Franco Harris, the Hall of Fame running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers whose heady thinking created the “Immaculate Reception,” maybe the most iconic play in NFL history, died on Tuesday. He was 72.
Harris gave an interview to the “Not Just Football with Cam Heyward” podcast the day he died, where he discussed the 50-year anniversary of the famous play.
What Is The “Immaculate Reception”?
“50 years. C’mon, that’s a long time, but I’m still around to enjoy it, so that’s good,” 72-year-old Harris said with a big smile.
Harris described the play and revealed to Heyward what the play call was and what his responsibility on the play was. In a divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 23, 1972, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw called 66 halfback option with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter and Pittsburgh trailing 7-6. Harris was supposed to support the offensive line and be an extra blocker on the play, which was a fourth-and-10 from the Steelers’ 40 yard line.
But you can see Harris just standing in the backfield as the pocket collapses and breaks down. Bradshaw evades the oncoming rush and throws the ball downfield. As the play broke down and Bradshaw threw the ball, Harris said he remembered the words of his college head coach Joe Paterno to “run to the ball.”
Harris did and ended up in the right spot to catch a ball that ricocheted off the receiver and into his hands as he galloped into the end zone for the winning score.
The play never would’ve happened if Harris had been blocking like he was supposed to.
But that play led to the Steelers’ first-ever playoff win and set in motion one of the great dynasties in NFL history. The Steelers would go on to win four Super Bowl titles in the decade.
“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,” said Steelers president Art Rooney II 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. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Dana, his son Dok, and his extended family at this difficult time.”
Who Was Franco Harris?
Harris was a member of those four championship teams, earning Super Bowl IX MVP honors in the 1974 season.
“We are shocked and saddened to learn of the unexpected passing of Franco Harris,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement. “He meant so much to Steelers fans as the Hall of Fame running back who helped form the nucleus of the team’s dynasty of the ’70s, but he was much more. He was a gentle soul who touched so many in the Pittsburgh community and throughout the entire NFL. Franco changed the way people thought of the Steelers, of Pittsburgh, and of the NFL. He will forever live in the hearts of Steelers fans everywhere, his teammates, and the city of Pittsburgh. Our condolences go out to his wife, Dana, and their son, Dok.”
He was the NFL offensive rookie of the year in 1972, a three-time All-Pro, nine-time Pro-Bowl selection, NFL Man of the Year, the rushing touchdowns leader in 1976, and a member of the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team. He is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Honor and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Harris finished his career with 12,120 rushing yards and 91 rushing touchdowns.