The Pittsburgh Steelers were founded as the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933.
In the franchise’s first nearly four decades of existence, the team had exactly one postseason appearance.
Thankfully, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh organization changed forever two days before Christmas in 1972.
That day, The Oakland Raiders were in Pittsburgh for the Steelers’ second playoff game in team history.
With little time remaining, it looked like Oakland would dash Pittsburgh’s hope for their first-ever postseason win.
Then, fate intervened when Steelers running back Franco Harris caught a deflected pass and rumbled into the end zone.
Been laying here for a little while in disbelief. Franco Harris was days away from being one of THREE players in Pittsburgh Steelers history to have his number officially retired. Got to talk to him just once, but I’m grateful for it. Give a wave to the airport statue. RIP 32. 🇮🇹 pic.twitter.com/xYhBhRC4un
— Donny Football (@DonChed54) December 21, 2022
The touchdown proved to be the game-winner and Harris forever became an icon in Pittsburgh and pro football history.
Although Pittsburgh did not make the Super Bowl in 1972, Harris helped lead the Steelers to no fewer than four championships before the 1970s came to a close.
#Steelers 3⃣2⃣ Franco Harris Career Stats:
4X Super Bowl Champion
9X Pro Bowl
12,120 Yards Rushing
100 Career TDs
8X 1000 Yard Rusher
2,287 Receiving Yards pic.twitter.com/Vk3RpKtzuz
— NFL Numbers 🔢 (@nflnumber) December 21, 2022
This is the story of Franco Harris.
Franco Dok Harris was born on March 7, 1950, in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Harris’s father, Cad, served in the Army in World War II and was stationed in Italy where he met his future wife, Gina.
Upon returning to the States, the Harrises lived in New Jersey.
Franco got hooked on sports and became a three-sport athlete at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly Township, New Jersey.
Before his exploits at Penn State and with the Steelers, Franco Harris was a 3-sport athlete at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, N.J. (Class of 1968).
— Bill Beckner (@BillBeckner) December 22, 2022
Living next to his high school meant that Franco could put in long days playing basketball, football, and baseball and still make it home in time for a late dinner.
On the gridiron, Harris played running back and was a load to bring down.
By the time he was a senior, Harris was over six feet tall and weighed 220 pounds.
His intense running helped the Red Devils to a state championship in 1966 that a heads-up play by Harris aided.
Playing against Moorestown High School that season, the Red Devils were down by a touchdown when the Moorestown kicker drilled the ball straight at Harris.
“(My father) was afraid of a runback,” said former Moorestown player Steve Masters, whose father coached the team. “(Rancocas Valley) put Franco in the middle to block the kicker. We dribbled a kick to try and give it to them at the 25. The kicker kicked a line drive. Franco caught it. We all turned and peeled back to set up a wall, and the next thing you know, we hear the whistles blowing and the official is raising his hands. Until we saw the film, we never saw the play. We had our backs to it. We were running back to the goal line to block, the kid kicked a line drive right to him (Franco), he took one step, dodged the kicker, and ran for a touchdown.”
Harris’s score led to a comeback win by the Red Devils and cemented Rancocas Valley’s first-ever undefeated season.
Paterno Courts Harris
With high school graduation looming, Harris had his pick of colleges as a high school All-American.
College recruiters liked what they saw in Harris, even though his running style was unorthodox.
“He (Franco) was just a difference maker,” said former high school teammate Bob Sapp. “He was as tall and as big as a lot of linemen in those days. He ran with big strides, strong strides, and faster than he looked. It looked like, because of his long stride, he wasn’t fast, but he was fast and powerful. In high school, you knew he was different.”
Even though he was an obvious college-ready running back, Harris himself was eyeing a career in the military, just like his father.
That notion changed when Penn State and programs like Ohio State and Michigan came calling.
“It (recruiting) was quite an experience, especially for someone growing up and never thinking about college, knowing that it wasn’t part of the mix. We were a military family,” Harris said in 2022. “No one ever talked to us about football scholarships and going to college.”
Eventually, Harris realized he could play at the next level and winnowed his school choices down to Michigan, Cornell, and Penn State.
Joe Paterno, then the head coach at Penn State, convinced Harris that he should head to Happy Valley and become a Nittany Lion, offering the big back a scholarship.
Iconic photo today. December 21st.
The passing of Franco Harris and the birthday of Joe Paterno. pic.twitter.com/PBoZQ4UXy5
— PS Football U (@psufootballu) December 21, 2022
Harris took the opportunity and never looked back.
