It was a long 13-year career for former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris. While most people think of The Immaculate Reception when you mention his name, Harris went on to have a successful NFL career following what was one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
We’ll get to his career in the NFL in a moment, but first, we’ll see who he was before he made it there.
Who Was Franco Harris Prior to the NFL?
Harris, the son of a World War II veteran and an Italian immigrant, played high school football at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly Township in New Jersey. Growing up right next to the school, Harris finished his high school playing days by being named an All-American.
After showcasing what kind of talent he had, Harris went on to play for 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. Harris had his own success at the collegiate level running the football, finishing with 2,002 yards and 24 touchdowns.
A lot can be said for Harris’ success at the pro level thanks to the opportunities he received in college, playing for legendary head coach Joe Paterno in games like the 1970 Orange Bowl and 1972 Cotton Bowl.
When and Where Was Harris Selected in the NFL Draft?
With the 13th overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft, the Steelers chose a Penn State running back. No, it wasn’t Mitchell, who had the more successful college career. Pittsburgh opted instead for Harris, the first of 20 selections in the Steelers’ 1972 draft class.
At the time when Harris was drafted, the legendary Chuck Noll was entering his fourth year as the Steelers’ head coach. As Lynn Swann presented Harris for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he’s quoted saying, “When (Noll) drafted Franco Harris, he gave the offense heart, he gave it discipline, he gave it desire, he gave it the ability to win a championship in Pittsburgh. He gave us pride by his work ethic.”
It took a short five weeks before Noll, players, and fans of Pittsburgh saw the investment in Harris pay off. Over the course of the first four games in the 1972 season, the Steelers went 2-2, and Harris ran the ball 26 times for 79 yards. In Week 5 against the Houston Oilers, however, Harris took over, rushing 19 times for 115 yards and the first rushing touchdown of his career.
The Steelers would go on to finish the season on a 9-1 run, with Harris rushing for over 100 yards in seven of those games and at least one touchdown in eight. By season’s end, for the first time in franchise history, the Steelers had over 10 wins in a season, finishing 11-3, and won only their second division title.
Meanwhile, Harris went on to carry the ball 188 times for 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns. That was good enough to win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award and finish fifth in AP Offensive Player of the Year voting and eighth in AP MVP voting.
The Immaculate Reception Comes to Life
His rookie season was spectacular, but what everyone will remember from Harris’ rookie year was that one miraculous play in the second round of the NFL playoffs.
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 defeated Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game. But the Steelers would go on to win their first Super Bowl in 1974, where Harris earned MVP of the game after rushing for 158 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. He still holds the record for most yards rushed for in a Super Bowl.
Harris Finishes 13-Year Career With Hall of Fame Numbers
Harris’ rookie season was one athletes can only dream of. The tough thing for athletes to do, however, is build off that one season and sustain that success over the course of a career.
When Harris finally hung his cleats up, he finished with 2,949 carries, 12,120 yards, and 91 rushing touchdowns. In the passing game, he caught 307 passes for 2,287 yards and nine touchdowns.
If you add together his yards and touchdowns, Harris finished his career with 14,407 all-purpose yards and 100 touchdowns. As of 2022, he ranks 44th all-time in all-purpose yards and is tied at 23 for all-purpose touchdowns. All those statistics ended up leading to nine straight Pro Bowls from 1972-1980.
Harris’ NFL career was capped off by an induction to the 1990 Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he’s currently one of 32 former Steelers in the Hall of Fame. While his time in the league is immortalized by The Immaculate Reception, fans of the NFL should remember him as a key component to over a decade of success in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers’ reign in the 1970s included four Super Bowl victories: 1974, 1975, 1978, and 1979. If not for Harris, would the Steelers be known for the dynasty and historic franchise we know of them today?
Following a contract dispute with the Steelers in 1984, Harris finished his career by signing with the Seattle Seahawks, competing in eight games and rushing for just 170 yards. While Seahawks fans beloved Harris, he was cut on Oct. 31 that season. That would be the end of his career.
Harris’ Death Comes Just Before 50th Anniversary of The Immaculate Reception
Harris passed away days before the 50th anniversary of his most famous play and was set to be honored by the Steelers with his number retired in commemoration of the anniversary. As mentioned, Harris made nine straight Pro Bowls from his rookie year in 1972 to 1980, earned Rookie of the Year, 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 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.
Harris is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and his son, Dok.