Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame running back of “The Immaculate Reception,” dies at 72

PITTSBURGH– Franco Harris, the Hall of Famer running back whose heads-up thinking authored The Immaculate Reception, considered the most iconic game in NFL history, has died. He was 72.

Harris’ son Dok told The Associated Press his father died overnight. No cause of death was given.

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

Harris rushed 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 take down Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw during a last throw in a playoff game against Oakland in the year to continue running in 1972.

With Pittsburgh trailing 7-6 and fourth and tenth from his own 40-yard line and with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Bradshaw drifted back and threw deep to running back French Fuqua. Fuqua and Oakland defenseman Jack Tatum collided, sending the ball back toward midfield toward Harris.

FILE – Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris announces a draft pick during the second round of the NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall April 29, 2011 in New York.

AP Photo/Stephen Chernin, file

While almost everyone else on the field stopped, Harris kept his legs agitated, snatched the ball inches off the turf at Three Rivers Stadium near the Oakland 45, and then passed several stunned Raider defensemen to give the Steelers their first playoff -bringing victory throughout the franchise’s four decades of history.

“This game really represents our teams from the ’70s,” Harris said after “Immaculate Reception” was voted the greatest game in NFL history during the league’s 100th anniversary season in 2020.

While the Steelers fell to Miami in the AFC Championship the next week, Pittsburgh was on course to become the dominant team of the 1970s and win 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 Penn State workhorse, found himself at the center of it all. In Pittsburgh’s 16-6 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX, he drove for a then-record 158 rushing yards and one touchdown on his way to winning the Most Valuable Player award. He’s netted at least once in three of the four Super Bowls he’s played in, and his 354 career yards on the NFL’s biggest stage remains a record nearly four decades after his retirement.

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

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

Harris’ impact was immediate. He won the NFL’s Rookie of the Year Award in 1972 after setting a then-team rookie record with 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Steelers advanced into the postseason for the second time in franchise history.

The city’s large Italian-American population immediately embraced Harris, led by two local businessmen who formed 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.

The “Immaculate Reception” made Harris a star, though he usually preferred to let his game do the talking rather than his mouth. On a team that included big names like Bradshaw, defensive tackle Joe Greene, linebacker Jack Lambert and others, the extremely quiet Harris spent 12 seasons as the engine that helped Pittsburgh’s offense.

He rushed for 1,000 yards eight times in a season, including five times during a 14-game streak. He amassed another 1,556 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in the playoffs, both second all-time behind Smith.

Despite his swanky numbers, Harris insisted he was just a cog in an extraordinary machine that was redefining greatness.

“You see, during that era, every player brought their own little piece to help make that wonderful decade a reality,” Harris said during his Hall of Fame speech in 1990. “Every player had their strengths and weaknesses, each their own Mindset, everyone his own method, just everyone, everyone had their own. But then it was amazing, everything came together and stayed together to forge the best team ever.”

Harris also made a habit of sticking up for his teammates. When Bradshaw scored an illegal late hit from Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson in the second half of their meeting in the 1978 Super Bowl, Harris basically demanded that Bradshaw give him the ball on the next game. All Harris did was sprint up the middle 22 yards — right past Henderson — for a touchdown that gave the Steelers an 11-point lead they wouldn’t give up en route to their third championship in six years.

For all his success, his time at Pittsburgh came to a bitter end when the Steelers cut him after he held out in training camp ahead of the 1984 season. Noll, who had been leaning so heavily on Harris for so long, famously responded with “Franco who?” when asked about Harris’ absence from the team’s camp at Saint Vincent College.

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

“I don’t even think about it[anymore],” Harris said in 2006. “I’m still black and gold.”

Harris stayed in Pittsburgh after his retirement, opened a bakery, and was heavily involved with various charities, including serving as chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise, which provides college scholarships to Pittsburgh Public School students.

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

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Alley Einstein

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