Harris and Mitchell Pace Penn State
In just his third year as the Nittany Lions’ head coach, Paterno had assembled a fantastic roster.
In 1968, Harris couldn’t play as a freshman due to NCAA rules, but Penn State went 11-0 and defeated Kansas in the Orange Bowl.
While waiting for their turns to play ball, Harris and fellow freshman running back Lydell Mitchell were becoming fast friends.
Mitchell knew that he and Harris should be the Nittany Lions starters in 1969.
“I recognized it when we were freshmen, I really did,” Mitchell told the Post-Gazette. “Our freshman year, they brought a lot of running backs up to Penn State. I remember after our first, second practices, I clearly thought, immediately, ‘We’re the best two guys on the team, best two running backs on the team.’”
Paterno thought the same thing and started both players in 1969.
Harris was used mostly as a blocker for Mitchell, but still gained 643 yards and 10 touchdowns (tied for a team-best) in 10 games.
Franco Harris | Penn State Running Back 1968-1972 | RIP 💙🤍 pic.twitter.com/kGXmLj3aq7
— Random Penn State Athletes (@PennRandom) December 25, 2022
Penn State went 11-0 and won the Orange Bowl for the second straight year.
In 1970, Harris, now a junior, had 675 yards and eight scores as the Nittany Lions suffered a 7-3 record.
As seniors in 1971, Harris and Mitchell continued pounding the ball as Penn State rebounded to 11-1 and crushed Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 30-6.
Harris ran for 684 yards and seven combined scores while Mitchell had over 1,500 rushing yards.
Although they were talented runners, neither Harris nor Mitchell believed they were pro-material.
“We never talked about pro football, which was interesting,” Franco said. “It wasn’t high on our list. Pro football, we just didn’t talk about that. We knew we were going to graduate and go get a job.”
After running for just over 2,000 total yards in college, Harris thought the NFL would have interest elsewhere.
Then, he was invited to the Senior Bowl and Harris made it his mission to be the MVP of the contest.
Pittsburgh’s 1st pick in the draft is Immaculate. They chose a RB from Penn State, Franco Harris. Franco won ROY, was instrumental in 4 Super Bowl victories, was a 9X Pro Bowl selection, and finished his career with 12,120 rushing yards. Oh, he’s in the Hall of Fame too. pic.twitter.com/ztpF8QkkYl
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) February 1, 2021
Although he didn’t win MVP, Harris did well enough to catch the attention of several pro scouts.
“The Senior Bowl is very special to me,” Harris remarked. “No doubt it helped launch my career and I feel I owe a lot of it to the Senior Bowl back in 1972.”
Mitchell also knew Harris had NFL potential, even if Harris didn’t realize it at the time.
“I don’t think Franco reached his full potential in college for different reasons,” Mitchell said. “You could see it. I mean, just look at this guy. He’s 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, 230, 235 pounds, and his mentality was probably more halfback than fullback. People looked at him and said, ‘Well, this guy should be running over you.’ All of the sudden, you see he’s running by you and putting a move on you and he’s gone. Guys couldn’t deal with that.”
The Steelers Build a Winner
While Harris was in college, the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise was in the midst of a rebuilding project that began with the hiring of head coach Chuck Noll in 1969.
Before Noll arrived, the franchise had been in exactly one postseason, in 1947.
In 1969, Noll inherited a two-win team and won only one game in ’69.
— BlitzburghUSAVideos (@sdextrasmedia) May 24, 2021
However, those paying attention to the roster saw the Steelers add defensive linemen “Mean” Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood in the 1969 draft.
Pittsburgh already had a couple of good players such as center Ray Mansfield and linebacker Andy Russell, but the organization needed more.
Before a five-win 1970 season, Pittsburgh added quarterback Terry Bradshaw and corner Mel Blount in the ’70 draft and brought in former Giants running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua.
That same year, former 1968 Pittsburgh draft pick Rocky Bleier returned to the club after a long rehab from injuries sustained during his time fighting in the Vietnam War.
In 1971, the Steelers won six games and drafted defensive end Dwight White, linebacker Jack Ham (Harris’s former Nittany Lion teammate), and safety Mike Wagner.
Kicker Roy Gerela joined the franchise as well after two years in Houston.
Evidently, Harris made a great impression during the Senior Bowl because the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him as the 13th overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft.
