Franco Harris, a running back in the Hall of Fame whose quick thinking produced “The Immaculate Reception,” regarded as the most famous play in NFL history, has passed away. He was 72.
Dok Harris, Harris’ son, told The Associated Press that his father died overnight. The reason of death was not disclosed.
Two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that gave the Steelers the boost they needed to become one of the NFL’s finest teams, and three days before Pittsburgh was set to honour him by retiring his No. 32 at a ceremony at halftime of its game against the Las Vegas Raiders, he passed away.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, Harris ran for 12,120 yards and earned four Super Bowl titles. This dynasty started in earnest when Harris made the decision to continue running during a last-second heave by Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw in a playoff game against Oakland in 1972.
With 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter and Pittsburgh down 7-6 on a fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line, Bradshaw drifted back and hit running back French Fuqua with a long pass. As a result of the collision between Fuqua and Jack Tatum, an Oakland defensive back, the ball careened back toward midfield in Harris’ direction.
The Steelers’ first playoff victory in the team’s four-decade history came when Harris kept his legs moving while almost everyone else on the field stopped. Harris grabbed the ball just inches above the Three Rivers Stadium turf near the Oakland 45 before outpacing several dumbfounded Raider defenders.
After the “Immaculate Reception” was chosen as the best play in NFL history during the league’s 100th anniversary season in 2020, Harris commented, “That play really embodies our teams of the ’70s.”
Pittsburgh was on its way to being the dominant team of the 1970s, winning back-to-back Super Bowls twice, first after the 1974 and 1975 seasons and then once more after the 1978 and 1979 seasons, even though the Steelers lost to Miami in the AFC Championship the following week.
Harris, a workhorse from Penn State who stands at 6-foot-2 and weighs 230 pounds, found himself in the middle of it all. In Super Bowl IX, Pittsburgh defeated Minnesota 16-6, and he rushed for a then-record 158 yards and a score on the way to taking home the game’s MVP honours. In three of the four Super Bowls he participated in, he scored at least once, and nearly four decades after his retirement, his 354 career running yards on the NFL’s grandest stage are still a record.
Harris, who was born on March 7, 1950, in Fort Dix, New Jersey, played college football at Penn State, where his main responsibility was to create openings for his teammate Lydell Mitchell. In the 1972 NFL Draft, Harris was selected with the 13th overall choice by the Steelers, who were in the midst of a reconstruction under the direction of Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll.
The offence gained heart, discipline, drive, and the capacity to win a title in Pittsburgh when Franco Harris was selected by Noll, according to Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann, who frequently shared a hotel room with the team when on the road.
Harris had an instant effect. Following his 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns of rushing in 1972, when the Steelers made the playoffs for just the second time in the team’s history, he was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.
The city’s sizable Italian-American community welcomed Harris with open arms, led by two local businessmen who established “Franco’s Italian Army,” a tribute to Harris’ heritage as the son of an Italian mother and an African-American father.
Harris became famous after the “Immaculate Reception,” despite the fact that he normally liked to let his play, rather than his words, do the talking. The incredibly quiet Harris spent 12 seasons as the backbone of Pittsburgh’s offence on a squad that had huge personalities like Bradshaw, defensive end Joe Greene, and linebacker Jack Lambert, among others.
He over 1,000 yards in rushing eight times throughout a season, five of those occasions while playing a 14-game schedule. In the postseason, he added another 1,556 yards and 16 running touchdowns, placing him second all-time behind Smith in both categories.
Harris emphasised that despite his dazzling stats, he was only one part of a remarkable machine that redefined excellence.
Harris remarked during his Hall of Fame speech in 1990, “You see, throughout that era, each player took their own small piece with them to make that magnificent decade happen.” “Each player had their own unique thinking, style, and methods in addition to their strengths and shortcomings. But then it was incredible; everything came together and remained in place to create the greatest squad in history.”
Harris also developed the habit of defending his teammates. In the second half of their matchup in the 1978 Super Bowl, Bradshaw received what Harris saw to be an unsportsmanlike late hit from Dallas defender Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, and Harris essentially demanded Bradshaw hand him the ball on the following play.
All Harris had to do to give the Steelers an 11-point lead they wouldn’t give up on route to their third title in six years was dash up the middle for 22 yards, right by Henderson.
Despite all of his accomplishments, his tenure in Pittsburgh came to a bitter end when the Steelers released him after he refused to participate in training camp ahead of the 1984 season. When asked about Harris’ absence from the team’s training camp at Saint Vincent College, Noll, who relied on Harris so heavily for so long, famously said, “Franco who?”
Harris joined Seattle and ran for only 170 yards in eight games before being let go in the middle of the season. He retired as the third-most prolific runner in NFL history, after only Jim Brown and Walter Payton.
Harris stated in 2006, “I don’t even think about that (anymore).” I remain in the black and gold.
Following his retirement, Harris stayed in Pittsburgh and opened a bakery. He also got deeply active in a number of organisations, notably “Pittsburgh Promise,” which offers college scholarships to kids at Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Dok and his wife Dana Dokmanovich, who Franco Harris left behind, are still alive.