Franco Harris Died Nearly 50 Years After The Immaculate Reception Made Him An NFL Legend

In the century and a half or so that Americans have been watching our version of football (as opposed to Association Football, or soccer), there have been quite a few plays that stand out as history-making. For example, there was the play now simply known as The Play: as ESPN reports, California, trailing Stanford at the end of a game, scored a touchdown on the last play, through an impossible series of laterals, and won the game, even as the Stanford band took the field, believing they'd won. In the confusion, a California player ran headlong into a member of the Stanford band.

Another history-making play took place in 1972, and as History reports, by some measures, it's considered the greatest play in NFL history, if not in football history. The Immaculate Reception, as it's called, occurred when Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Franco Harris caught a pass — intended for another receiver but deflected — in the waning seconds of the game and ran it back for a touchdown. It was the metaphorical end to decades of Steelers' ineptitude, and it solidified Harris as a Pittsburgh legend. And Harris died almost 50 years to the day after the play that made him a household name.

The Immaculate Reception

For the first four decades of its existence, according to History, the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise was known mostly for its lack of success. In nearly 40 seasons, the team had managed only seven winning records and not a single postseason win. However, as the 1972 season entered its final weeks, the Steelers, now stacked with talent (including future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw), had put together a winning record and had made the postseason, per Pro Football Reference.

On December 23, the team faced the Oakland Raiders in a first-round playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium (then the home of the Steelers). With a mere 22 seconds left in the game, the Steelers were down 7 to 6, were at 4th-and-10 from their own 40-yard line, with no timeouts — a nearly certain no-win situation. In what would be the final play of the game, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass toward intended receiver John Fuqua.

What happened next isn't 100% clear — it happened in a fraction of a second, and there were fewer TV cameras covering the action from fewer angles. But at the end of the day (so to speak), the ball was in a Steelers player's hands. That player was not Fuqua but Harris, who had managed to take possession of it after it was deflected. Harris then ran it into the end zone, giving the Steelers an improbable victory.

Harris died almost exactly 50 years later

The Immaculate Reception was significant for a number of reasons. According to NBC News, it was a sort of symbolic turning point for the Steelers as a franchise; whereas for the previous 4 decades they'd been known for painful mediocrity, they would, over the next decade, attain "a level of success unprecedented in professional football," as the Steelers website describes it. Harris went on to a storied career, with rushing numbers comparable to those of Jim Brown and Walter Payton, according to the New York Times, and was eventually inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, on December 21, 2022, Franco died at the age of 72. His cause of death was not immediately revealed. Sadly, his death came about 48 hours before the 50th anniversary of arguably the biggest moment of his career. "Franco not only impacted the game of football, but he also affected the lives of many, many people in profoundly positive ways," said Hall of Fame president Jim Porter.