“The first day he came to camp, you could see his ability to make people miss,” said Coach Chuck Noll. “His quickness, his ability to run with the football was something that was very special. Franco really had great vision. He could pick the holes, and knew the cuts to make.”
Former Baltimore Colt Preston Pearson was added to the running back room to ensure the Steelers’ ground game had more muscle in 1972.
Harris started 10 games as a rookie and became an unexpected star, rushing for 1,055 yards, 10 touchdowns, and catching 21 passes for 180 yards and another score.
He was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year and was voted to his first Pro Bowl and became a second-team All-Pro.
“Who would have thought that I’d have the season that I had?” Franco said in 2022 with a chuckle. “It surprised and shocked all my teammates at Penn State.”
With his success came the appreciation and devotion of the Steelers fan base, many of whom formed “Franco’s Italian Army” to honor his heritage and play.
Franco Harris and Frank Sinatra have wine and cheese at a Pittsburgh Steelers practice after Sinatra was made a one-star general in Franco's Italian Army in Palm Springs, Calif., on Dec. 14, 1972. #RIPFranco #ripfrancoharris pic.twitter.com/Zdf06eR5tq
— Classic Rock In Pics (@crockpics) December 21, 2022
Even crooner Frank Sinatra dubbed himself the “Brigadier General” of Franco’s army.
Meanwhile, the ’72 Steelers shocked the NFL world when they went 11-3, by far the franchise’s best record in team history.
That gave Pittsburgh a home date against the Oakland Raiders for their second-ever playoff contest.
“The Immaculate Reception”
Pittsburgh and Oakland were two evenly matched teams. At halftime, the score was knotted at zero.
“In that game, you’re not expecting to go blow people out,” said Raiders receiver Fred Biletnikoff. “It’s gonna be a grind. It’s gonna be a tough battle. And that’s what it was. We came down, we battled all the way, and stayed in the game with them.”
In the third quarter, the Steelers scored first on an 18-yard field goal by Gerela.
Gerela kicked a 29-yard field goal in the fourth quarter before the Raiders answered with a Ken Stabler 30-yard touchdown scramble.
Oakland still led 7-6 with only 22 seconds remaining. The Steelers had the ball, but were on their own 40-yard line, facing fourth and ten.
After the ball was snapped, Bradshaw spotted Fuqua near Oakland’s 35-yard line and threw under heavy pressure.
“I come out,” recalled Fuqua. “I am wide open. I make my move and I see [Terry] Bradshaw. We make eye contact. … I run to a point where the ball is thrown. He didn’t throw it directly to me. He threw it to my left a little bit. I run to the ball, and what I can hear is footsteps. Boom, boom, boom, boom. I said to myself, ‘Damn. That’s [Jack] Tatum.'”
Just as Fuqua was about to catch the desperation pass, Raiders safety Jack Tatum swooped in and hammered Fuqua as the ball reached the duo.
The pigskin then bounced high into the air as a result of the collision.
Harris was trailing a few yards behind the play and saw the ball in the air.
Happy Immaculate Reception Day, #Steelers fans!
Here is the original broadcast of The Immaculate Reception. Oh, Happy Festivus Day, too.pic.twitter.com/RMAAV9U03a
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) December 23, 2022
He ran to it quickly and caught the ball just before it contacted the ground.
Years later, Harris revealed why he was near the ball in the first place.
“Joe (Paterno) would always holler ‘Harris, go to the ball! Go to the ball!’ So during practice, right from the first day, I just went to the ball,” recalled Harris. “It didn’t matter if (Terry) Bradshaw threw it five yards or fifty yards, I went to where the player caught the ball. And when he threw the ball (that day) I started going towards the ball and before I knew it, the ball was coming to me and we kind of met somewhere in the middle there and I got the football and the rest is history.”
Once he caught the deflected pass, Harris eluded two Oakland defenders and scored.
Gerela’s extra point gave Pittsburgh an improbable 13-7 win, the franchise’s first playoff victory.
The play, called “The Immaculate Reception,” is still dissected to this day.
At the time, NFL rules stated that if a ball deflected off of a player, a fellow player on his team could not legally catch the deflected ball.
Raiders players immediately stated that the ball caromed off Fuqua so Harris’s catch and run did not count.
Pittsburgh players also stated that the ball clearly hit Tatum’s helmet, therefore Harris’s catch was legal.
