He came into the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 1972, and when he finished that season with 1,055 yards rushing, a 5.6 average, and 10 touchdowns despite only starting 10 of the 14 games, he became the fifth rookie in NFL history ever to rush for 1,000 yards. He created what is recognized as the "Greatest Play in NFL History" by running to the football, by simply doing what he was coached to do. He was the MVP of Super Bowl IX, which was the first championship in history for a franchise that had been in business 41 seasons without one. During a decade where his team won 4 Super Bowls and appeared in 17 postseason games to do so, he scored 17 touchdowns. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
"Franco was the heart and soul of our team," said Joe Greene, a man who would know. "When Franco arrived, we became the Pittsburgh Steelers. Franco brought the Steelers out of the dark ages."
Franco Harris was a great football player. There also is ample evidence he was a better human being.
"Anybody who came to him with a charitable interest, Franco always responded favorably," said Joe Gordon, whose title during the 1970s was Public Relations Director but was in fact so much more. "The most significant thing was the Pittsburgh Promise. He has been the chairman of the Promise since it started. He gave significant seed money to it at the very beginning, and he has been active all the way through. It's a really special program that provides scholarship money to high school graduates from Pittsburgh Public Schools. Over 2,000 kids have already benefited from it."
More Gordon: "I remember when he was a rookie there was a request from Children's Hospital that there was a young kid who was a big Steelers fan and wanted to meet a player. I went into the dressing room after practice, and I said, 'Anybody here interested in going to Children's Hospital to visit a very sick kid?' There was silence for a while, and Franco came over to me, and this was when he was a rookie, and he said, 'I will go.' That was typical of him. He did so many things of that nature. His contributions to the Pittsburgh community were far greater than what he accomplished on the football field."
Dan Rooney once said, "He's one of the finest, most thoughtful human beings I have ever known."
On Wednesday morning came the news that Franco Harris, 72, had died overnight. No cause of death was given.
The 2022 NFL regular season schedule contained two historical celebrations – the 50th Anniversary of the Miami Dolphins' perfect 17-0 season, and the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, the aforementioned "Greatest Play in NFL History," the single event that ignited the transformation of the Steelers franchise from moribund to feared within the decade.
The team had planned a weekend packed with events tied to the Immaculate Reception, all of it coming together with the retiring of his No. 32 jersey during halftime of the Steelers-Raiders game to be played at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 24.
"It is difficult to find the appropriate words to describe Franco Harris' 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, and his son Dok, and his extended family at this difficult time."
The son of an African-American father and a Sicilian mother, Harris was born in Fort Dix, N.J., and as a boy he always believed he would follow in his father's footsteps to a career in the military. But then the family moved to Mount Holly, N.J., and that's when another door opened for him.
It was at Rancocas Valley Regional High School where Harris began attracting the kind of attention that resulted in a football scholarship to Penn State. With the Nittany Lions, Harris was a complement to Lydell Mitchell even though he finished his own college career with 2,002 yards and 24 touchdowns. But the Steelers were looking beyond the numbers and at the player himself.
"The thing that impressed me about Franco was that coming out of Penn State, he wasn't the No. 1 back, but he showed a willingness to work," said Bill Nunn, who ended up in the Hall of Fame for his ability to identify and evaluate the talent that propelled the Steelers to four championships over 6 seasons in the 1970s. "That first day at practice, he ran everything to the goal line, and he had those quick feet."
Harris had packed a lot of trepidation in the luggage he brought from New Jersey after the phone call he received on Feb. 1, 1972, when the voice on the other end proclaimed, "Congratulations, you've been drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers." Initially, the trepidation was centered on joining a team that had never won anything. If the Steelers even had a trophy case back then, it was empty.
Then after Harris arrived and got a look at his new team and the talent level of a lot of the players on it, his trepidation morphed into "can I make this team?" Such was the perfect timing of his arrival. And Harris was not alone with that feeling, because the Steelers best player at the time wondered the same thing about the team's newest first-round pick.
"Franco had a habit of running up to the line of scrimmage, stopping, and looking around, looking around, looking around. He kept doing that," said Greene. "I said, 'Oh, well, we got us a dud.'"
The Steelers played six exhibition games that summer, and the third was against the Falcons in Atlanta. Just another exhibition game. It meant nothing. Until it meant everything.
"We played a preseason game in Atlanta, and he did the same thing he would do in practice," said Greene. "He started off one way, stopped, and then he would come back in the opposite direction. And all of a sudden, he took off. He ran 75 yards, and I think I ran on the sideline half of the way with him. I said, 'Oh my goodness. We got one. We got one.'"
Greene was convinced, which always meant the rest of the veteran players didn't need long to catch on, too. But Harris still had to convince Chuck Noll, who didn't make him an immediate starter and then watched him gain 79 yards on 26 carries through the first four games to justify that decision. But Harris started the fifth game, cracked 100 yards for the first time in a win vs. the Oilers, and the Steelers were on their way. Vowing to never allow Noll to bench him again, Harris rushed for over 100 yards in 7 of the next 8 games, and the Steelers went 7-1 in those games. Even a guy who would end up on the wrong side of the Immaculate Reception could see what was happening.
"He carried that team," said Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano, a starter on the Raiders team that faced the Steelers in the 1972 regular season opener and then in the Divisional Round of those playoffs. "He was the base of that team. As Franco went, that's how the Steelers went, and that's how this town went."
The Immaculate Reception officially is recorded by the NFL as a 60-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw to Harris, but it was so much more. That play was the catalyst in the Steelers' change from a 39-year-old franchise that never had won a single playoff game or won a single championship into one that has 36 postseason wins and an array of six Lombardi Trophies.
His father had said similar words in an informal setting, and Dan Rooney said them into a live microphone at his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000: "In 1972, Franco Harris came to the Steelers. Before that time, we never won too often. After he came, we never lost. Franco is a very motivating player in a quiet way. He is probably the most caring individual player I have ever met."
A LIFE DEDICATED TO HELPING OTHERS
"You didn't have to ask him twice," said Gordon. "If you told him the situation, he was sympathetic to people who weren't as fortunate or healthy as others. He always responded. It didn't matter what it was. He was such a special person. To see the things he had done in the community for every conceivable cause was amazing."
Starting in 1970, the National Football League began presenting an annual award to one player who best combines an impact in the community with excellence on the field. Franco Harris was the first Steelers player to win the award, and he won it in 1976.
"We nominated, but people were aware of what he did," said Gordon. "His relationship with other people in the league, other players knew what Franco did. He did a lot of things anonymously. He would visit an orphanage, or some facility for the handicapped, and I would hear about it on television. That was Franco."
And that caring sentiment also applied to his former teammates and others he considered to be his friends.
"He was something out of the ordinary. Very special," said Gordon. "I put him on the level of The Chief (Art Rooney Sr.) in doing things for the community, doing things for other people, and oftentimes doing it without being recognized for it. Doing some gesture for someone, if he knew someone was down and out, a former player, it wasn't unusual for him to send him a check. It was Franco. Just a special person.
"I'll tell you an interesting story with Myron (Cope)," continued Gordon. "When Myron was pretty ill and was in Presbyterian Hospital, Franco heard about it. He called me and said, 'Can I visit Myron?' I said, sure. We set up a day, it was a Friday at 3 in the afternoon. Franco was notoriously late. The only time he wasn't late was when he was on the football field. He gets there and we go up to the intensive care unit where Myron was, and Myron was in and out of consciousness. He was out of it most of the time. Myron's daughter Elizabeth was with me, and I said, 'Let Franco go in by himself.' Franco walked over to Myron's bed and said, 'Myron.' Myron looked up, and it was like all of a sudden somebody created a miracle. Myron looked up and became very aware, and Franco was talking to him, and he was responding to Franco. Myron had a grin on his face like you wouldn't imagine. Myron spent about 15 minutes with him. It was almost like he resuscitated him just by calling his name. When Franco was leaving the intensive care unit there were about eight or nine other beds in the unit and a woman came over to Franco and asked him to take a picture with her father because he was a big fan. Franco walked into the unit and stood behind the bed for a picture. When he was leaving, all the medical personnel got his autograph. That was typical of him, and I'm sure it happened multiple other times that I wasn't aware of.
"There is a big dark hole in the Pittsburgh community today."
Harris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 1990 and befitting the kind of player and teammate he was, his acceptance speech was a lot about other people. And he concluded with a message to Steelers fans.
"We didn't know at that time that we were building such a dream, but now the results are in and anyway you look at it, it is truly immeasurable and certainly unforgettable," said Harris. "Good luck and God bless. Thank you very much. Don't forget us."
There's no chance of that.
(Teresa Varley contributed to this story.)