Remembering Franco Harris

Remembering Franco Harris

  • 31 December, 2022
  • Ray Hartjen

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, of course.

December 23, 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, the most memorable play in professional football history. It was more than a play, as remarkable — and as improbable — as it was.

The play, at the end of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first-ever home playoff game, not only secured the most unlikely of victories, but it marked the inflection point of the Steelers’ fortunes, lifting them to national prominence and signaling the beginning of the first dynasty of the NFL’s Super Bowl era.

The Immaculate Reception changed the Steelers and, in time, the Steelers helped change Pittsburgh. That’s the thesis of our book, Immaculate: How the Steelers Saved Pittsburgh

Franco Harris caught the Immaculate Reception, scoring a touchdown in the Steelers’ 13-7 win over the Oakland Raiders. It’s his most memorable moment on the gridiron, but it was far from his only memorable moment as a player.

Over the course of 13 seasons in the NFL, 12 with the Steelers, Harris rushed for 12,120 yards on 2,949 attempts, caught 307 passes for 2,287 yards, and scored 100 touchdowns.

That was just in the regular season.

In 19 playoff games, Harris tacked on another 1,556 yards rushing, 504 yards receiving, and 17 touchdowns. Nearly 40 years after his retirement, Harris still holds the record for most yards rushing in Super Bowls with 354 yards over his four appearances.

Oh, and a final thing about those statistics. Of his 17 postseason touchdowns, only one came on a pass reception. That was in his first playoff game, and that touchdown reception was the Immaculate Reception.

Harris was a stud on the football field. He was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year after the 1972 season, and he was named to nine consecutive Pro Bowls. He topped 1,000 yards rushing in eight seasons, including six seasons in a row between 1974 and 1979. 

For his exploits on the field, Harris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

Franco Harris next to a statue memorializing his Immaculate Reception

As great a football player as he was, his exploits as a man surpassed what he accomplished on the field. By all accounts, Harris was a kind, considerate, courteous, and compassionate gentleman. He was a beacon of joy and hope in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, and the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception was to be Pittsburgh’s show of devotion to one of its most favorite native sons.

The NFL recognized the significance, as they scheduled the Raiders to play a primetime Christmas Eve matchup in Pittsburgh as part of the festivities. The Steelers were to retire Harris’s number 32 jersey, only the third such honor in the club’s distinguished history. The Heinz History Center was to host a gala dinner in Harris’s honor on December 22.

Heck, even Tom and I recognized the significance of the anniversary as we begged, pleaded and cajoled our publisher, Morgan James Publishing, to release our book in near-record time. They did, turning around our manuscript quickly enough to ensure paperback editions were on shelves on December 20.

Then, that very night, Franco Harris passed away in his sleep. 

Franco had looked the epitome of good health during all his public personal experiences over the past couple of months. He looked fantastic.

And then, like that, he was gone.

Tom and I never had the opportunity to meet Franco. Tom was in Pittsburgh last week for both the release of the book and to take in all the events honoring Harris and remembering the Immaculate Reception. As part of his trip, Tom was to meet Franco on the 22nd.

On several instances in the past month, Tom interacted with Harris’s wife, Dana. She’s a big fan of the book, and told Tom that she teared up at the end. Truth be told, both Tom and I teared up at the end when we wrote the manuscript. 

Dana liked the book so much that she asked for 20 books to gift to her friends. When Dana Harris says she wants 20 books to gift to friends, you can bet we’d get her 20 books to give.

We’ve been told Franco had thumbed through the book quite a bit and that he liked it too. He — or someone who managed his social media accounts — recommended the book. When he did, we certainly saw a spike at Amazon (he recommended the book when only the eBook was available at retail). But, more importantly than lifting the public profile of our humble little book, Tom and I were thrilled that Franco seemingly liked it!

Watching the halftime ceremony on television, the image of Dana and their son, Franco “Dok” Harris, nearly broke my heart. While the city, and in many ways a nation, lost a sporting icon, they lost their beloved spouse and father. I won’t ever forget that image. And, I’ll never forget Franco Harris, a man I never met. 

Dan Rooney, Dana Dokmanovich and Franco "Dok" Harris.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Tom was the guest of honor copies of the book at an event hosted by Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley. There, he met Corey Curenton, a local resident who brought in his own copy of the book for Tom to sign. When Tom flipped it open to the first page, he was surprised to see it signed already by … Franco Harris.

Tom O'Lenic and Corey Curenton

Corey had gotten his hands on a copy of the book before it dropped at booksellers. And, he had gotten Franco to sign it. Tom was humbled and honored to add his signature to the page.

Corey has reached out to me and asked if I would sign it as well the next time I’m in the city. 

It would be my sincere honor to do so, and to be associated with, even if just on a single page, with the great Franco Harris. 

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