On this date 50 years ago, Franco Harris scored a game-winning touchdown after his “Immaculate Reception” vs Oakland, marking Pittsburgh’s first-ever playoff win.
Despite later losing the AFC Championship game, the game set the stage for their run of 4 Super Bowls in 6 seasons. pic.twitter.com/cOrOtZZajA
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 23, 2022
Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, who was covering Harris on the play, still claims he was clipped, the ball touched the ground before Harris caught it, and that the play should not have been allowed.
“There were about five penalties, it was totally wrong and we won the game,” Villapiano said in 2022.
Although the officials eventually ruled that the ball had contacted Tatum’s helmet, the players who faced each other that afternoon have great respect for one another.
The Steelers’ victory was also the beginning of a great Pittsburgh dynasty.
“This was just the beginning because we went on to have an incredible decade of football against each other. Boy, were those some great battles. I can’t tell you how much respect and admiration I have for the Raiders,” said Harris.
Harris Is Super Bowl MVP
A week after the Immaculate Reception game, Pittsburgh’s 1972 season ended in the AFC Championship game to the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
In 1973, Harris rushed for 698 yards and three scores and went to his second Pro Bowl while Pittsburgh recorded a 10-4 regular season and lost to Oakland in the Divisional Round.
Knowing they were still a few players away from reaching the next level, the Steelers added a draft class for the ages in 1974.
— Fungible Dave (@FungibleDave) January 30, 2021
Those five players were just what the doctor ordered.
That season, Harris returned to the Pro Bowl after running for more than 1,000 yards and six total scores.
After a 10-3-1 regular season, the Steelers eliminated Buffalo and Oakland to advance to Super Bowl IX against Minnesota and their “Purple People Eaters” defense.
Franco Harris was named MVP of Super Bowl IX, rushing for 158 yards on 34 carries in 1975. pic.twitter.com/MoF07vCSGy
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 30, 2017
In the contest, Harris broke loose for a then-Super Bowl record 158 yards and a touchdown.
He was named the game’s MVP after Pittsburgh won its first championship 16-6.
The honor marked the first time an African-American and Italian-American was voted a Super Bowl MVP.
Another Title and NFL Leader
Before the 1975 season, Pittsburgh added defensive end, John Banaszak, and added him to their potent “Steel Curtain” defense.
Harris ran for more than 1,200 yards and 11 combined scores, which led to a second-team All-Pro nod and a Pro Bowl invite.
Pittsburgh went 12-2, defeated Baltimore and Oakland in the playoffs, and won their second straight championship in Super Bowl X against the Dallas Cowboys.
Harris led all rushers in the contest with 82 yards.
In 1976, Harris ran for 1,128 yards and a league-leading 14 touchdowns.
In addition to his fifth Pro Bowl, Harris was also selected as the NFL’s Man of the Year for his charity work.
1972 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year
1976 NFL Man of the Year
Super Bowl MVP (IX)
4X SB champion
9X Pro Bowl pic.twitter.com/x5PZSGjDXN
— Carolyn Muse (@NLCarolynMuse) March 7, 2022
The Steelers advanced to the 1976 AFC Championship game before getting eliminated by their nemesis, Oakland.
The year 1977 saw future NFL coach Tony Dungy signed as an undrafted free agent by Pittsburgh.
Harris received first-team All-Pro honors and another Pro Bowl invite after running for 1,162 yards and 11 scores.
Pittsburgh won nine games and lost to Denver in the Divisional round.
More Super Bowl Wins
After two down seasons (by Pittsburgh’s new standards), the franchise returned to the postseason in 1978 after a 14-win season.
Harris had 1,082 yards and eight scores with a Pro Bowl while helping to lead the Steelers to victories over Denver and Houston in the postseason.
During Super Bowl XIII against Dallas, Harris ran for 68 yards and a touchdown as Pittsburgh posted a 35-31 victory.
One year later, Harris rumbled for 1,186 yards and 12 combined scores. It was his sixth straight season with over 1,000 rushing yards.
The Steelers won 12 games, beat Miami and Houston in the playoffs, and won their fourth championship after defeating the LA Rams in Super Bowl XIV, 31-19.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) March 15, 2019
Harris’s contributions in the title game were 46 yards and two scores.
Harris Closes in on the All-Time Rushing Record
After the 1979 season, Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson retired, thrusting Harris into the role of active leader in the NFL in career rushing yards.
Hall of Famer Jim Brown considered joining the Raiders in the 1984 season. He wanted to un-retire from the NFL to keep his all-time rushing record safe.
