Franco Harris, NFL And Pittsburgh Steelers Legend, Dies at 72

The star running back is best remembered for the ‘Immaculate Reception’ in a 1972 playoff game, voted the top play in NFL history.

Legendary Pittsburgh Steelers star running back Franco Harris, remembered for his iconic 1972 “Immaculate Reception” play, has died. He was 72.

The Hall of Fame player’s son, Franco “Dok” Harris, said his father died overnight, the Associated Press reported Wednesday (Dec. 21). No cause of death was given.

Harris’ death comes poignantly three days before the 50th anniversary of his “Immaculate Reception” during a divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. In 2019, the NFL Network named it the top play in the 100 years of the league.

On Dec. 23, 1972, the Steelers had just 22 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh trailed Oakland 7-6 and faced a fourth-and-10 from their own 40 yard line. It seemed like the game was over. But Harris made an amazing heads-up play when all seemed lost, handing Pittsburgh its first playoff victory that many consider the game that marks the beginning of the team’s dominance in the 1970s.

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a desperation pass to running back John William "Frenchy" Fuqua, covered by Oakland’s defensive back Jack Tatum, that deflected toward the ground. Harris alertly scooped up the ball, inches from the ground, and dashed past stunned Oakland defensive players to score the game-winning touchdown with five seconds left on the clock.

Although Pittsburgh lost to the Miami Dolphins the following week, the Steelers went on to win four Super Bowls in that era: 1975, 1976, 1979 and 1980.

Harris’ death also comes days before Pittsburgh planned to retire his No. 32 jersey number at a halftime ceremony Saturday against the Las Vegas Raiders, reported.

"I am thrilled we are going to honor Franco with this recognition by retiring his No. 32 jersey," Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. "This is the 50th anniversary of one of the most memorable plays in NFL history; one that changed the course of our success with his 'Immaculate Reception' in 1972. My grandfather was once quoted as saying: 'Before Franco got here, we didn't win much; Since he got here, we don't lose.' I think that sums it up pretty good.”

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Harris was born in Fort Dix, N.J. to an African American father and Italian mother. He played college football at Penn State, overshadowed by teammate Lydell Mitchell who went on to play for the Baltimore Colts and other NFL teams.

But Steelers head coach Chuck Noll saw Harris’ potential and picked the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Harris in the final stages of the 1972 draft.

Harris was an immediate success. He earned the coveted NFL Rookie of the Year award in 1972, a season in which he rushed for 1,055 yards (a team record at the time) and 10 touchdowns.

According to the NFL Hall of Fame, Harris played for 13 seasons, 12 of them with the Seelers and the final season with the Seattle Seahawks. He amassed 12,120 yards on 2,949 rushes and scored 91 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.

Remembering Franco Harris, An Immaculate Pro Football Life

Scores of people paid tribute to Harris on social media.

Former NFL head coach Tony Dungy wrote: “Woke up this morning to the devastating news that my friend Franco Harris passed away during the night. One of the kindest, gentlest men I have ever known. 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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