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Photographer who captured iconic image of Franco Harris' 'Immaculate Reception': 'It was a big deal for the city of Pittsburgh'

Harry Cabluck was a photographer for The Associated Press when he snapped the widely recognized picture of the Steelers' running back on Dec. 23, 1972.
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 photographer who captured the iconic image of Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” 50 years ago, said Wednesday the Hall of Fame running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers uplifted the city and franchise in one miracle play.

Harry Cabluck, a retired photographer who lives in Austin, Texas, spoke exclusively to NBC News — amid news of Harris’ death at 72 — about his widely recognized photo taken at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh on Dec. 23, 1972.

“It was just a great moment in NFL history. ... It was a big deal for the city of Pittsburgh,” Cabluck said. “It really was. It turned the attitude of that town around. It was just the pride of the city.”

Although it was Harris’ defining career moment, Cabluck said of the decorated athlete, “He did a lot more good things than that, and I hope people remember him for that.”

Cabluck was working for The Associated Press when he snapped a photo of the powerful moment.

Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw's pass was broken up by a defender before it was inexplicably caught on the ricochet by Harris, who sprinted for a winning touchdown in the final seconds of a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.

Cabluck said he secured the photo by heading to the Steelers’ end zone, while other photographers stayed in the Raiders’ end zone. Cabluck’s decision cemented a major moment in his photography career.

When he shot the photo, Cabluck said, he did not realize it would be a photograph of the “defining moment” of the arrival of the Steelers in the NFL.

Since the “Immaculate Reception,” the Steelers have won six Super Bowls.

Cabluck downplayed his role shooting the picture.

“I just held the button down on the camera and let the camera run, and all I did was follow the football and try to keep it in focus,” he said.

Years later, Cabluck’s photo ended up on a Wheaties cereal box.

News of Harris’ death spread Wednesday. His son, Dok, told the AP that his father passed away overnight. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

He died two days before the 50th anniversary of the “Immaculate Reception” and three days before Pittsburgh is scheduled to retire his No. 32 in a ceremony at halftime of its game against the Las Vegas Raiders.

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.

Harris won the NFL’s Rookie to the Year award in 1972 after heaving rushed 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 Championship Games and won four Super Bowls.

Although they were not close friends, Cabluck said he and Harris would trade gestures of recognition when they saw each other. Cabluck said he had tremendous respect for Harris.

And although his photo of the “Immaculate Reception” is now etched in NFL lore, Cabluck said another interaction also stands out.

Cabluck remembered once going into the Steelers’ training room when Harris had a knee injury and said the moment would have made a nice photo.

Harris made a wave of his hand that usually would have been a wave to greet him, but “this time it was a wave that said, ‘Don’t shoot my picture,’ and it was one of the pictures that I never shot,” Cabluck said.