PITTSBURGH — The ball fluttered in the air, and all but one of the 22 players on the Three Rivers Stadium turf on that cold December day 50 years ago came to a halt.
Franco Harris never did.
The Pittsburgh Steelers running back kept going, the instincts that carried him through his life both on and off the field during his Hall of Fame career taking over, changing the perception of a dormant franchise and a reeling region in the process.
Prior to his arrival in 1972, the Steelers were rarely victorious. They rarely lost after his shoe-top grab, forever known as the “Immaculate Reception,” entered the lexicon.
Harris, whose foresight resulted in the most iconic play in NFL history, has died. He was 72. Dok Harris, Harris’ son, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his father died overnight. The cause of death was not given.
His death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that catapulted the Steelers from obscurity to the NFL’s elite, and three days before Pittsburgh is set to retire his No. 32 during a halftime ceremony against the Las Vegas Raiders. Harris had been busy in the run-up to the celebration, giving media interviews Monday about a moment to which he will be forever linked.
“It is difficult to find the appropriate words to describe Franco Harris’ impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers, his teammates, the City of Pittsburgh, and Steelers Nation,” team President Art Rooney II said in a statement. “From his rookie season, which included the Immaculate Reception, to 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 people and was loved by so many.”
Even after retiring, Harris remained a fixture in the community and a member of a team whose standard of excellence began with a young kid from New Jersey who saw the ball in the air and kept running. Harris would frequently stop by the Steelers’ practise facility to chat with players who hadn’t even been born when he made his fateful play.
“I just admire and love the man,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “There’s so much to be learned from him in terms of how he conducted himself, how he embraced the responsibilities of being Franco for Steeler Nation, for this community… He accepted it all with grace, class, patience, and time for people.”
Harris rushed for 12,120 yards and four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers in the 1970s, a dynasty that began in earnest when Harris decided to keep running during a last-second heave by Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw in a playoff game against Oakland in 1972.
With Pittsburgh trailing 7-6 and facing fourth-and-10 from its own 40-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Bradshaw drifted back and threw deep to running back Frenchy Fuqua. Fuqua and Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum collided, sending the ball careening back toward midfield in the direction of Harris. Officials were unsure who deflected the pass, and replays were inconclusive.
While nearly everyone else on the field came to a halt, Harris kept his legs churning, snatching the ball just inches above the turf near the Oakland 45, then outracing several stunned Raider defenders to give the Steelers their first playoff victory four decades after founder Art Rooney Sr. brought the still-fledgling NFL to western Pennsylvania.
“That play really represents our teams of the ’70s,” Harris said after the “Immaculate Reception” was voted the greatest play in the league’s first 100 years in 2020.
Though the Raiders protested at the time, they eventually accepted their place in NFL history. Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano, who was covering Harris at the time, even attended a 40th-anniversary celebration of the play in 2012, when a small monument commemorating the exact location of Harris’ catch was unveiled. Villapiano still plans to attend Saturday night’s jersey retirement ceremony for his former rival-turned-friend, and he’s fine with the mystery surrounding what happened at 3:29 p.m. on December 23, 1972.
“There are so many angles and so many things. Nobody will ever figure it out,” Villapiano predicted. “Let it go on forever.”
While the Steelers were defeated in the AFC championship game the following week by Miami, Pittsburgh was on its way to becoming the dominant team of the 1970s, winning back-to-back Super Bowls twice, once 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 franchise and, in some ways, a region.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years, that’s a long time,” Harris said in September, when the team announced his number would be retired. “And to have it so alive, you know, it’s still thrilling and exciting. It says a lot. It means a lot.”
Harris, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound workhorse from Penn State, found himself in the middle of it all. He rushed for 158 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 16-6 victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX, earning him the game’s MVP award. He scored at least once in three of the four Super Bowls he appeared in, and his 354 career yards rushing on the NFL’s biggest stage remains a record nearly four decades after his retirement.
“One of the kindest, gentlest men I have ever known,” Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, Harris’ teammate in Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, wrote on Twitter. “He was a wonderful person and teammate. Hall of Famer, but so much more. “A fantastic role model for me!”
Harris, who was born on March 7, 1950 in Fort Dix, New Jersey, played collegiately at Penn State, where his primary role was to open holes for backfield mate Lydell Mitchell. The Steelers, who were nearing the end of a rebuild led by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, saw enough in Harris to take him 13th overall in the 1972 draught.
“When (Noll) drafted Franco Harris, he gave the offence heart, discipline, desire, and the ability to win a championship in Pittsburgh,” Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann said of his frequent roommate on team road trips.
Harris’ impact was immediate. He was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1972 after rushing for a then-team-record 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Steelers made the playoffs for the second time.
The city’s large Italian-American population embraced Harris immediately, led by two local businessmen who founded what became known as “Franco’s Italian Army,” a nod to Harris’ roots as the son of an African-American father and an Italian mother.
Though “Immaculate Reception” made Harris famous, he preferred to let his play, not his mouth, do the talking. On a team that included big personalities like Bradshaw, defensive tackle Joe Greene, and linebacker Jack Lambert, among others, the intensely quiet Harris spent 12 seasons as the engine that powered Pittsburgh’s offence.
He ran for 1,000 yards eight times in a season, including five times while playing a 14-game schedule. He added 1,556 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns in the playoffs, both of which rank second all-time behind Emmitt Smith.
Despite his impressive numbers, Harris stressed that he was just one cog in an extraordinary machine that redefined greatness.
“You see, during that era, each player brought their own little piece with them to make that wonderful decade happen,” Harris said during his Hall of Fame speech in 1990. “Each player had their own strengths and weaknesses, their own way of thinking, their own method, just each, each had their own. But then it was incredible; it all came together and stayed together to form the greatest team of all time.”
Harris also made it a point to speak up for his teammates. When Bradshaw took what Harris considered an illegal late hit from Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson in the second half of their 1978 Super Bowl meeting, Harris basically demanded that Bradshaw give him the ball on the next play. All Harris had to do was sprint up the middle 22 yards — right by Henderson — for a touchdown that gave the Steelers an 11-point lead they would not relinquish on their way to their third championship in six years.
Despite his success, his time in Pittsburgh was cut short when he refused to report to training camp before the 1984 season. Noll, who had relied so heavily on Harris for so long, famously responded, “Franco who?” when asked about Harris’ absence from the team’s camp.
Harris signed with Seattle and ran for 170 yards in eight games before being released in midseason. He retired as the NFL’s third all-time leading rusher, trailing only Walter Payton and Jim Brown.
“I don’t even think about it anymore,” Harris said in 2006. “I’m still black and gold.”
Harris stayed in Pittsburgh after retiring, opening a bakery and becoming heavily involved in several charities, including serving as chairman of “Pittsburgh Promise,” which provides college scholarships to Pittsburgh Public School students.
“I think everybody knows Franco, not just for the work he did on the field, but off the field,” Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward said on Wednesday. “I believe he was there making a difference, getting involved in everything he could.”
Harris is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and son Dok.