Steelers legend Franco Harris dies at 72


Franco Harris, whose "Immaculate Reception" was a highlight in a decorated Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks, has died. He was 72. No cause of death was immediately known.

Harris, who played 12 of his 13 NFL seasons with the Steelers after starring for Penn State, was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time Super Bowl champion. His 91 career rushing touchdowns rank 11th all time. He holds several Steelers records including his 11,950 rushing yards with the franchise. 

"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," Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. "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."

"We are shocked and saddened to learn of the unexpected passing of Franco Harris.," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "He meant so much to Steelers fans as the Hall of Fame running back who helped form the nucleus of the team's dynasty of the '70s, but he was much more. He was a gentle soul who touched so many in the Pittsburgh community and throughout the entire NFL. Franco changed the way people thought of the Steelers, of Pittsburgh, and of the NFL. He will forever live in the hearts of Steelers fans everywhere, his teammates, and the city of Pittsburgh. Our condolences go out to his wife, Dana, and their son, Dok."

Harris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990. 

"The entire team at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is immensely saddened today," Hall of Fame president Jim Porter said in a statement. "We have lost an incredible football player, an incredible ambassador to the Hall and most importantly, we have lost one of the finest gentlemen anyone will ever meet. Franco not only impacted the game of football, but he also affected the lives of many, many people in profoundly positive ways. 

"The Hall of Fame and historians everywhere will tell Franco's football story forever. His life story can never be told fully, however, without including his greatness off the field.

"My heart and prayers go out to his wife, Dana, an equally incredible person, a special friend to the Hall and someone who cares so deeply for Franco's Hall of Fame teammates."

Harris was a rookie when he made the "Immaculate Reception" on Dec. 23, 1972, against the Oakland Raiders in one of the most iconic plays in NFL history. However, his introduction into the NFL as the No. 13 overall pick that year was a gauntlet. Franco told CBS Sports in April of 2021 that his "welcome to the NFL" moment came when he was on the receiving end of a hard hit on special teams during the preseason. Then, his regular season-debut against John Madden's Raiders was a different animal entirely as he described the notable uptick in speed and violence "was on a scale I've never seen before." It may have taken Harris a few weeks to get his feet under him in the NFL, but once he did it was off to the races, rushing for 115 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in a Week 5 win over the Oilers. 

"First 100-yard game, first NFL touchdown," Harris said of his breakout performance. "And went on to make over 1,000 yards and made Rookie of the Year. Who would have thought that? But there were some trying times my rookie season, and luckily I was able to get through those trying times. Then the rest of the '70s is really kind of history. … We went on to become the worst football team of all time, to what I'm going to say — and I know there's going to be some controversy on this — to the greatest football team of all time."

The success of that 1972 Steelers club generated a buzz around the organization that is still felt today and Harris was at the center of it all. 

"My rookie year was an incredible year," Harris recalled. "That year, [Steelers fans] went crazy. Franco's Italian Army popped up. And then we had all these fan clubs pop up. That generated so much enthusiasm and so much of a following. And it's still there today with Steelers Nation. That was a pretty incredible rookie year. I don't know if anybody ever had as much fun in their rookie year as I did. Going from the worst of all time to this incredible season, to an incredible base of fans to win our first playoff game the way that we won it and to go from there. It was a dream rookie season." 

Along with his success with the Steelers, Harris had a decorated collegiate career at Penn State where he still remains inside the top 20 in program history with 2,002 career rushing yards. 

"Our thoughts are with Franco Harris' wife, Dana, and we send our deepest condolences to his entire family, his friends, the Steelers organization and all whose lives were impacted by Franco," said Penn State Football head coach James Franklin said in a statement. "His professional career and accomplishments speak for itself as a Pro Football Hall of Famer, four-time Super Bowl Champion and nine-time Pro Bowl selection, but it was his toughness and team-first approach as a Nittany Lion that will long be remembered by Penn Staters. Franco was a true steward of the Blue & White and he will be sorely missed."

The Steelers are facing the Raiders on Saturday, one day after the 50th anniversary of Harris' catch in the divisional round of the 1972 NFL postseason. Along with a celebration of that anniversary, the Steelers were scheduled to retire Harris' No. 32 during a halftime ceremony. It is unclear if those plans will be altered in the wake of his passing. 

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