Franco Harris, the NFL Hall of Fame running back who helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 1970s and caught the so-called “Immaculate Reception,” has died at 72.
Harris’ son Dok told The Associated Press Wednesday that his father had died overnight. The cause of death was not immediately revealed.
Harris, who played his college ball at Penn State, began his career with the Steelers in 1972 after being picked in the first round of the NFL draft. He was named offensive rookie of the year and went on to be a nine-time Pro Bowler and MVP of Super Bowl IX. But it was the miraculous shoestring catch of a deflected pass from Terry Bradshaw during his rookie year in a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders that remained his defining career moment.
“There are many things that make it the play that it is and the most significant play in the history of our game,” said current Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, who was an infant brought to the game by his parents when Harris made the catch. “It’s just an honor to be in proximity to it. To know the man involved, to call Pittsburgh home, and so it’s awesome to be a part of and to witness it.”
RIP Franco Harris
The immaculate reception happened 50 years ago this week.
— McNeil (@Reflog_18) December 21, 2022
The catch, given its iconic name by legendary Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope, came as the Steelers faced a fourth and long from their own 44-yard line, trailing the Raiders 7-6 with just 22 seconds remaining. The pass was batted away from intended receiver John Fuqua, but Harris managed to grab it just before it hit the ground and ran it into the end zone to win the game.
Although the Steelers were later eliminated from the playoffs, the game marked the beginning of a dynastic ascent by Harris, Bradshaw, and a host of future Hall of Fame players coached by Chuck Noll. The team would twice win back-to-back Super Bowls, first after the 1974 and 1975 seasons and again after the 1978 and 1979 seasons.
Harris topped 1,000 yards rushing eight times and ran for another 1,556 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns in the playoffs, both second all-time behind Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith. Harris was cut by the Steelers during the 1984 season and caught on briefly with the Seattle Seahawks before retiring. He finished his career with 12,120 rushing yards and 100 touchdowns.
Despite his legendary exploits, Harris was famously humble.
“You see, during that era, each player brought their own little piece with them to make that wonderful decade happen,” Harris said during his Hall of Fame speech in 1990. “Each player had their strengths and weaknesses, each their own thinking, each their own method, just each, each had their own. But then it was amazing, it all came together, and it stayed together to forge the greatest team of all times.”
After his career ended, Harris in 1990 established a bakery with his former Penn State teammate and fellow NFL great Lydell Mitchell. The bakery, called RSuper Foods, supplies school cafeterias.
The Steelers intend to honor the 50th anniversary of the catch and retire Harris’ number 32 this weekend at a home game against the Raiders.