Football legend Franco Harris, who played at Penn State early in the Joe Paterno era before helping launch the Pittsburgh Steelers’ legendary late-1970s dynasty, is dead at the age of 72, Pittsburgh’s WTAE reported early Wednesday morning.
Just days before the Pittsburgh Steelers plan to retire Franco Harris’ #32 jersey, @WTAE sources confirm the stunning and tragic news that Franco has died. His death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.
Franco Harris was 72 years old. pic.twitter.com/qorEV8gxXa
— Janelle Hall (@JanelleHallWTAE) December 21, 2022
Harris died Tuesday, two days before the 50th anniversary of his iconic “Immaculate Reception” and three days before his jersey will be retired by the Steelers at Heinz Field. The cause of death is unknown at this time.
Before coming to the Steelers, Harris played at Penn State from 1969-71.
He helped Penn State to an undefeated season in 1969, rushing for 643 yards, 10 touchdowns and 5.6 yards per carry while splitting carries with Lydell Mitchell and Charlie Pittman. Harris and Mitchell became the most iconic rushing duo in Penn State history over the next two seasons, and both went on to have successful careers in the NFL.
Harris ended his Penn State career with 24 touchdowns and a 5.3 yards per carry average, and became the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first-round draft choice, going No. 13 overall. The Steelers were known as losers for most of their first 39 seasons, and that reputation changed in 1972, with Harris playing a big part. Harris rushed for more than 1,000 yards won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
In the postseason, Harris had his most legendary moment, making what’s still thought of as the greatest play in NFL history. The “Immaculate Reception” gave the Steelers their first ever playoff win and launched a dynasty highlighted by four Super Bowl championships between 1974-79.
Harris was the MVP of Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl win, rushing for 158 yards and the Steelers’ first Super Bowl touchdown in a 16-6 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings. Harris went on to become one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, making nine Pro Bowls and an All-Pro team. He played with the Steelers through the 1982 season and spent the last year of his career with the Seattle Seahawks, battling Walter Payton for Jim Brown’s NFL rushing record, which Payton ultimately won. Harris ended his career after the 1983 season and went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
Harris remained a fixture in the Pittsburgh community decades after his retirement, and was a big supporter of Penn State as well. He made headlines for his active support of his coach, Paterno following the Jerry Sandusky scandal, drawing praise and criticism.
The Immaculate Reception’s anniversary celebrations will surely be much more somber as Steelers and Penn State fans mourn the loss of a legend.