Franco Harris, whose “Immaculate Reception” was a highlight in a decorated Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks, has died, CBS Pittsburgh confirmed with the family. He was 72. No cause of death was immediately known.
Harris, who played 12 of his 13 NFL seasons with the Steelers after starring for Penn State, was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time Super Bowl champion. His 91 career rushing touchdowns rank 11th all time. He holds several Steelers records including his 11,950 rushing yards with the franchise. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
“The entire team at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is immensely saddened today,” Hall of Fame president Jim Porter said in a statement. “We have lost an incredible football player, an incredible ambassador to the Hall and most importantly, we have lost one of the finest gentlemen anyone will ever meet. Franco not only impacted the game of football, but he also affected the lives of many, many people in profoundly positive ways.
“The Hall of Fame and historians everywhere will tell Franco’s football story forever. His life story can never be told fully, however, without including his greatness off the field.
“My heart and prayers go out to his wife, Dana, an equally incredible person, a special friend to the Hall and someone who cares so deeply for Franco’s Hall of Fame teammates.”
Harris was a rookie when he made the “Immaculate Reception” on Dec. 23, 1972, against the Oakland Raiders in one of the most iconic plays in NFL history. However, his introduction into the NFL as the No. 13 overall pick that year was a gauntlet. Franco told CBS Sports in April of 2021 that his “welcome to the NFL” moment came when he was on the receiving end of a hard hit on special teams during the preseason. Then, his regular season-debut against John Madden’s Raiders was a different animal entirely as he described the notable uptick in speed and violence “was on a scale I’ve never seen before.” It may have taken Harris a few weeks to get his feet under him in the NFL, but once he did it was off to the races, rushing for 115 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in a Week 5 win over the Oilers.
“First 100-yard game, first NFL touchdown,” Harris said of his breakout performance. “And went on to make over 1,000 yards and made Rookie of the Year. Who would have thought that? But there were some trying times my rookie season, and luckily I was able to get through those trying times. Then the rest of the ’70s is really kind of history. … We went on to become the worst football team of all time, to what I’m going to say — and I know there’s going to be some controversy on this — to the greatest football team of all time.”
The success of that 1972 Steelers club generated a buzz around the organization that is still felt today and Harris was at the center of it all.
“My rookie year was an incredible year,” Harris recalled. “That year, [Steelers fans] went crazy. Franco’s Italian Army popped up. And then we had all these fan clubs pop up. That generated so much enthusiasm and so much of a following. And it’s still there today with Steelers Nation. That was a pretty incredible rookie year. I don’t know if anybody ever had as much fun in their rookie year as I did. Going from the worst of all time to this incredible season, to an incredible base of fans to win our first playoff game the way that we won it and to go from there. It was a dream rookie season.”
The Steelers are facing the Raiders on Saturday, one day after the 50th anniversary of Harris’ catch in the divisional round of the 1972 NFL postseason. Along with a celebration of that anniversary, the Steelers were scheduled to retire Harris’ No. 32 during a halftime ceremony. It is unclear if those plans will be altered in the wake of his passing.
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