Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer, dies at 72

Matt Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer running back whose personal thinking created the Immaculate Reception, considered the most famous play in NFL history. He was 72 years old.

Harris’s son, Doc Harris, said his father passed away overnight. No cause of death was given.

Harris’ death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that helped transform the Steelers from boys to elites and three days before the team retired his No. 32 jersey at halftime in a game against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Harris ran for 12,120 yards and won four Super Bowls with the Steelers in the 1970s, a dynasty that began when Harris decided to keep running during a last-second pass by quarterback Terry Bradshaw in a playoff game against the Raiders, then based in Oakland, in 1972 .

With Pittsburgh trailing 7-6 and facing fourth-and-10 from the 40-yard line and 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Bradshaw threw deep at French linebacker Fuqua. Fuqua and Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum collided, sending the ball toward Harris.

Almost everyone stopped, but Harris snatched the ball inches above the turf, near the Oakland 45, then outsprinted several defenders to give the Steelers their first playoff win in franchise history.

“This play really represents our ’70s teams,” Harris said after the play was voted the best in NFL history during the league’s centennial season in 2020.

While the Steelers fell next week to Miami in the AFC Championship, they were well on their way to becoming the dominant team of the 1970s, winning Super Bowls following the 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979 seasons.

Harris, a 6-foot-2-inch, 230-pound Penn State native, ran for 158 yards rushing and a touchdown in a 16-6 victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX, winning Most Valuable Player honors. He has scored at least once in three of the four Super Bowls he has played in, and his 354 yards rushing in the largest stage remains a record.

Harris was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey, on March 7, 1950, and played for Penn State. The Steelers, in the final stages of a rebuild led by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, saw enough to make it the 13th overall pick in the 1972 draft.

“when [Noll] He drafted Franco Harris, he gave her the heart of insult, he gave her the discipline, he gave her the desire, he gave her the power to win a championship in Pittsburgh,” Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swan said of his frequent road trip roommate.

Harris won Rookie to the Year honors in 1972 after rushing for a then-team rookie record 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Steelers reached the postseason for the second time in franchise history.

The city’s Italian-American population embraced Harris, led by local businessmen who established what became known as Franco’s Italian Army, a reference to Harris’ African-American father and Italian mother.

The immaculate reception made Harris a star, although he preferred to let his play do the talking. On a team that includes bigwigs Bradshaw, defensive tackle Joe Green, linebacker Jack Lambert and others, the ever-quiet Harris has spent 12 seasons as an offensive drive.

He has exceeded 1,000 yards rushing in a season eight times, five times in a 14-game schedule. He compiled another 1,556 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns in the playoffs, both second all-time. It was just one cog in an extraordinary machine, Harris insisted.

“During that era,” he said in his Hall of Fame induction in 1990, “every player brought their own little piece with them to make this great contract. Every player had their strengths and weaknesses, each their thinking, each their own way, each their own way. But after That was amazing, everything came together, and they stuck together to make the greatest team of all time.”

Franco Harris tackles Jimmy Warren of the Oakland Raiders after he made an ‘Immaculate Reception’ in a 1972 playoff game. Photo: Harry Caplak/AP

Harris stuck with his teammates. When Bradshaw got what Harris felt was an illegal late hit from Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson in the second half of the 1978 Super Bowl, Harris essentially demanded that Bradshaw give him the ball on the next play. Harris drove 22 yards, passing Henderson, for a touchdown that gave the Steelers an 11-point lead they would not relinquish.

Despite his success, Harris’ time in Pittsburgh came to an abrupt end when he was cut short by the Steelers after he held out during preseason 1984 training camp. Noll famously replied “Franco who?” When asked about Harris’ absence from camp.

Harris signed with Seattle, where he ran for just 170 yards in eight games before being released. He retired as the NFL’s third all-time leading rusher, behind Walter Payton and Jim Brown.

“I don’t even think about it [any more]Harris said in 2006. I’m still black and gold. “

Harris remained in Pittsburgh, opening a bakery and becoming involved in charities including the Pittsburgh Promise, which provides college scholarships to public school students. He is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanović, and son, Doc.

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