Franco Harris Transformed a Franchise, a Region

97
Franco Harris' Hall of Fame bust in 2021. Photo by Chris Rossetti

We were reminded again Wednesday morning how precious life can be.

Just days prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, the principal player in what many consider the greatest play in NFL history has died.

Franco Harris passed away overnight Dec. 20-21, 2022. (https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/35296389/steelers-hall-fame-running-back-franco-harris-dies-72)

That was two days shy of the 50th anniversary of the iconic play in which Harris, a Penn State graduate, caught a ricocheted football and scored a touchdown on the final play of the game to give the Steelers a stunning 13-7 win over the Oakland Raiders.

The Dec. 23, 1972, victory was the first-ever playoff win for the Steelers and is credited by many as the beginning point of the 1970s dynasty that saw the franchise win four Super Bowls between the 1974 and 1979 seasons.

His death also comes three days shy of the Steelers scheduled retiring of Harris No. 32, which is slated to take place during halftime of the Saturday, Dec. 24, game with the now Las Vegas Raiders.

The news was both stunning and sad when I woke up Wednesday morning for a couple of reasons.

Just over 12 hours prior I had listened to Harris being interviewed on “Mad Dog Unleashed”, Christopher Russo’s daily talk show on Mad Dog Sports Radio on SiriusXM.

Harris sounded fantastic as he reminisced about the play and its meaning in Steelers and NFL history.

The interview had me excited, as I was taking my dad to see Harris along with other Steelers and Raiders who had played in that game in a panel discussion at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center on Thursday, Dec. 22.

There isn’t much that gets me excited in the sports world anymore. Call it the negative side of a job that allows you to do and see more than most.

But this I was excited for. Not just for me but also for my dad.

I wasn’t born when Harris caught the iconic pass from Terry Bradshaw that was intended for running back Jon “Frenchy” Fuqua. But growing up in the 1980s as a Steelers fan, you bet I knew all about it.

I also knew that the game was blacked out in Pittsburgh and my parents had to travel to Johnsonburg to watch the game at the house of one of my mom’s friends.

Those stories abound. My long-time friend and colleague Rich Rhoades told me how his dad, living in Brookville, had to go to Clarion to view the game.

My former boss at then-Clarion University, Rich Herman, told me the other day about how his family went to New Castle to view the contest.

Those stories just add to the allure of the play, at least locally.

It shows how desperate people were to see the Steelers in a playoff game. Something that those of us of a younger generation take for granted.

But for Steelers fans in 1972, the playoffs weren’t something you took for granted.

In fact, the Steelers had never won a playoff game prior to Dec. 23, 1972. They had only played in one, way back in 1947. And they didn’t even score in that one, losing 21-0 to the Philadelphia Eagles. In fact, Harris’ touchdown on the Immaculate Reception was the first postseason touchdown in Steelers’ history.

Think about that. From 1933 until 1972, a span of 39 years, the Steelers had played in one playoff game and had never scored a touchdown in NFL postseason play.

Since Dec. 23, 1972, a span of soon-to-be 50 years, the Steelers have played in 62 playoff games winning 36 of them, including six Super Bowls.

That one play, 50 years ago, changed everything.

Now people are upset that head coach Mike Tomlin hasn’t WON a playoff game since 2016. They are upset that the Steelers might be headed to their first losing season since, gasp, 2003.

Imagine that. An entire generation of Steelers fans has never witnessed a losing season, yet when Harris caught that touchdown it was the first time two generations of Steelers fans had seen a postseason touchdown.

This weekend will still be a special celebration in Pittsburgh, but it will also be one filled with sadness as we celebrate without the man responsible.