Harris, Villapiano and the Immaculate Reception of 1972

PHIL VILLAPIANO LEAVES via Pittsburgh Airport. It’s late Wednesday evening, three days before Christmas. Even at 73, he still looks like a linebacker – strong chest, strong shoulders, steel jaw. His hair is white, but his eyes dance as they have for decades.

Villapiano should hate Pittsburgh. He was an Oakland Raider in the 1970s, which means Pittsburgh or the Steelers or really anything black and gold should get his blood boiling. The Raiders and Steelers despise each other. Everyone knows that.

But Villapiano is different. It doesn’t matter that he was in the middle of the play that spawned all the animosity. It doesn’t matter that the weird and controversial and historic “Immaculate Reception” was happening right before his eyes.

Villapiano knows that most who love the Raiders think of Franco Harris as a villain. Only he doesn’t feel angry. Not for Harris. It’s almost certainly lost in the history and controversy and drama of it all, but the most meaningful story to emerge from the most iconic play in NFL history might have been this beautiful, unlikely friendship between two men who are on opposite sides stood. For the past 50 years, Villapiano and Harris have eaten together and attended events together. They brought their children together and told stories together. You shared time. They have memories together.

In fact, every December 23rd, Harris will call Villapiano and say, “Hey Phil, what were you doing that time 30 years ago?” and Villapiano growls and grimaces and yells, “We’ve been screwed!” and they will laugh and laugh. So they say, “I love you.”

Villapiano is coming to Pittsburgh three days before Christmas this year. He’s here for the game between the Raiders and the Steelers, which will mark the NFL’s 50th anniversary since the Immaculate Reception. He’s here to watch the Steelers retire Harris’ number. He’s here to honor his friend.

“I came to be with my mate,” Villapiano said at the airport on Wednesday night, pausing in front of the statue of Harris, which greets everyone stepping off a plane. Then he takes a breath, bends down and signs the book that was laid out in front of the statue in the early morning.

“Franco,” he writes in a bold hand. “You were the best. I will miss you.”

THE JOKE BETWEEN They were that Franco couldn’t remember when it came to the part that mattered.

They could certainly agree on the preamble. Final game of the game, the Steelers are 1.4 a mile behind the Pittsburgh 40 and Terry Bradshaw throws a pass towards Frenchy Fuqua.

Ask Villapiano what happened next and he’ll give a solid – solid — Eight minutes on how illegal touching happened when the ball bounced off Fuqua and Harris somehow caught it, plus Harris didn’t actually catch it because the ball grazed the ground and also one of Harris’ teammates broke the rules at Villapiano to crop so he couldn’t tackle Harris when Harris ran in the ball for the game-winning result. “There were about five penalties, it was totally wrong and we won the game,” Villapiano said earlier this year. He nodded defiantly.

But ask Harris what he remembers as the ball floated his way, and the details would always kind of disappear. A few months ago, while sitting in a chair in downtown Pittsburgh, Harris ticked off details: how the game was called “60 Option” and the reason he ran toward the ball from his blocking position was because it was was what Joe Paterno used to preach to him at Penn State.

Then, as he got to the point where the magic happened, a tiny grin twisted his mouth.

“I take a few steps to the ball and I don’t remember anything else, my head is completely blank,” he said. “It just seems so weird to me that I have brain fog and can’t remember anything.” He shrugged, then added that he always found it interesting that his mother, who was then watching TV in New Jersey, would drop in one of her albums of Italian music just before the performance. “And at that time,” he said, eyes slightly larger, “Ave Maria was playing.

A shared Italian heritage actually brought Harris and Villapiano closer. Months after the Immaculate Conception, Harris won an Italian-American athlete award in New Jersey, and Villapiano’s parents happened to be at the banquet. As it turned out, Villapiano’s father and Harris’ mother were from the same region of Italy, and they struck up a conversation. Harris’ mother was nervous about having to speak her broken English, but Villapiano’s father – who spoke the same Italian dialect – helped her so she could relax and enjoy her son’s night.

Harris noticed. And the next time he saw Villapiano, he pulled him close. “Do you know what your father did?” he said. “He made my mom feel like a million bucks.”

They never fell out of touch. Even after football was over, they went to events, parties, and charity events together. They sat in each other’s kitchens. Harris once sent Villapiano, who loves to sing, on stage at a Temptations concert and cheered as he sang “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” Villapiano brought Harris to the Raiders’ legendary tailgate, introduced him to the most ardent Raiders fans, and inducted him as an honorary member of the Black Hole.

However, the annual phone call was the anchor. It didn’t matter where they were or what they were doing. On December 23, they talked. It was easier in the cell phone era. Often Villapiano, who spends part of the year in Arizona, was playing golf when the call came, so “half the country club was listening.” But even before that, it was part of her routine.

“He would call my mother’s house,” Villapiano said. “He told my mother to ask me what I was doing [that time] in the afternoon. He would ask my mother. My mom used to say, ‘Darling, Franco called again this year.’ It was so funny how he did it.”

TUESDAY FOUR Days before Christmas, Phil Villapiano goes to bed in Arizona with his bags packed. The next morning he leaves for Pittsburgh. He is excited. A few hours later he wakes up with a start. Something feels. It’s 3 a.m. but he gets up. He looks at his cell phone and sees a text message from his daughter Andrea, who lives in New Jersey, asking him to call her as soon as possible.

“Franco died,” she tells him on the phone. Reports are everywhere that Harris has died in his sleep at the age of 72. Villapiano rocks back. “He… he couldn’t – I only spoke to him this afternoon…” He trailed off.

“Dad, he just died,” says Andrea.

Villapiano doesn’t know what to think. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what that means for this weekend, this celebration of Franco Harris and the play that brought them together.

Villapiano gets on the plane and still flies to Pittsburgh. He goes through the hall. He stops at the statue and signs the book. He goes to his hotel and has a drink in the bar, where he hears everyone talking about Franco Harris and his importance to the city. He’s talking about his friend. He remembers.

As Villapiano goes to sleep on Wednesday night, he’s not sure what the weekend will bring, or how he’ll feel about it, or what it’ll be like walking around town without his friend.

The only thing he knows for absolute certainty is what will happen on Friday December 23rd.

“Franco’s son Dok doesn’t know that, but I’ll call him then,” says Villapiano in a shaky voice. “I’m calling him because I want this to continue. I don’t want this to end.”

ESPN Feature Producer Joshua Vorensky contributed to this report.

https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/35306819/harris-villapiano-immaculate-reception-1972 Harris, Villapiano and the Immaculate Reception of 1972

Emma Bowman

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