Franco Harris

One of the greatest teams in modern sports history was the Pittsburg Steelers of the ‘70s and early 80s, a team the earned the nickname “The Steel Curtain”. That name was the tag for the amazing defensive line anchored by “Mean” Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and middle linebackerJack Lambert, as well as defensive back standout Mel Blount. That team won four Super Bowls in six years

But while the defense was stellar, their offense was equally potent. With Hall of Famers QB Terry Bradshaw, wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, plus dynamic running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, the Steelers became one of the nation’s most beloved teams.

Last week they lost a key member of that squad with the death of Harris at 72. His passing came just days before the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most famous individual play in modern NFL history. Called “The immaculate Reception,” the play came at the very end of an AFC divisional playoff game between the Steelers and their bitter rival the Oakland Raiders. It happened Dec.23, 1972, and the game and play is one that everyone who witnessed remembers well.

The interesting thing was prior to that play it looked like the Steelers were headed for a defeat. As Harris recalled last week just hours before his death, the Steelers were in trouble.”Things didn’t go too well on those first three plays, as you know,” Harris told interviewers. “And then it gets down to fourth down. A long way to go [in] 22 seconds And I go into the huddle and I tell myself, ‘Franco, this will probably be the last play of the season. It was a good season. Just play it till the end.’ And [the coach] called that 66 halfback option.” Bradshaw tossed a pass to halfback John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who then took a huge hit from Raiders safety Jack Tatum as the ball arrived, sending it backward. As Harris watched the play unfold, he said he made the call to go to the ball, a lesson the former Penn State star said longtime Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno “preached to us all four years.” Sixty yards later, Harris was in the end zone, which, as he explained, is a sequence that still blew his mind five decades later.

“So, I start taking some steps to the ball, and I remember nothing after that, which blows my mind, that I have no visual, no recollection of anything until I am stiff-arming (Raiders defender) Jimmy Warren, going into the end zone,” he said.

Harris continued, “When I see the film, and I see it in real time, it just blows my mind how quick that is. … I have no idea how I reacted so quickly and got it and kept in stride. And even looked up a little bit to try and get the lay of the land. I’m saying, ‘How did all that happen in just those few seconds?’ It didn’t make any sense. Like, I just don’t understand it. I’ve always had great reflexes, but you don’t practice stuff like this.”

Harris was a rookie that season. He’d eventually enjoy a spectacular 13-year career with the Steelers, and also become one of the most beloved individuals in Pittsburgh through numerous charity and philanthropic efforts. At one time he was first on the  NFL rushing list with12,120 rushing yards, and he remains in the Top 10. Harris also went to nine Pro Bowl nods. The Steelers retired his No. 32 jersey at Saturday’s game against the Raiders in conjunction with the Reception’s 50-year anniversary. The NFL moved the game to Christmas Eve night, and appropriately the Steelers rallied in the final minute for 13-10 victory over the now Los Angeles Raiders.

“There was no way we were going to lose that game,” Steelers coach Mile Tomlin said afterward as he sat at a press conference wearing a replica of Harris’ jersey. “Not on this night and not when we’ve just lost this man.”

It was a great tribute to not only a Steeles but an NFL legend.