Generations of athletes and sports fans mourned the loss of Franco Harris, the legendary running back at Pennsylvania State
University and later the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, who died suddenly at age 72 on Dec. 20.
Harris graduated from Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, N.J., played fullback at Penn State under coach Joe Paterno, and was drafted by the Steelers in 1972. “His selection helped catalyze the evolution from the NFL’s worst team to its most successful,” stated an obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The 6-foot-2-inch Harris was a four-time Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl IX MVP, 1972 Rookie of the Year, 1976 NFL Man of the Year, and a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Harris died days before the 50th anniversary of one of the most memorable plays in NFL history, his unlikely shoestring catch known as the “Immaculate Reception.” And his death came just hours after he gave a SiriusXM radio interview in which he talked about that fabled day, Dec. 23, 1972.
It was a cold day in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers were battling the Oakland Raiders in a divisional playoff matchup. Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw hurled a long pass that ricocheted off an Oakland Raiders defender straight into the hands of Harris, a rookie running back, who galloped like a stallion into the end zone for a touchdown, with five seconds remaining in the game.
The stadium erupted into mayhem and exultant fans poured onto the field. The mayhem lasted 15 minutes before the fans went back to their seats to witness the extra point kick and the final score of 13-7 – at which time the joyous mayhem resumed. It was the first playoff victory in Steelers history.
Mike Tomlin, the current Steelers head coach, called the catch “the most significant play in the history of the game.”
For years afterward, homemade banners reading “Franco’s Italian Army” and “Run Paisano Run” began appearing in the stands at Steelers games. Even Frank Sinatra became a member of the “Franco’s Italian Army” fan club.
Franco Harris was arguably Pittsburgh’s favorite son. A statue of him making his famous catch greets arriving passengers at Pittsburgh International Airport.
On Dec. 21, Philadelphia’s History of Italian Immigration Museum posted a Facebook remembrance of Harris, “an amazing American football player.”
Immaculate Reception aside, Harris was a powerhouse on the playing field. He was the fourth player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in his rookie season. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry; rushed for 10 touchdowns and caught three touchdown passes.
“His greatest achievements, however, were made off of the playing field,” read the Post-Gazette obituary. “His steadfast dedication to helping others throughout his life serve as an inspiration to all and a testament to his commitment to kindness, charity, decency, and humility.”
Visitation was held on Dec. 27 at the Acrisure Stadium PNC Champions Club in Pittsburgh, where thousands of fans lined up to pay their respects.
Memorial contributions are welcome at Harris’s charity, the Pittsburgh Promise (pittsburghpromise.org) or the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor Foundation (franciscanfoundation.org).