Franco Harris, a running back in the Pro Football Hall of Fame whose presence of mind gave birth to the ” Immaculate Reception , a game considered the most unforgettable in the history of the National Football League, has died. He was 72 years old.
Her son Dok told The Associated Press Wednesday that Harris passed away overnight. The cause of death was not specified.
His death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of the game that would help transform the Pittsburgh Steelers from mediocre training to elite NFL club. It also comes three days before a ceremony in which the Steelers must retire his number 32 jersey, during halftime of Saturday night’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Harris had been kept busy heading into the ceremony, giving interviews Monday to talk about a moment he’s forever tied to.
“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 community. ‘Steelers Nation‘” team president Art Rooney II said in a press release.
“From his rookie season, which includes theImmaculate Reception‘, and for the next 50 years, Franco brought joy to people on and off the pitch. He never stopped giving in so many ways. He touched so many people and was loved by so many people. »
Throughout his career, Harris rushed for 12,120 yards and contributed to four Super Bowl wins for the Steelers during the 1970s.
In fact, the Steelers dynasty of the ’70s was born the day Harris decided to keep running in what was the last play of a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders in 1972.
The Steelers trailed 7-6 and faced a fourth down and 10 yards to go from their 40-yard line with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
After receiving the ball from his center, quarterback Terry Bradshaw took a few steps back and made a pass towards running back Frenchy Fuqua, posted in the middle of the field.
As the ball got to him, Fuqua collided with defensive back Jack Tatum, swerving the ball not far away, in the direction Harris was heading. The referees on the field were unsure who deflected the ball. The covers could not answer the question.
When just about every other player had stopped moving, Harris kept his legs moving and grabbed the ball inches from the artificial surface of the Three Rivers Stadium — home of the Steelers at the time — near the Raiders’ 45-yard line.
Harris then outrun several bewildered Raiders defensive players into the end zone, giving the Steelers their first playoff win in franchise history, some 40 years after entering the league.
“This game really represents our teams from the 70s,” Harris said after the “ Immaculate Reception would have been selected the greatest play in NFL history, on the sidelines of the league’s 100th season in 2020.
Statement from Steelers President Art Rooney II on the passing of Franco Harris: pic.twitter.com/5Ojd5Uatvr
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers)
December 21, 2022
Although the Raiders cried foul in the moment, they’ve come to terms with their place in NFL legend somewhat. Linebacker Phil Villapiano, who watched Harris on the streak, even attended the game’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2012, where a small monument commemorating the exact location of Harris’ historic catch was erected.
Villapiano still plans to attend his former rival-turned-friend’s jersey retirement ceremony on Saturday night, and he’s comfortable today with all the mystery that continues to surround what happened at 3:29 p.m. on December 23. 1972.
“There are so many angles, so many elements. No one will find an answer. Let’s let go (this game) for eternity,” Villapiano said.
Although they lost the following week to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Finals, the Steelers had just begun a journey that would make them the most dominant team of the 1970s.
During this decade, the Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls on two separate occasions, first in the 1974 and 1975 seasons, and then after the 1978 and 1979 seasons.
And it all started with a game that changed the fate of a franchise and, in a way, 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 it was retiring its old number.
“And to see that (this game) is still so alive, it’s exciting and exciting. That really says a lot. It means a lot. »
Harris, an indefatigable six-foot-two, 230-pound worker, found himself in the thick of those golden times.
He rushed for 158 yards — a Super Bowl record at the time — and scored a touchdown in the Steelers’ 16-6 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX on January 12, 1975. Harris had been named Most Valuable Player of the game.
He has scored at least one touchdown in three of the four Super Bowl games he has appeared in, and his 354 rushing yards on the most prestigious stage in American football remains an NFL record, almost four decades after he had retired.
Born in Fort Dix, New Jersey on March 7, 1950, Harris played his college football at Penn State, where his main role was to create gaps for teammate Lydell Mitchell.
While in the final stages of a rebuild led by head coach Chuck Noll, the Steelers had seen enough good things from Harris to choose him 13th overall in the 1972 draft.
“When (Noll) picked Franco Harris, he gave offense heart, he gave him discipline, he gave him desire, he gave him the skill to win a championship in Pittsburgh,” said former wide receiver Lynn Swann, who often shared a hotel room with Harris during the team’s overseas games.
Harris’ impact was instantaneous. He was named the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1972 after rushing for 1,055 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns. His performances helped the Steelers advance to the playoffs for only the second time in club history.
L'” Immaculate Reception made Harris a star player, although he always preferred to let his game do the talking. Harris spent 12 seasons as the Steelers’ offensive engine.
He had eight seasons with rushing 1,000+ yards, including five when teams were playing 14 games a year. He added 1,556 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in playoff games, two categories where he ranks second in league history behind Emmitt Smith, the former Dallas Cowboys.
Despite all of his success, Harris’ time in Pittsburgh ended acrimoniously when the Steelers cut him after he chose to strike during training camp prior to the 1984 season.
Noll, who had trusted Harris so often and for so long, famously replied, “Franco who? when asked about Harris’ absence from training camp.
Harris joined the Seahawks from Seattle but had just 170 yards in eight games before being released mid-season.
When he retired, he was third in rushing yards in NFL history, behind Walter Payton and Jim Brown.
“I don’t think about that anymore. I’m always Black and Gold,” Harris said in 2006, referring to the Steelers colors.