Whenever I spoke to Franco Harris, usually just chatting at various media events, he was always friendly, charming and blunt. He’d talk about anything and was usually fairly chill unless one topic came up: the Immaculate Reception.
Harris was a fierce defender of the most stunning, wonderful and controversial play in the history of the NFL and maybe in the history of American sports. Harris was keenly aware there was doubt about the legitimacy of the play – particularly from the then Oakland Raiders, the victims of that dramatic turn of events – and he defended that moment, that incredible moment that would later launch a dynasty, like a bouncer at the front door of a club.
The Raiders always say that play was illegal, I once told Harris.
“The Raiders are full of it,” Harris said back.
“No way that play should have counted,” Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, who played in that game, once told me. Then again, Villapiano has said that to many people. To the Raiders, that play wasn’t immaculate, it was illegitimate. The only thing that was received was home cooking from the game officials, they say.
The Raiders hated the outcome but that didn’t stop it from counting, or stop Harris from evolving into instant, living history. The Steelers would lose the following week in the AFC title game to the undefeated Dolphins – who created a history of their own going 17-0 – but the play, either from heaven or hell, depending on your geolocation, started the Steelers’ dynasty. The franchise would go on to win four Super Bowls in six seasons and was the team of the decade in the 1970s.
Harris died overnight at the age of 72. His death comes just days before the team was going to retire his No. 32 jersey and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.
As long as there’s an NFL, that play will be remembered. Hell, as long as there’s a Pittsburgh International Airport that play will be remembered since Harris’ moment is captured in a statue there right next to a picture of George Washington. Washington only crossed the Delaware; Harris helped the Steelers become a dynasty.
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“I was in Section 135 that day. I was eight months old. I think it’s funny. Surprisingly, I’ve probably met 75,000 people that were there that day,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told the media on Tuesday. “It’s just one of those beautiful things in the history of our game. It’s humbling to be in close proximity to it, to work for this organization, to understand its impact on this organization, the career it spawned in Franco [Harris], a gold-jacket career, what it did for them that season in terms of changing the trajectory of that season, what it’s done for this franchise …”
That play defined Harris’ career and, in some ways, overshadowed just how remarkable a talent he was. Harris made nine Pro Bowls, was the MVP of Super Bowl IX, and is part of the 1970s All-Decade team.
Harris was 230 pounds but could be quick and darting. His game would translate well into today’s sport.
If you’re one of the six NFL fans who have never seen the Immaculate Reception, it’s worth taking a break from whatever you’re doing to watch it. Harris’ historic moment happened in that 1972 playoff game as the Raiders were winning, 7-6, with 22 seconds remaining. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s pass to receiver John Fuqua was deflected as he was being hit. Harris scooped up the pass and scored.
The Raiders, for decades, have maintained that Fuqua touched the ball before Harris, which would have made the play illegal, because of the rule then that disallowed two offensive receivers from touching the ball.
“When Bradshaw threw the ball, my first thought was to go toward the ball, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Harris recently told the Los Angeles Times. “So I started to go to the ball and the next thing I remember was stiff-arming Jimmy Warren along the sideline.
“It blows my mind that I have no visual recollection of catching the ball. That wasn’t an easy ball to catch. It just doesn’t make any sense. How did I track it? How did I keep in stride? You normally don’t catch a ball in that way. If I had dived for it, I would have been ruled down because the rules were different back then.”
In the end, Harris is a Hall of Famer who helped build a dynasty. Legal catch or illegal, ball hit the ground or not, what will never change now is Harris’ place in history as one of the best ever. Perhaps that’s the truly immaculate part of his story.