Franco Harris was always friendly, charming, and blunt whenever I spoke with him, which was usually just chatting at various media events. He’d talk about anything and was usually pretty chill, except when the Immaculate Reception came up.
Harris was a staunch supporter of the most stunning, wonderful, and contentious play in NFL history, and possibly in American sports history. Harris was well aware that there was scepticism about the play’s legitimacy, particularly among the then-Oakland Raiders, the victims of that dramatic turn of events, and he defended that moment, that incredible moment that would later launch a dynasty, like a bouncer at a club’s front door.
I once told Harris that the Raiders always claimed that play was illegal.
“The Raiders are full of it,” Harris said in response.
“There was no way that play should have counted,” said Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, who played in that game. But Villapiano has said that to a lot of people. To the Raiders, that play was not only imperfect, but also illegal. According to them, the only thing they received from the game officials was home cooking.
The Raiders despised the result, but that didn’t stop it from counting or Harris from becoming instant, living history. The Steelers would lose the following week in the AFC title game to the undefeated Dolphins, who went 17-0, but the play, whether from heaven or hell, depending on your location, launched the Steelers’ dynasty. The team went on to win four Super Bowls in six seasons and was named the 1970s team of the decade.
Harris died unexpectedly at the age of 72. His death occurred just days before the team planned to retire his No. 32 jersey and commemorate the Immaculate Reception’s 50th anniversary.
That play will be remembered for as long as the NFL exists. That play will be remembered for as long as there is a Pittsburgh International Airport, because Harris’ moment is immortalised in a statue next to a picture of George Washington. Washington only crossed the Delaware; Harris was instrumental in the Steelers becoming a dynasty.
“That day, I was in Section 135. I was eight months old at the time. It’s amusing to me. Surprisingly, I believe I met 75,000 people who were present that day “On Tuesday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin addressed the media. “It’s just one of those beautiful things in our game’s history. It’s humbling to be so close to it, to work for this organisation, to understand its impact on this organisation, the gold-jacket career it spawned in Franco [Harris], what it did for them that season in terms of changing the trajectory of that season, what it’s done for this franchise…”
That play defined Harris’ career and, in some ways, overshadowed his incredible talent. Harris appeared in nine Pro Bowls, was the Super Bowl IX MVP, and was a member of the 1970s All-Decade team.
Harris weighed 230 pounds but was quick and darting. His style would translate well to modern sports.
If you’re one of the six NFL fans who hasn’t seen the Immaculate Reception, you should stop what you’re doing and watch it. Harris’ historic moment occurred during the Raiders’ 7-6 victory in the 1972 playoff game with 22 seconds remaining. The pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw to receiver John Fuqua was deflected as he was being hit. Harris intercepted the pass and scored.
For decades, the Raiders have claimed that Fuqua touched the ball before Harris, which would have rendered the play illegal due to the rule that prohibited two offensive receivers from touching the ball at the time.
“My first thought when Bradshaw threw the ball was to go toward the ball because you never know what’s going to happen,” Harris recently told the Los Angeles Times. “So I started to go to the ball and the next thing I remember was stiff-arming Jimmy Warren along the sideline.
“It blows my mind that I have no visual memory of catching the ball. That was a difficult ball to catch. It simply does not make sense. How did I find it? How did I keep my cool? You don’t normally catch a ball in that manner. If I’d dived for it, I’d have been disqualified because the rules were different back then.”
In the end, Harris is a Hall of Famer who contributed to the formation of a dynasty. Legal or illegal, ball on the ground or not, Harris’ place in history as one of the best will never change. Perhaps that is the most flawless aspect of his story.