Franco Harris, a Hall of Fame running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers who made the “Immaculate Reception,” a shoestring catch in 1972 still remembered as one of the most iconic plays in NFL history, has passed away. He was 72.
The Associated Press received confirmation of his passing from Franco “Dok” Harris, his son. The reason for death was not disclosed.
Harris passed away just a few days before the “Immaculate Reception50th “‘s anniversary, which current Steelers coach Mike Tomlin referred to this week as “the most important play in the history of the game.” At their game on Saturday, the Steelers intended to retire Harris’ 32 jersey number during halftime.
With the Steelers, who became the N.F.L.’s dominant team in the 1970s, the 6-foot-2 running back won four Super Bowls and was selected to the Pro Bowl each of his first nine seasons. But more than anything else, one decisive play helped define his career.
The Steelers were down 7-6 to the Oakland Raiders in a divisional-round playoff game on December 23, 1972. The Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw lofted a desperate pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua with less than 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter, but the ball deflected toward the ground. Harris scored the game-winning touchdown after he plucked the ball out of the air only inches from the ground. The great play has since been repeated thousands of times.
After 50 years, Harris, a Penn State football player, is still regarded as one of the Steelers’ most cherished players and a familiar face in Pittsburgh. Throughout 13 seasons, 12 of which he spent with Pittsburgh, he carried for 12,120 yards. He was integral to the Steelers’ most prosperous period, winning Super Bowls in 1974, 1975, 1978, and 1979.
Franco Harris’ tragic death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of The Immaculate Reception and just days before the Steelers retire his No. 32 jersey on Saturday. https://t.co/u8gQhIIU5S
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 21, 2022
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It was previously planned to honor Harris on Saturday during halftime of a game against the Las Vegas Raiders in prime time. Franco’s impact on the franchise “would be hard to overestimate,” according to Art Rooney II, president of the Steelers and a family member that has owned the team since its inception in 1933.
In a statement, he cited a quotation from his grandfather that read, “Before Franco arrived here, we didn’t win much; Since he got here, we don’t lose.”
After the 1984 season, Harris retired as the third-leading rusher in NFL history, behind Jim Brown and Walter Payton. In 1990, he was admitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s president, Jim Porter, said, “We have lost a tremendous football player, an incredible ambassador to the Hall, and, most significantly, we have lost one of the best individuals anyone will ever meet.”
Harris was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey, on March 7, 1950. He played fullback for Penn State after graduating from Rancocas Valley Regional High School in New Jersey, creating lanes for running back Lydell Mitchell.
In the first round of the 1972 N.F.L. selection, the Steelers selected him with the number 13 pick, and he had an immediate impact, capturing Rookie of the Year honors with 1,055 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. In his 12 seasons, the Steelers never had a losing record, and his career total of 354 Super Bowl rushing yards still stands.
In his 13th and last season, he participated for the Seattle Seahawks.
The Associated Press reports that Harris is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and son Dok.