“If Franco Harris is gonna creep to my record, I might as well come back and creep, too” he told Sports Illustrated. pic.twitter.com/HeMYc3Pi4Q
— Keith Ricci (@KeithRicci) November 29, 2021
In 1980, Harris ran for 789 yards and six combined scores as Pittsburgh missed the postseason for the first time since 1971.
After the season, Harris was voted to his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl.
The Steelers missed the playoffs again in 1981, but Harris rushed for 987 yards and nine combined scores.
The NFL Players’ strike shortened the 1982 season to nine games.
Harris still had 604 yards and two scores for the year and Pittsburgh returned to the playoffs with a 6-3 record.
The team then lost to the San Diego Chargers in the playoffs.
Harris Leaves Pittsburgh
Harris rushed for 1,007 yards and seven combined scores in 1983, which marked his eighth 1,000-yard rushing season, passing Cleveland great Jim Brown’s record for career 1,000-yard seasons.
When 1983 ended with a Steelers loss to the Raiders in the Divisional round, Harris approached Pittsburgh management for a pay raise.
He believed he was entitled to a raise since he was closing in on Brown’s all-time NFL career rushing record.
In fact, Harris was only 363 yards from overtaking Brown.
However, the Rooney family (who still owns the franchise) believed that Harris was near the end of his career.
They did not feel that paying him more money was justifiable given his age and condition.
Harris held out of training camp in 1984, and the Rooney’s countered by releasing him.
A month later, the Seattle Seahawks signed Harris after Curt Warner, their starting running back, was injured.
— Earl Skakel (@EarlSkakel) December 24, 2022
After only eight games, 170 yards, and a receiving score, Seattle released Harris.
”Franco Harris and I had a long talk and we kind of mutually agreed that it would be in everyone’s best interest if we released him,” Seahawks coach Chuck Knox said. ”He made a contribution to our football team. It may not be reflected in the statistics, but he gave us a big lift when we needed it and he’s really a class guy. I wish him well.”
After his release, Harris retired.
In his career, Harris had 12,120 yards (third best at the time) and 91 rushing touchdowns.
He is Pittsburgh’s all-time leading rusher with 11,950 yards.
Harris also had 307 receptions for 2,287 yards and nine more scores.
Harris was a nine-time Pro Bowler, four-time Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP, two-time second-team All-Pro, one-time first-team All-Pro, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, NFL rushing touchdowns leader, and NFL Man of the Year.
He was later voted to the league’s 1970s All-Decade Team and added to the Steelers’ All-Time Team, Hall of Honor, and the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame, and had his number 32 retired by the club.
Life After Football and Sudden Death
After retiring, Harris and his Penn State friend, Lydell Mitchell, went into business together.
They founded Super Bakery (which later became RSuper Foods).
The bakery was formed to provide nutritious lunches for school kids and was especially known for its “Super Donut.”
RIP Franco Harris! His magically moist Super Donuts were an after school staple! pic.twitter.com/zgkZlRjvhB
— Chris Burnham (@TheBurnham) December 21, 2022
Harris was also known for his charitable works and for giving back to the community in the Pittsburgh area.
In 1990, he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, something that Harris took great pride in.
“I have to admit when I put that Hall of Fame jacket on, that was the greatest moment of all time,” said Harris. “It was like all the football history from the beginning was just absorbed into me with that jacket. That’s what that meant. It was quite an experience.”
Even though Harris could have been prideful because of his accomplishments, he always deflected praise and focused on his former teammates.
“You think what makes your talents come through, what makes it work, what makes you work,” Harris 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.”
Sadly, just a few days before taking part in the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Immaculate Reception, Harris passed away in his sleep on December 20, 2022.
So sorry to hear of the passing of Franco Harris. A great man and friend 🕊️🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/UCzDy5ShAo
— Eric Dickerson (@EricDickerson) December 21, 2022
Harris was 72 years old.
His death caught his family (wife Dana and son Dok Harris) and the entire football world off guard as Harris had been active in interviews just days before.
“It is difficult to find the appropriate words to describe Franco Harris’s impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers, his teammates, the City of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation,” said Steelers president Art Rooney II. “From his rookie season, which included the Immaculate Reception, through the next 50 years, Franco brought joy to people on and off the field. He never stopped giving back in so many ways. He touched so many, and he was loved by so many. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Dana, his son Dok, and his extended family at this difficult time.”