Franco Harris, Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers running back, dies at 72

NFL stars from the 1970s accomplished the “Immaculate Reception,” which was rated the best play in league history.

Franco Harris stands next to a statue of himself at Pittsburgh international airport in 2019.
Franco Harris stands next to a statue of himself at Pittsburgh international airport in 2019. Photograph: Nate Guidry/AP

The “Immaculate Reception,” regarded as the most famous play in NFL history, was the result of Franco Harris’ quick thinking as a Hall of Fame running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was 72.

Dok Harris, Harris’ son, claimed that his father passed away overnight. The reason of death was not disclosed.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will retire Harris’s No. 32 jersey at halftime of a game against the Las Vegas Raiders two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that helped elevate the team from obscurity to prominence.

In the 1970s, Harris rushed for 12,120 yards and helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls. This dynasty started in 1972 when Harris chose to continue running after Terry Bradshaw attempted a last-second pass against the Raiders, who were then based in Oakland.

Bradshaw fired a long pass to running back French Fuqua with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh down 7-6, and facing a fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line. Harris was the recipient of the ball after a collision between Fuqua and Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum.

Harris retrieved the ball inches above the ground near the Oakland 45, then outran multiple defenders to give the Steelers their first postseason victory in team history. Nearly everyone else stopped.

After the play was chosen as the greatest in NFL history during the league’s 100th anniversary season in 2020, Harris commented, “That play really exemplifies our teams of the 1970s.”

The Steelers were on their way to become the dominant team of the 1970s, winning Super Bowls after the 1974, 1975, 1978, and 1979 seasons, despite losing the following week to Miami in the AFC Championship.

In a 16-6 victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX, Harris, a 6ft 2in, 230-pound workhorse from Penn State, rushed for a then-record 158 running yards and a touchdown, earning the MVP award. In three of the four Super Bowls he participated in, he scored at least once, and his 354 yards of rushing on the largest platform still stand as a record.

Harris played for Penn State after being born on March 7, 1950, at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He was selected with the 13th overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft by the Steelers, who were in the midst of a reconstruction under the direction of Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll.

The Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann said of his frequent traveling companion, “When [Noll] drafted Franco Harris, he gave the offense heart, he gave it discipline, he gave it drive, he gave it the capacity to win a championship in Pittsburgh.”

When the Steelers made it to the postseason for just the second time in the team’s history in 1972, Harris was named the Rookie of the Year after rushing for a then-team rookie record 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Leading local businesspeople who established what became known as Franco’s Italian Army—a tribute to Harris’s African American father and Italian mother—welcomed Harris into the city’s sizable Italian-American community.

Harris became famous thanks to The Immaculate Reception, but he preferred to let his play speak for itself. The incredibly silent Harris served as the offense’s mainstay for 12 seasons on a team that had prominent characters like Bradshaw, defensive tackle Joe Greene, linebacker Jack Lambert, and others.

Eight times during a season, including five of his 14 games, he surpassed 1,000 yards of rushing. In the postseason, he added another 1,556 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns, both of which rank second all-time. Harris argued that he was but one part of a remarkable machine.

He noted in his Hall of Fame address in 1990, “You know, throughout that era, each player took their own small piece with them to make that magnificent decade happen. “Each player had their own particular thinking style and approach, as well as strengths and shortcomings. But then it was incredible; everything came together and remained in place to create the greatest squad in history.

Franco Harris eludes Oakland Raiders’ Jimmy Warren after making the ‘Immaculate Reception’ in a playoff game in 1972.
Franco Harris eludes Oakland Raiders’ Jimmy Warren after making the ‘Immaculate Reception’ in a playoff game in 1972. Photograph: Harry Cabluck/AP

Harris defended his teammates with tenacity. In the second half of the 1978 Super Bowl, Bradshaw took what Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, in Harris’ opinion, was an illegal late hit, and Harris essentially demanded Bradshaw hand him the ball on the following play. The Steelers took an early 11-point lead as Harris ran past Henderson for 22 yards and a score.

Despite his accomplishments, Harris’s tenure in Pittsburgh came to a tumultuous conclusion when the Steelers released him after he refused to practice with them before the 1984 season. Franco who? was Noll’s famous response. ” when questioned why Harris wasn’t at the camp.

After joining Seattle, Harris only gained 170 yards on the ground in eight contests before being cut. After Jim Brown and Walter Payton, he retired as the NFL’s third-most prolific rusher of all time.

In 2006, Harris stated, “I don’t even think about that [anymore].” Still black and gold, I am.

In addition to starting a bakery and getting engaged in charitable organizations like Pittsburgh Promise, which offers college scholarships to students in public schools, Harris stayed in Pittsburgh. His son Dok and wife Dana Dokmanovich are the only ones left behind.

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