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Franco Harris, legendary Steelers running back who made 'The Immaculate Reception,' dies at 72

Harris was known for one of the most famous plays in American football history, and was considered one of the NFL's most iconic athletes.
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Franco Harris, a Hall of Fame running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers known for one of the most famous plays in American football history and considered one of the NFL's most iconic athletes, has died. He was 72.

Harris’ son, Dok, told The Associated Press that his father had passed away overnight. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

His death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that provided the jolt that helped transform the Steelers from also-rans into the NFL’s elite and three days before Pittsburgh is scheduled to retire his No. 32 during a ceremony at halftime of its game against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Franco Harris
Franco Harris in 1973.Harry Cabluck / AP

On Friday, the NFL Network is scheduled to air a profile of Harris at 9 p.m. Eastern time, featuring interviews with Harris and several former teammates, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the play, the NFL announced Tuesday, seemingly before his death.

Representatives for the NFL and the Steelers did not immediately respond to requests for comment from NBC News.

In a statement Wednesday morning, Pro Football Hall of Fame president Jim Porter called Harris "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,” Porter said.

'The timing was just immaculate'

Harris won the NFL’s Rookie to the Year award in 1972 after rushing for a then-team-rookie record 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns. He finished his career in 1984 with 100 total touchdowns, having played in nine Pro Bowls and five AFC championships, and winning four Super Bowls.

Franco Harris,Jimmy Warren
Franco Harris eludes the Oakland Raiders' Jimmy Warren during an AFC Divisional playoff game in Pittsburgh on Dec. 23, 1972. Harry Cabluck / AP

The play that came to be known as the "Immaculate Reception" helped transformed the Steelers into NFL elite. It unfolded when Harris decided to keep running during a last-second heave by Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw in a playoff game against visiting Oakland in 1972.

With Pittsburgh trailing 7-6 and facing fourth-and-10 from their own 40 yard line and 22 seconds remaining in the game, Bradshaw drifted back and threw deep to running back Frenchy Fuqua. Fuqua and Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum collided, sending the ball careening back toward midfield in the direction of Harris.

While nearly everyone else on the field stopped, Harris kept running, snatching the ball just inches above the turf near the Oakland 45, then outracing several stunned Raider defenders to give the Steelers their first playoff victory in the franchise’s four-decade history.

"If I was one step later, if I was one step faster, it never would have happened. The timing was just immaculate," Harris said of the play in the upcoming NFL Network program.

“That play really represents our teams of the ’70s,” he said after the "Immaculate Reception” was voted the greatest play in NFL history during the league’s 100th anniversary season in 2020.

While the Steelers fell the next week to Miami in the AFC Championship, Pittsburgh was on its way to becoming the dominant team of the 1970s, twice winning back-to-back Super Bowls, first after the 1974 and 1975 seasons and again after the 1978 and 1979 seasons.

'The heart and soul of our team'

Despite his accomplishments, Harris insisted that “a player should not be measured by statistics alone. He should be measured by something more special, such as the sharing of teammates and fans," according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to which he was elected in 1990.

“Franco was the heart and soul of our team," Steelers Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene said in the upcoming NFL Network program. "When Franco arrived, we became the Pittsburgh Steelers."

Former teammate Mel Blount, a Hall of Fame Steelers cornerback, described Harris' running style as "poetry in motion."

“He had so many different styles of running, like a good musician," Blount said in the NFL Network program. "He would be running and it might look like a piano player, but then when he hit the line it might sound like a drum.”

When he was inducted into Hall of Fame, Harris called his teammates "men of character, with a lot of heart and soul."

"This is the team that I belonged to, a team that will live forever," he added at the time.

'I'm still black and gold'

Born in Fort Dix, New Jersey, on March 7, 1950, Harris played at Penn State, where his primary job was to open holes for backfield mate Lydell Mitchell. The Steelers, in the final stages of a rebuild led by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, saw enough in Harris to make him the 13th overall pick in the 1972 draft.

“When (Noll) drafted Franco Harris, he gave the offense heart, he gave it discipline, he gave it desire, he gave it the ability to win a championship in Pittsburgh,” Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann said of his frequent roommate on team road trips.

The city’s large Italian American population embraced Harris immediately, led by two local businessmen who founded what became known as “Franco’s Italian Army,” a nod to Harris’ roots as the son of an African American father and an Italian mother.

Eight times he topped 1,000 yards rushing in a season, including five times while playing a 14-game schedule. He piled up another 1,556 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns in the playoffs, both second all-time.

Despite all of Harris' success, his time in Pittsburgh ended acrimoniously when the Steelers cut him after he held out during training camp before the 1984 season. Noll, who leaned on Harris so heavily for so long, famously answered “Franco who?” when asked about Harris’ absence from the team’s camp at Saint Vincent College.

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

“I don’t even think about that (anymore),” Harris said in 2006. “I’m still black and gold.”

Harris remained in Pittsburgh following his retirement, opening a bakery, buying the Baltimore-based Parks Sausage Co., a women’s football team named the Pittsburgh Passion, and becoming heavily involved in several charities, including serving as the chairman of “Pittsburgh Promise,” which provides college scholarship opportunities for Pittsburgh Public School students.

Harris is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and his son.