Chance sometimes does things badly. Three days before the Pittsburgh Steelers retired his jersey, legendary Steelers running back Franco Harris died at the age of 72.
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Harris’ cause of death is currently unknown, but the Hall of Famer was expected to be in Pittsburgh this weekend.
On Saturday, the Steelers will face the Raiders, and for the occasion the NFL wanted to highlight the 50e anniversary of the famous game “Immaculate Reception”, which made Harris famous in his rookie season, December 23, 1972.
In a playoff matchup at the time, the same two teams faced off and the Raiders seemed to be racing to the Conference Finals with a slim 7-6 lead.
In the dying seconds of the game, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua, but defensive back Jack Tatum got in the way. The ball ricocheted far back and Harris grabbed it low to the ground to race towards the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
In 2020, for the centennial of the NFL, the “Immaculate Reception” was crowned the most significant game in the history of the circuit.
To the point where at the Pittsburgh airport, the first thing that greets visitors is a statue of Harris grabbing the ball that made him famous.
The game had caused a stir in the NFL since the technological means of the time did not make it possible to clearly see whether Fuqua or Tatum had touched the ball. By rule, Harris could not recover the pass if his teammate had touched the ball first.
There’s also no clear replay to see if Harris grabbed the ball before it hit the ground. Officials determined the Raiders player touched the ball and Harris picked it up mid-air.
This game was the precursor to the Steelers dynasty, which in the following years won the Super Bowl four times in six years, between 1974 and 1979, with Harris as the driving force on offense.
Photo archives, AFP
Pittsburgh Steelers legend Franco Harris in the NFL Draft last April.
Much more than a game
If the “Immaculate Reception” made Harris famous, he did more than this game to make his place among the immortals.
The Steelers’ No. 32 rushed for 12,120 yards, ranking him 15th in NFL history. At the time of his retirement, he was third all-time. He is at 11e echelon in running backs with 91 rushing touchdowns.
He has repeatedly shone in the playoffs with 17 touchdowns in 19 games. In Super Bowl 9, against the Minnesota Vikings on January 12, 1975, he was named the game’s most valuable player with 158 rushing yards and a touchdown.
In four Super Bowl games, the fullback set records with 101 carries for 354 yards. He scored a touchdown in each of those games.
A rare honor
Although the Steelers franchise is rich in history, only two players have had their numbers retired to date, “Mean” Joe Greene’s 75 and Ernie Stautner’s 70.
Number 32 has never been worn by another player since Harris left. The numbers of a few other legends have not been worn either, without having been officially retired.
This is particularly the case for Terry Bradshaw (12), Jerome Bettis (36), Troy Polamalu (43), Mel Blount (47) and Mike Webster (52).
“I am delighted to honor Franco by retiring his number 32 jersey. It will be the 50e anniversary of a memorable game that changed the course of our history in 1972. Franco’s impact on our franchise is hard to imagine. The time to recognize his remarkable career is fitting, December 24,” team president Art Rooney II mentioned in September at the time of the announcement.
It is infinitely sad that this moment does not take place in the presence of Harris.