West News Wire: Franco Harris, a running back in the Hall of Fame whose quick thinking produced “The Immaculate Reception,” regarded as the most famous play in NFL history, has passed away. He was 72.
Dok Harris, Harris’ son, told The Associated Press that his father died overnight. The reason for death was not disclosed.
Two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that gave the Steelers the boost they needed to become one of the NFL’s finest teams, and three days before Pittsburgh was set to honor him by retiring his No. 32 at a ceremony at halftime of its game against the Las Vegas Raiders, he passed away.
“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,” Pro Football of Fame president Jim Porter said in a statement. “Franco not only impacted the game of football, but he also affected the lives of many, many people in profoundly positive ways.”
Harris ran for 12,120 yards and won four Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, a dynasty that began in earnest when Harris decided to keep running during a last-second heave by Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw in a playoff game against 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 fourth quarter, 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 his legs churning, snatching the ball just inches above the Three Rivers Stadium 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.
“That play really represents our teams of the ’70s,” Harris 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.
Harris, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound workhorse from Penn State, found himself in the center of it all. He churned for a then-record 158 yards rushing and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 16-6 victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX on his way to winning the game’s Most Valuable Player award. He scored at least once in three of the four Super Bowls he played in, and his 354 career yards rushing on the NFL’s biggest stage remains a record nearly four decades after his retirement.
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 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.
Reflecting on Harris’ legacy on Tuesday, before Harris’ passing, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin called it “an honor to be in proximity to it, to know the man involved.”
Harris is survived by his wife Dana Dokmanovich and his son, Dok.