Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, most well-known for the Immaculate Reception, has passed away at the age of 72. No cause of death has been given. Harris has been universally regarded as one of the kindest people off the field and toughest on the field.
Harris passed away days before the 50th anniversary of his most famous play and was set to be honored by the Pittsburgh Steelers by having his number retired in commemoration of the anniversary. From his rookie year in 1972 to 1980, Harris made nine straight Pro Bowls, earning rookie of the year honors as well as off-the-field awards like the Alan Page Community Award from the NFLPA and the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award from the NFL.
Harris ran for 12,120 rushing yards and won four Super Bowls with the Steelers, earning a spot with the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1970s. The dynasty was kickstarted with his most famous play, the Immaculate Reception.
In the AFC Divisional Round of his rookie year, the Steelers found themselves trailing by a point and needed to convert a fourth down with 22 seconds left in the game. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw targeted running back John Fuqua, who was being covered by Raiders safety Jack Tatum.
Either the ball bounced off of Fuqua’s hands or Tatum’s pads before popping into the air and into the waiting hands of Harris, who ran it in for the game-winning touchdown, securing the first playoff win in franchise history for the Steelers and subsequently setting up their Super Bowl dynasty.
At the time, the order of events for how the ball popped into the air would have determined whether or not the reception was legal, as a completed pass could not have originally touched an offensive teammate immediately before being caught – it must have been touched by a defender first.
That year, the Dolphins were too much for the Steelers and won in the AFC Championship game, but the Steelers would go on to win their first Super Bowl in 1974, where Harris followed up earned the Most Valuable Player of the game award after rushing for 158 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. He still holds the record for most yards rushed for in Super Bowl games.
Harris, the son of a World War II veteran and an Italian immigrant, played college football at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly Township in New Jersey before attending Penn State University. He played in a split backfield role with running back Lydell Mitchell, often serving as his lead blocker in 1971, Mitchell’s All-American year. Mitchell earned 1,567 yards on 254 carries that season, while Harris earned 123 carries and generated 684 yards.
The Steelers picked Harris over Mitchell in the 1972 draft, and Mitchell would go on to make multiple Pro Bowls with the Indianapolis Colts.
In Harris’ Hall of Fame presentation, former teammate and fellow Hall-of-Famer Lynn Swann said Harris “gave the offense heart, he gave it discipline, he gave it desire, he gave it the ability to win a championship in Pittsburgh.”
Harris famously took little credit for his own accomplishments throughout his career and, in his own induction ceremony, continued the trend. “You think what makes your talents come through, what makes it work, what makes you work,” he said. “And the answer is, to be with the right teammates and God knows I was with the right teammates, they were great. You see I was able to achieve goals beyond my wildest dreams because of the people who surrounded me.”
When Harris retired from football, he was the NFL’s third-leading rusher in history, just behind Jim Brown and Walter Payton. After retirement, Harris remained in the Pittsburgh area and opened up his own bakery along with former Penn State teammate Mitchell. Super Bakery, later renamed to RSuper Foods, focused on providing nutritional meals to school children.
He also became involved with several charities, including the Pittsburgh Promise, which provides scholarships for Pittsburgh-area students, and Special Olympics Pennsylvania.
He is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and his son, Dok.