Former Steelers RB Franco Harris, Pro Football Hall of Fame member and the “reception” piece of the famous Immaculate Reception, died overnight Wednesday, Harris’s son, Dok, told the Associated Press. No cause of death was given. He was 72 years old.
The Steelers were set to retire Harris’s No. 32 jersey Saturday as part of a ceremony honoring the 50th anniversary of the Reception—an event the team announced in September. On Dec. 23, 1972, with less than five seconds remaining in a game against the Oakland Raiders, Harris caught a deflected pass and ran for a touchdown, a 60-yard play that gave the Steelers a 13–7 win for its first playoff victory in team history.
While the Steelers fell the next week to Miami in the AFC Championship, Pittsburgh was on its way to becoming the dominant team of the 1970s, twice winning back-to-back Super Bowls, first after the 1974 and ’75 seasons and again after the 1978 and ’79 seasons.
Born in Fort Dix, N.J., on March 7, 1950, Harris played collegiately at Penn State, where his primary job was to open holes for backfield mate Lydell Mitchell. The Steelers, in the final stages of a rebuild led by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, saw enough in Harris to make him the 13th overall pick in the 1972 draft.
“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,” Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann said of his frequent roommate on team road trips.
Harris’ impact was immediate. He won the NFL’s Rookie of the Year award in 1972 after rushing for a then-team-rookie record 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Steelers reached the postseason for just the second time in franchise history.
Harris retired in 1984 with 12,120 rushing yards, the most in NFL history at that point, and won four Super Bowls with the Steelers. he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.