PITTSBURGH (AP) — Franco Harris, the Hall of Fame running back whose heads-up thinking authored “ The Immaculate Reception,” considered the most iconic play in NFL history, has died. He was 72.
Harris’ son, Dok, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his father died overnight. No cause of death was given.
His death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that provided the jolt that helped transform the Steelers from also-rans into the NFL’s elite and three days before Pittsburgh is scheduled to retire his No. 32 during a ceremony at halftime of its game against the Las Vegas Raiders. Harris had been busy in the run-up to the celebration, doing media interviews on Monday to talk about a moment to which he is 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, through 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, and he was loved by so many.”
Harris ran for 12,120 yards and won four Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, a dynasty that began in earnest when Harris decided to keep running during a last-second heave by Steelers 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 and 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.
While nearly everyone else on the field stopped, Harris kept his legs churning, snatching the ball just inches above the Three Rivers Stadium turf near the Oakland 45, then outracing several stunned Raider defenders to give the Steelers their first playoff victory in the franchise’s four-decade history. Though the Raiders cried foul play in the moment, over time they somewhat embraced their role in NFL lore. Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano, who was covering Harris on the play, even attended a 40th-anniversary celebration of the play in 2012, when a small monument commemorating the exact location of Harris’ history-altering catch took place.
“That play really represents our teams of the ’70s,” Harris said after the ”Immaculate Reception” was voted the greatest play in NFL history during the league’s 100th anniversary season in 2020.
While the Steelers fell the next week to Miami in the AFC championship, Pittsburgh was on its way to becoming the dominant team of the 1970s, twice winning back-to-back Super Bowls, first after the 1974 and 1975 seasons and again after the 1978 and 1979 seasons.
And it all began with a play that shifted 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 it would retire his number. “And to have it so alive, you know, is still thrilling and exciting. It really says a lot. It means a lot.”
Harris, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound workhorse from Penn State, found himself in the center of it all. He churned for a then-record 158 yards rushing and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 16-6 victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX on his way to winning the game’s Most Valuable Player award. He scored at least once in three of the four Super Bowls he played 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, a teammate of Harris’ in Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, posted on Twitter. “He was a great person & great teammate. Hall of Fame player but so much more than that. A tremendous role model for me!”
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