s. It twice won back-to-back Super Bowls after both the 1974-75 and 1978 seasons, and again after 1979 and 1978.
It all started with one play, which changed the fortunes of both a franchise, and in certain ways, even a whole region.
Harris stated that it was hard to believe that it had been fifty years since the team decided to retire Harris’ number. It’s still exciting and thrilling to see it alive. That really speaks volumes. This means so much.
Harris, Penn State’s 6-foot-2 and 230-pound workhorse, was at the centre of the action. Harris ran for an all-time record 158 yards and scored a touchdown during Pittsburgh’s 16-6 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX to earn the Most Valuable Player Award. In each of his four Super Bowls, he scored at least one touchdown. His 354 yards running on the NFL’s largest stage is still a record almost four decades later.
Tony Dungy (Hall of Famer), wrote on Twitter that he was “one of the most kindest and gentlest men” and was a friend of Harris in Pittsburgh. He was an amazing person and a great teammate. He was a Hall of Famer, but much more. “A great role model for me!”
Harris was born in Fort Dix (New Jersey) on March 7, 1950. His primary task as a college player at Penn State was opening holes for Lydell Mitchell, his backfield mate. Harris was selected by the Steelers as the 13th overall selection in 1972, during the last stages of their rebuild under Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll.
Franco Harris was a roommate of mine on road trips. “When (Noll] drafted Franco Harris he gave offense heart, discipline, desire, and he gave them the ability to win in Pittsburgh,” Steelers Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann stated.
Harris had an immediate impact. After running for 1,055 yards with 10 touchdowns, Harris won the NFL’s rookie of the year award in 1972. This was the Steelers second postseason appearance in their history.
Two local businessmen founded “Franco’s Italian Army” to support Harris, a tribute to Harris’ African-American mother and father.
Harris was a superstar because of his “Imaculate Reception”, though Harris preferred that his play speak for itself and his teammates. Harris was the driving force behind Pittsburgh’s offense for 12 years, despite being surrounded by big personalities like Joe Greene, Bradshaw and Jack Lambert.
He ran over 1,000 yards eight times in one season. This was five times during a fourteen-game game schedule. Emmitt Smith was second in all-time with 1,556 yards of rushing, and 16 rushing touchdowns during the playoffs.
Harris, despite his impressive numbers, stressed that he was only one part of an incredible machine that defined greatness.
Harris stated during his Hall of Fame speech of 1990 that “You see that during that era each player brought their little bit to make that wonderful decade possible.” Each player was unique with their individual strengths and weaknesses. They each thought differently, had different methods, had different ways of doing things. It was then that it happened, it became amazing and the best team ever.
Harris made it a point to stand up for his fellow teammates. Harris demanded the ball from Bradshaw when he took what Harris believed was an illegal hit by Dallas’ linebacker Thomas Hollywood Henderson. This happened in the second quarter of the Super Bowl. Harris ran up the middle 22 yard line, right past Henderson for the touchdown. This gave the Steelers an eleven-point advantage that they wouldn’t relinquish as they won their third consecutive championship.
His time with the Steelers ended in discord after he refused to leave training camp prior to the 1984 season. Harris was a long-time friend of Noll’s, and he famously replied “Franco?” to questions about Harris’ absence at Saint Vincent College’s training camp.
Harris was signed by Seattle and ran for only 170 yards eight times before being let go in the middle of the season. Harris retired the NFL’s third-leading rusher, behind Jim Brown and Walter Payton.
Harris stated in 2006 that Harris doesn’t think about it anymore. Harris stated, “I am still black and golden.”
After his retirement Harris was able to stay in Pittsburgh, where he opened a bakery, and became heavily involved with many charities. He also served as chairman of the “Pittsburgh Promise,” which offers college scholarships for students from Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Cam Heyward, Steelers’ defensive lineman and Co-Captain of the Steelers said Wednesday that Franco is well-known by everyone. He was involved in every endeavor he could, making a difference.
Harris’ wife Dana Dokmanovich and their son Dok are his survivors.