Franco Harris, who caught the “Immaculate Reception,” widely considered to be the most famous catch in the history of American football, has died at the age of 72.
Harris was a National Football League Hall of Famer, a four-time Super Bowl champion, the 1972 NFL Rookie of the Year, and at one time was the league’s number-two all-time rusher, racking up more than 12,000 yards over a 13-year career, all but one season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But he will be best remembered for the catch he made in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium on the afternoon of December 23, 1972.
The Steelers were losing 7-6 to their arch-rivals, the Oakland Raiders, with just 22 seconds to play in a first-round playoff game.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, seeking to evade a furious Oakland pass rush, threw a desperation pass to midfield, aiming for running back Frenchy Fuqua. As he reached for the ball, Fuqua was hit hard by Raiders linebacker Jack Tatum.
The ball struck Tatum, flew backward and looked ready to hit the ground, ending the Steelers’ season. But Harris, then a rookie, came running up to make a shoestring catch and romped 40 yards into the end zone, scoring a touchdown and giving the Steelers their first-ever postseason victory.
The play was controversial as some observers thought the ball had hit Fuqua or had grazed the ground before Harris caught it, both of which would have nullified the catch. The referees conferred and after several minutes of discussion, ruled the catch was legal.
That night, local television broadcaster Myron Cope named the catch “The Immaculate Reception,” picking up on a suggestion from a woman who had called the station. The name is a play on the title of a Catholic holiday.
Harris went to an illustrious career, highlighted by the Steelers’ first Super Bowl win after the 1974 season. Harris rushed for a record-breaking 158 yards in the game and was named the game’s most valuable player. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
Harris, who was of Black and Italian heritage, inspired a fan club known as Franco’s Italian Army and remained an immensely popular figure in Pittsburgh, where he was simply known as “Franco.”
Harris and the Steelers celebrated the anniversary of the catch on several occasions, and Harris was set to host a party in Pittsburgh later this week.
Harris was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey on March 7, 1950 and attended college at Penn State University.
Hie death was confirmed Wednesday by his family. No cause of death was given.