Franco Harris, the Hall of Fame running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose “Immaculate Reception” is regarded as the most iconic play in NFL history, has passed away. He was 72.
Dok Harris, Harris’ son, claimed that his father died overnight. The reason for 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 continued running after Terry Bradshaw attempted a last-second pass against the Raiders, 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 40-yard line. Harris was the ball recipient after a collision between Fuqua and Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum.
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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 exemplifies our teams of the 1970s.”
The Steelers were on their way to becoming the dominant team of the 1970s, winning Super Bowls after 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 most powerful platform still stand as a record.
Joe Biden’s statement on Franco Harris’s passing. pic.twitter.com/zXYQadPbUF
— Bryan Armen Graham (@BryanAGraham) December 21, 2022
Harris played for Penn State after being born on March 7, 1950, in Fort Dix, New Jersey. He was selected with the 13th overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft by the Steelers amid a reconstruction under Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll.
The Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann said of his frequent traveling companion, “When 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 with 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, ranking 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 small piece with them to make that magnificent decade happen. “Each player had their 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 most excellent squad in history.
For his teammates, Harris stood up for them. Harris demanded Bradshaw hand him the ball on the next play after Bradshaw received what he believed to be an illegal late hit from Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson during the second half of the 1978 Super Bowl. With a touchdown run of 22 yards past Henderson, Harris gave the Steelers an 11-point advantage they wouldn’t give up.
Despite his accomplishments, Harris’s 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 campaign. When questioned about Harris’ absence from the center, Noll famously said, “Franco, who?”
Harris joined Seattle and ran for only 170 yards in eight contests before being cut. He retired as the third-most prolific runner in NFL history, behind Jim Brown and Walter Payton.
Harris commented, “I don’t even think about that,” in 2006. I remain in black and gold.
Harris stayed in Pittsburgh, starting a bakery and participating in charitable organizations like Pittsburgh Promise, which offers college scholarships to students in public schools. Dana Dokmanovich, his wife, and Dok, his son, survive him.
What Caused The Death of Franco Harris?
The Steelers legend passed away from natural causes, according to Pittsburgh Action News 4 (via Economic Times). After Harris’ unexpected demise, Jim Porter, president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said the following: