Labriola On

The catalyst joins the cornerstone

On Nov. 2, 2014, the Steelers recognized the cornerstone. On Dec. 23, they will do the same thing with the catalyst.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a storied NFL franchise with a rich history, and so often what accompanies a franchise with 90 seasons in the football business plus enough success to own six Lombardi Trophies is a collection of interesting quirks. For the Steelers, one of those is the distinction of being the only team in the NFL with its logo on only one side of its helmet, and another is as a franchise that is No. 3 among its peers for highest representation in the Pro Football Hall of Fame yet near the bottom in jersey retirements.

When the sun rose on Downtown Pittsburgh on Sept. 6, the Steelers had retired only two numbers – Ernie Stautner's No. 70 and Joe Greene's No. 75. By the time the sun set on the statue of founder Art Rooney Sr., located just outside Acrisure Stadium, there were going to be three.

No. 32 is going into storage with some elite company.

The 2022 NFL seasons marks the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, the moniker assigned to what the league itself labeled the greatest play in its history, and the man who put the Immaculate in that reception joined Steelers President Art Rooney II at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Tuesday, Sept. 6, for the announcement of an additional slice of franchise history.

"Hello everyone," began the guest of honor, "and thank you for being here this afternoon. What can I say but, 'wow.' I mean, I am blown away, and I'd like to thank Art and the Rooney family for this honor. Thank you very, very much. I know this consideration was a tough one, because there are a number of players who could have been honored, so once again, thank you."

One of the highlights of the league's 2022 regular season schedule is a game in Pittsburgh vs. the Raiders on Dec. 24, and on Dec. 23, 1972 football history was made that changed the course of one of the NFL's franchises. And it was done so in dramatic fashion. There cannot be a professional football fan anywhere who isn't somewhat familiar with the particulars of the play now known as the Immaculate Reception, but here it is in all of its play-by-play simplicity as listed on ProFootballHOF.com: "Harris 60 pass from Bradshaw (Gerela kick)." It was way more than just that.

If there is any doubt the Immaculate Reception was a seminal moment in Steelers history, consider that before Dec. 23, 1972, the franchise had been operating for 39 years and had won not a single playoff game nor carried home even one championship trophy. After that play – and understand that play isn't THAT PLAY without Harris' contributions to it – the Steelers won 36 playoff games and have a display featuring six Lombardi trophies lined up in a nice, neat row.

"I would say it's a long overdue jersey retirement, given Franco's remarkable contributions to the team of the decade," said Rooney in reference to the 1970s Steelers. "Many have said, and I agree, that the Immaculate Reception marked the turning point in franchise history. My grandfather once was quoted as saying, 'Before Franco got here we didn't win much, and since he got here we didn't lose very often.' I think that sums it up pretty well. Franco's impact on the franchise would be hard to overstate. As such, I think it's appropriate that we recognize Franco's remarkable career by retiring his No. 32 at our game on Dec. 24. (vs. the Raiders)."

Rooney went on to explain some of the plans for making a weekend of it. At 3:29 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 23, there will be a re-enactment of the play staged around the historical markers commissioned when Three Rivers Stadium was demolished, and to be attended by some of the participants that day and open to the public. Then at halftime of the game the following day – Saturday, Dec. 24, with an 8:15 p.m. scheduled kickoff – Harris will be presented to the crowd and his jersey officially will be retired.

It will be retired deservedly because Franco Harris' play not only was the difference between victory and defeat in a playoff game, but it broke the ice that had frozen solid over 39 previous years of losing and disappointment and unfulfilled promise. And since it was done quickly and dramatically, it had the impact of flipping a switch. Total darkness became bright light. Perpetual losers became consistent winners.

The Steelers held a press conference to announce Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris' No. 32 jersey retirement celebration

Or as Dan Rooney eloquently explained, "There are times, though seldom, when everything comes together. When a group of young men become a special team. Where their accomplishments give them a time in history. Not only winning, but being the best, and doing so with unselfish determination to be the best team. Making the goal together. That happened in Pittsburgh. It was a glorious time."

Indeed it was glorious, and it came at a point when Pittsburghers needed something in their lives that wasn't a mill closing or a business leaving. During the early 1970s, Pittsburghers could be mocked for the way they talked, or the jobs they no longer had, or the numbers of their neighbors who were packing up to leave. But football was important throughout Western Pennsylvania, and when conversation during that era drifted to that sport, the one-liners stopped.

There are six trophies in cases and 29 busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Twenty-one of those 29 belong to individuals who had some direct involvement in all of the winning that happened during that era, and of those 21, 16 wore jerseys on game day. There aren't enough numbers to retire all those that are worthy, and choosing between them can be compared to a parent choosing among children.

Rather than choosing, this one has the feel of a recognition, because in terms of the players who made it happen, Joe Greene was the cornerstone upon which Chuck Noll built his masterpiece, and Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception flipped the switch. Total darkness to bright light.

"You know, we've taken our time doing this over the years, and so I don't expect to be doing it very often," said Rooney about the possibility of increasing the pace of these kind of announcements. "I think it'll still be a rare occasion. And as Franco said, it's hard to make the decision because we do have many players who are deserving. So we'll just keep taking our time with it. Given this is the 50th anniversary of the greatest play in NFL history and Franco made the play, it's the appropriate time to do Franco's number. Then, we'll probably take our time making decisions on the rest."

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