Steelers great Franco Harris is remembered for the iconic Immaculate Reception — and so much more
Former Steelers running back Franco Harris, author of the most famous play in NFL history and one of the greatest players in franchise history, has died at 72.
Harris passed away just days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and celebrations that were planned in his honor leading up to Saturday’s game against the Raiders at Acrisure Stadium.
Harris learned earlier this year the Steelers planned to retire his No. 32 jersey as part of the 50th anniversary celebration. He is only the third player in franchise history to have his number retired, joining legendary Steelers and Pro Football Hall of Famers “Mean Joe” Greene and Ernie Stautner.
“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,” Steelers 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’ impact on the Steelers cannot be understated. The Steelers were lovable losers before Harris arrived as a rookie first-round pick in 1972.
From 1950-71, the Steelers had just four winning seasons. But during Harris’ 12 seasons with the team they were 121-51-1 during the regular season and 14-6 in the playoffs. From 1974-79, the Steelers were 13-2 in the postseason and won Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV.
“Before Franco, we hadn’t done very much, and after Franco we didn’t do much, either,” Greene said earlier this year. “But during Franco we did a lot.”
Greene arrived in 1969 as a No. 1 pick. Terry Bradshaw and Jack Ham were drafted in 1970 and 1971, respectively. But the Steelers didn’t become winners until Harris arrived.
After a standout career at Penn State, Harris burst onto the scene in 1972 was named NFL offensive rookie of the year after rushing for 1,055 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns.
Almost instantly, Harris became a fan favorite. His popularity in Pittsburgh’s Italian-American community spawned “Franco’s Italian Army”, a fan group that would famously induct Frank Sinatra as a 1-star general into their army just six days before the Immaculate Reception. The Steelers were in Palm Springs, Calif. for a week’s worth of warm-weather practices before their final game of the regular season against the San Diego Chargers.
The Steelers beat the Chargers, 24-2, a few days later to finish the regular season 11-3 and claimed their first division title in franchise history. It was the beginning of the greatest era in Steelers history.
The Immaculate Reception took place Dec. 23, 1972, at Three Rivers Stadium. (See the original NFL broadcast from Dec. 23, 1972.) The Steelers trailed the Raiders 7-6 in the final minute of an AFC playoff game after Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler scored with 1:13 to go in the fourth quarter.
On 4th-and-10 with 22 seconds on the clock, the Steelers called the play “66 circle option.” The pass protection broke down, Bradshaw had to escape the pocket and threw a desperation pass down the middle of the field to Frenchy Fuqua.
Raiders safety Jack Tatum broke up the pass, but Harris followed the play, caught the deflected ball off his shoe-strings and rambled for a 60-yard touchdown that won the game and put the Steelers in the AFC championship game for the first time.
“I can’t remember from leaving the backfield to running down the sideline; I remember leaving the backfield, but I don’t remember anything in between,” Harris told the Post-Gazette in 2012. “My mind is completely blank. I can’t tell you if I saw the ball, or if I saw anything or if I knew what actually happened. It baffles my mind. What I knew, once I had it was, ‘run!’
“As athletes, this is something we all know. You can’t think, you train yourself just to react. If you have time to think, it’s too slow. If you can think about that, it’s done.”
The Immaculate Reception remains the most iconic play in NFL history both for its improbable nature and what it meant to the Steelers. Even though the Steelers lost the AFC championship game to Miami the following week, it served as the catalyst for the Steelers winning four Super Bowls in a six-year span.
“After ’72, we won four Super Bowls in six years,” Greene said. “I think it gave us the confidence, and a level of expertise and experience, that we could play against anybody at any time and compete for a championship.”
Harris played a vital role in all of those Super Bowl wins. He set the Super Bowl record for rushing yards in a game in Super Bowl IX when he churned out 158 yards in the Steelers’ 16-6 victory against the Vikings. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
In four Super Bowls, Harris scored four touchdowns and averaged 117 yards rushing and receiving. He still holds Super Bowl records for most rushing yards (354) and rushing attempts (101) in the game’s history.
