Life, death, and Steelers football have always had a certain sense of irony in the annals of history, as we received another reminder early this morning.
Steelers fans had the game with the Raiders marked on their schedule this season to celebrate the career of Steelers legend Franco Harris, see his number retired, and commemorate the anniversary of the greatest play in NFL history, the “Immaculate Reception.”
Then, many of us turned on our televisions and radios or checked our mobile devices early Wednesday morning; we all heard the breaking news that Franco Harris passed away late Tuesday night. A mere three days before the commencement of weekend activities to celebrate the historic occasion. A weekend many expected to be a festive time in Pittsburgh with the holiday season approaching will now take on a more somber feeling, especially within the Steelers organization.
There are maybe only a handful of events in which people remember where they were or what they were doing when they heard the news, events like the JFK assassination, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, and 9/11. For Steelers fans, in particular, the news of Franco’s passing will hit home and affect many who will remember where they were when they heard the news. It’s not as if we haven’t lost other members of the historic 70s franchise that Harris belonged. But, if not for Franco, it’s hard to fathom the Steelers becoming the dominant franchise of the 70s they eventually became.
Franco Harris was the Steelers number one draft choice from Penn State. Oddly, compared to the other Steelers drafts from 1969-1974, it was probably not their best draft in terms of memorable talent, yet they got a future hall-of-fame player with their number-one pick who eventually transformed the franchise. Yet even the words Hall of Fame do not come close to describing the impact Franco had on the franchise. Art Rooney II quipped that his grandfather Art Rooney Sr. said, “Before Franco got here, we didn’t win much. Since he got here, we don’t lose.”
Granted, Harris was one of the greatest running backs to play the game, but few running backs transform a team from a club that never won to one that made winning a tradition. It all happened in one play against the Raiders. In the game’s final play, the Raiders were ahead of the Steelers on the scoreboard, and the Steelers had time for one last play. Terry Bradshaw hurled the football downfield, hoping to make a phenomenal pass to French Fuqua, and in doing so, it worked out in a most improbable way.
As the ball got to Frenchy Fuqua, Jack Tatum, as he usually did to receivers, leveled Frenchy with a bone-crunching hit causing the ball to ricochet through the air. Then just before it touched the ground, Franco Harris snagged it running all the way to the end zone to stun the Raiders, defeating them. We know all the lore surrounding the play in that if Frenchy had touched the ball, it would have been an illegal play at the time, as the play was only legal if the ball touched Jack Tatum first. Phil Villapiano claims the ball touched the ground. John Madden claims the referees illegally used instant replay to make the call.
Despite the lore, there was a certain sense of irony in Franco scoring the touchdown. Franco gave credit to his college coach Joe Paterno for teaching that on a pass play, always track the ball; if it’s a busted play, perhaps you can still be in a position to make a play. That is what Franco did, and he scored a touchdown. That said, there is still a certain sense of irony that Harris made the play.
If you read the book “The ones who hit the hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, The ‘70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul” by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne. The authors state that Franco took a lackadaisical approach to practice as a player for Penn State, despite his greatness as an athlete. The approach tended to aggravate Joe Paterno. Nevertheless, Paterno’s teachings paid off; Franco caught the ball and, in one play, transformed the Steelers from a team whom the nation considered lovable losers into a dynasty that destroyed opponents for a decade and claimed four championships in a six-year span.
Given his untimely passing, it will sadden fans near and far. Nonetheless, Franco will still be only the 3rd player in Steelers history to have his number retired, and at least Franco knew that would happen before his passing. While the moment will now be bittersweet for those that grew up watching Franco play for the Steelers, we will each have our unique memories of the man who helped forge a football franchise in steel.