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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Franco Harris, NFL Hall of Famer who caught ‘Immaculate Reception,’ dies at 72

Franco Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs for a touchdown after the “Immaculate Reception” on Dec. 23, 1972.

By Daniel Victor

Franco Harris, the Hall of Fame running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers whose shoestring catch known as the “Immaculate Reception” in 1972 remains one of the most memorable moments in NFL history, has died. He was 72.

His son, Franco “Dok” Harris, confirmed his death to The Associated Press. No cause of death was given.

Harris’ death comes days before the 50th anniversary of the “Immaculate Reception,” which Mike Tomlin, the current Steelers coach, said this week was “the most significant play in the history of the game.” The Steelers planned to retire Harris’ jersey number, 32, during a halftime ceremony at their game Saturday.

The 6-foot-2 running back won four Super Bowls with the Steelers as they established themselves as the NFL’s dominant team of the 1970s, and he was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first nine seasons. But it was a single, heads-up play that more than anything defined his career.

On Dec. 23, 1972, the Steelers were trailing, 7-6, in a divisional round playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. With less than 30 seconds to play in the fourth quarter, the Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, lofted a desperation pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua, only to see the ball deflect toward the ground. But Harris scooped the ball out of the air just inches from the turf and ran untouched for the game-winning touchdown, a miraculous finish that has been replayed thousands of times since.

Five decades later, Harris, who played college football at Penn State, remained one of the most beloved Steelers players, an instantly recognizable face in Pittsburgh. He rushed for 12,120 yards over 13 seasons, 12 of which were with Pittsburgh, and was a linchpin of the Steelers’ most successful era, winning Super Bowls in the 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979 seasons.

The ceremony on Saturday, during halftime of a prime time matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders, had already been planned to pay tribute to Harris. The president of the Steelers, Art Rooney II, part of a family that has owned the team since its founding in 1933, said in a statement in September that “Franco’s impact on the franchise would be hard to overstate.”

“My grandfather was once quoted as saying: ‘Before Franco got here, we didn’t win much. Since he got here, we don’t lose,’” he said in a statement.

Harris retired after the 1984 season as the third-leading rusher in NFL history, behind Walter Payton and Jim Brown. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

“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,” Jim Porter, the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said in a statement.

Harris was born on March 7, 1950, in Fort Dix, New Jersey. After graduating from Rancocas Valley Regional High School in New Jersey, he played fullback at Penn State, opening running lanes for running back Lydell Mitchell.

The Steelers drafted him with the 13th pick in the first round of the 1972 NFL draft, and he made an immediate impact, winning Rookie of the Year honors with 1,055 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. The Steelers never had a losing record in his 12 seasons, and his career record of 354 rushing yards in Super Bowls stands today.

He played for the Seattle Seahawks in his 13th and final season.

Harris is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and his son, Dok, according to The Associated Press.

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