Author of one of the most iconic plays in NFL history, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris died early Wednesday morning. He was 72.
Dok Harris told The Associated Press his father died overnight. No cause of death was given.
Harris’ death comes two days before the 50-year anniversary of The Immaculate Reception, the 1972 AFC Playoff game in which Harris caught a ricocheted pass just before it hit the ground and ran it for a touchdown to beat the Oakland Raiders. NFL Films chose it as the greatest play of all time and the most controversial.
The Steelers were scheduled to retire Harris’ No. 32 on Saturday against the Raiders to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Immaculate Reception.
Tony Dungy was a senior in high school watching that Raiders-Steelers playoff game with his father. He remembers telling his day that Harris’ Immaculate Reception was the luckiest play he had ever seen in any sport. Five years later, Dungy was in camp with the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent.
“I’m watching him practice,” the former Indianapolis Colts coach told The 33rd Team’s Jade McCarthy on Wednesday, “and after about a week, I called my dad and said, ‘That wasn’t a lucky play.’ It might have been fortunate that the ball bounced up, but that was Franco to the T. He hustled every moment, he practices hard, he plays hard. He showed me how to practice and get ready to be a champion.
“And off the field, to see him interact with fans, to see him welcome all the rookies in and treat you like you’re somebody special, even if you’re an undrafted free agent like I was. To see him in the community and go to charity events with him — to become part of the atmosphere of Pittsburgh. … I can’t tell you the impact he had on me as a person, as well as a player.”
Dave Wannstedt, an analyst for The 33rd Team, recalled an interaction he had with Harris while Wannstedt was the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Harris said, ‘I know you’re Pitt, and I’m Penn State, but I am here in Pittsburgh and anything I can do to help you, your family or your staff, I am a Pittsburgh guy and keep that in mind if anything ever crosses that bridge,'” Wannstedt said. “That’s how I’ll always remember Franco.”
Harris attended Penn State in college and was primarily used as a fullback. The Steelers took him 13th overall in the 1972 NFL Draft.
Harris played for the Steelers for 12 of his 13 NFL seasons. He won four Super Bowls in Pittsburgh, ran for 12,120 yards, and was selected to either the Pro Bowl or as an All-Pro every season from 1972 to 1980. He won the 1972 Rookie of the Year award by breaking the then-rookie rushing record with 1,055 yards while adding 10 touchdowns.
“We have lost an incredible football player, an ambassador to the Hall of Fame, and more importantly, we have lost one of the finest gentlemen anyone will ever meet,” wrote Hall of Fame President Jim Porter in a statement. “Franco not only impacted the game of football, but he also impact the lives of many, many people in profoundly positive ways.”
Social media was filled with an outpouring of love and respect following his death.
We have lost an Icon in Franco Harris. He embodied Pgh in his Grace, Humility, & Sense of Pride. He was a Champion on the Field & Ambassador off it. Thank you Franco for setting the standard that we all strive to achieve as a Professional & as a Person. RIP & condolences to Dana. pic.twitter.com/3GtCgOpeOW
— Bill Cowher (@CowherCBS) December 21, 2022
To the man who announced me as a Pittsburgh Steeler, May you Rest in Peace. Very thankful for our friendship and you always being there for me when I needed it. Penn State and Steeler Legend forever. May your legacy live on forever. RIP 32.🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/95ajLaiD7M
— Pat Freiermuth (@pat_fry5) December 21, 2022
— Ottis OJ Anderson (@OJAnderson24) December 21, 2022
I’m shocked and saddened to hear about the passing of my friend Franco Harris.
Praying for Franco and his loved ones🖤
— Emmitt Smith (@EmmittSmith22) December 21, 2022
i met Franco Harris. it was at a very young age in my football career. he said to me i have what it takes to be a great football player. im just grateful he took the time to say something to encourage me to become a better person + player. Thank you 🐐.
rest in paradise. #32 pic.twitter.com/VIeZRQVYvs
— Darrelle Revis (@Revis24) December 21, 2022
Woke up this morning to the devastating news that my friend Franco Harris passed away during the night. One of the kindest, gentlest men I have ever known. He was a great person & great teammate. Hall of Fame player but so much more than that. A tremendous role model for me! pic.twitter.com/OswJ82x7I1
— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) December 21, 2022
Franco Harris will not only be remembered as a great player. His legacy will also be one of character and humility off of the field, as well as a dear friend of the Hall.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) December 21, 2022
Remembering Franco Harris this morning… pic.twitter.com/aOYZQeQcIP
— Jason McCourty (@JasonMcCourty) December 21, 2022
Harris is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and his son, Dok.