PITTSBURGH (AP) — Franco Harris, the Hall of Fame running back whose head-to-head thinking authored the “Immaculate Receptionconsidered the most iconic play in NFL history, has died. He was 72 years old.
Harris’s 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 shakeup that helped transform the Steelers from running backs to the NFL’s elite and three days before Pittsburgh retires its No. 32. during a ceremony at halftime of their game against the Los Vegas Raiders. Harris had been busy in the lead up to the celebration, giving interviews to the media on Monday to talk about a moment he is forever linked 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 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 was loved by so many.”
Harris rushed 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 try by Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. in a playoff game against Oakland in 1972. .
With Pittsburgh trailing 7-6 and facing fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Bradshaw dropped back and threw deep to running back Frenchy Fuqua. Fuqua and Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum collided, sending the ball up midfield in the direction of Harris. Game officials weren’t sure who deflected the pass; replicates were inconclusive.
While nearly everyone else on the field stopped, Harris kept his legs agitated, snatching the ball just inches above the turf of Three Rivers Stadium near Oakland 45, then past several stunned Raiders defenders to give it a shot. the Steelers their first playoff win in the franchise’s four games. history of the decade
“That play really represents our teams from the ’70s,” Harris said after the “Immaculate Catch” was voted the greatest play in NFL history. during the league’s centenary season in 2020.
Although the Raiders grumbled at the time, they came to terms with their role in NFL history somewhat over time. Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano, who was covering Harris on the play, even attended the 40th anniversary celebration of the play in 2012, when a small memorial was unveiled commemorating the exact location of the catch that altered baseball history. Harris. Villapiano still plans to attend Saturday night’s jersey retirement ceremony for his former rival-turned-friend, and he’s okay with the mystery still surrounding what really happened at 3:29 p.m. on December 23, 1972. .
“There are so many angles and so many things. No one will notice that,” Villapiano said. “Let’s leave it like this forever.”
While the Steelers fell the following week to Miami in the AFC championship, Pittsburgh was on its way to becoming the dominant team of the 1970s, winning two straight Super Bowls, first after the 1974 and 1975 seasons and again. after 1978. and 1979 seasons.
And it all started with a move that changed the fortunes 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 his number. “And to have it so alive, you know, it’s still exciting and exciting. It really says a lot. It means a lot.”
Harris, Penn State’s 6-foot-2, 230-pound workhorse, found himself at the center of it all. He had a then-record 158 rushing yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 16-6 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX on his way to winning the game’s Most Valuable Player award. He’s scored at least once in three of the four Super Bowls he’s played in, and his career 354 rushing yards on the NFL’s biggest stage remain a record nearly four decades after his retirement. the.
“One of the kindest, gentlest men I’ve ever met,” Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, a Pittsburgh teammate of Harris’s in the late 1970s, posted on Twitter. “He was a great person and a great teammate. Hall of Fame player, but much more than that. A tremendous role model for me!”
Born in Fort Dix, New Jersey, on March 7, 1950, Harris played at the collegiate level at Penn State, where his primary job was opening holes for fellow outfielder Lydell Mitchell. The Steelers, in the final stages of a rebuild led by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, saw enough in Harris to make him the 13th pick in the 1972 draft.
“When (Noll) drafted Franco Harris, he gave the offense heart, gave it discipline, gave it desire, gave it the ability to win a championship in Pittsburgh,” said Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann. Steelers, about his frequent roommates on team road trips.
Harris’s impact was immediate. He won the NFL Rookie of the Year award in 1972 after rushing for a team-record rookie 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Steelers reached the postseason for the second time in franchise history.
The city’s large Italian-American population immediately embraced Harris, led by two local businessmen who founded what became known as “Franco’s Italian Army,” a nod to Harris’ roots as the son of an African-American father and an Italian mother. .
The “Immaculate Reception” made Harris a star, though he normally preferred to let his game do the talking. On a team that featured big names like Bradshaw, defensive tackle Joe Greene and linebacker Jack Lambert, among others, the intensely silent Harris spent 12 seasons as the driving force behind Pittsburgh’s offense.
Eight times he topped 1,000 rushing yards in a season, including five times while playing a 14-game schedule. He had an additional 1,556 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in the playoffs, both second all-time behind Smith.
Despite his flashy numbers, Harris emphasized that he was just a cog in an extraordinary machine that redefined greatness.
“You see, during that era, every player brought his own little piece to make that wonderful decade a reality,” Harris said during his Hall of Fame speech in 1990. “Every player had his strengths and weaknesses, each his own thinking. , each his own method, only each, each had his own. But then it was amazing, it all came together and stayed together to forge the greatest team of all time.”
Harris also made it a habit to defend his teammates. When Bradshaw took what Harris felt was an illegal late hit by Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson in the second half of their Super Bowl meeting after the 1978 season, Harris basically demanded that Bradshaw give him the ball at the next play. All Harris did was run down the middle 22-yard line, right next to Henderson, for a touchdown that gave the Steelers an 11-point lead they wouldn’t lose en route to their third championship in six years.
For all his success, his time in Pittsburgh ended acrimoniously when the Steelers released him after he held out during training camp before the 1984 season. Noll, who leaned so heavily on Harris for so long, responded, “Franco who?” when asked about Harris’ absence from the team’s camp at Saint Vincent College.
Harris signed with Seattle, rushing for just 170 yards in eight games before being released midseason. He retired as the NFL’s third all-time running back behind Walter Payton and Jim Brown.
“I don’t even think about it anymore,” Harris said in 2006. “I’m still black and gold.”
Harris remained in Pittsburgh after his retirement, opening a bakery and becoming heavily involved in various charities, including serving as president of the “Pittsburgh Promise,” which provides college scholarship opportunities for Pittsburgh Public School students.
Reflecting on Harris’ legacy on the Tuesday before Harris’ death, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called it “an honor to be around him, to know the man involved.”
Harris is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and their son Dok.
AP professional soccer writer Josh Dubow in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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