In Super Bowl X, Harris had 108 total yards in a 21-17 victory for the Steelers. He was the game’s leading rusher with 82 yards and also reeled in a 26-yard reception in the fourth quarter.
In Super Bowl XIV, Harris scored the first and last touchdowns for the Steelers. His 1-yard plunge with 1:49 remaining put the finishing touches on the 31-19 victory against the Rams.
“For me, Franco was one of the greatest money backs of all time,” former Steelers defensive lineman John Banaszak said. “When the game was on the line, when the games got more important, when the championship was on the line the better Franco Harris was.”
Harris’ favorite Super Bowl was his least productive. It was Super Bowl XIII against Dallas.
Harris was held to 68 yards rushing, but he made one of the biggest plays to help the Steelers secure their third Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers were clinging to a 21-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter and were in Dallas territory after a 33-yard pass interference penalty. After Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson hit quarterback Terry Bradshaw after the whistle, the usually mild-mannered Harris got into a verbal confrontation with Henderson.
Henderson had been in the news all week for his taunts of Bradshaw, including the infamous quote that Bradshaw was so dumb he could not have spelled cat if he was spotted the c and the a.
On the next play, a 3rd-and-9 from the Dallas 22, Bradshaw called an audible at the line of scrimmage. Harris took the handoff from Bradshaw and raced into the end zone for a 28-17 lead en route to a 35-31 victory (see video of Harris’ touchdown).
“I kind of liked the situation in Super Bowl XIII with Thomas Henderson, that whole situation where he was taunting Bradshaw,” Harris told the Post-Gazette in 2014. “We had our words, and then Bradshaw calls my play and we score. That whole situation, with so much happening with Henderson and Bradshaw that week, I enjoyed that moment.”
Harris only missed one playoff game in his 13-year career, the 1976 AFC championship game in Oakland after getting injured in a playoff game the previous week against the Colts. In 19 postseason contests with Harris in the backfield, he rushed for 1,556 yards and scored 17 times in those games.
Harris finished his career with 12,120 yards and 120 touchdowns. After a contract dispute in the summer of 1984, the Steelers released Harris during training camp. He signed with the Seattle Seahawks and played in eight games for them before he retired.
The late Dan Rooney, former Steers president and chairman, said one of his biggest regrets was allowing Harris to leave the Steelers. Harris and Rooney mended their relationship and Harris became a fixture in Pittsburgh after his retirement.
Harris was a three-time All-Pro and was named to the Pro Bowl nine times. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
“The entire team at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is immensely saddened today,” Hall of Fame president Jim Porter said in a statement. “We have lost an incredible football player, an incredible ambassador to the Hall and most importantly, we have lost one of the finest gentlemen anyone will ever meet. Franco not only impacted the game of football, but he also affected the lives of many, many people in profoundly positive ways. The Hall of Fame and historians everywhere will tell Franco’s football story forever. His life story can never be told fully, however, without including his greatness off the field.”
In retirement, Harris operated a bakery business. He partnered with former Penn State teammate Lydell Mitchell and ran Super Bakery, which later became R Super Foods, a food distribution business that provides healthy goods for schoolchildren. He also gave his time and money to a number of charities, including work as chairman of Pittsburgh Promise, which provides college scholarship opportunities for Pittsburgh Public School students.
For years during every Super Bowl week, Harris and Mitchell played host to the Immaculate Reception and Dinner, an event that raised money for charities.
“He was the pied piper,” said Joe Gordon, the longtime Steelers public relations director and close friend of Harris. “If anyone ever came to him for charity, he would do it. He never said no. He was a very special person. As great as he was on the field no one could ever match who he was off the field.”
Harris was charitable and accessible from the time he arrived in Pittsburgh. During his rookie season, the Steelers received word from Children’s Hospital that a young Steelers fan had a terminal illness and wanted to meet a Steelers player. Gordon went into the locker room after practice and asked if anyone could go.
“After a few moments of silence, Franco said he would go,” Gordon said. “That was typical of him. That’s who he was.”
Harris is survived by his wife, Dana, and his son, Dok.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.