Franco Harris waves to fans during an introduction at Steelers game in 2019. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Just days before his number was set to be retired, former Steelers running back Franco Harris passed away on Dec. 21 at 72. Harris was responsible for one of the most prominent plays in NFL history, the Immaculate Reception, in 1972. Since his time on the field, Harris has given back to Pittsburgh, often lending his time to several programs, such as the Special Olympics and the Pittsburgh Promise. 

Steelers President Art Rooney II shared a statement via social media on Wednesday morning, discussing how they not only lost a former player but a significant person to the City of Pittsburgh. 

“It’s difficult to find the appropriate words to describe Franco Harris’ impact on the Steelers, his teammate, the City of Pittsburgh, and Steelers Nation,” says Rooney. “From rookie season, which included the Immaculate Reception, through the next 50 years, Franco brought joy to people on and off the field. He never stopped giving back in so many ways. He touched so many, and he was loved by so many.”  Steelers President Art Rooney II

Public officials echoed that sentiment. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald issued a statement on how much Harris mattered to millions of people and conveyed his condolences to his widow and son, Dana and Dok. 

Pittsburgh Promise students with Executive Director Saleem Ghubril, Director of Communications Lauren Bachorski and Board Chairman Franco Harris. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Promise.

“We loved him, and he returned that love many times over,” says Fitzgerald. “As we remember his many contributions to this community, on and off the field, I hope his family is comforted in the fact that his imprint on this town and his work will never be forgotten.” 

Selected by the Steelers in the first round of the 1972 draft, it didn’t take long for Harris to make his mark on the team and in NFL history.

Another iconic Steelers running back, Jerome Bettis, went to social media to show his condolences and how much Harris meant to him. 

“Words can’t begin to describe the pain I am feeling. Franco will always be a brother, mentor and my definition of greatness. He was a legend on the field and the personification of excellence off of the field — a true class act to look up to and aspire to be like.”  Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis

Harris passed just days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. Football Hall of Famer and 1972 teammate Joe Greene and legendary Oakland Raider running back Frenchy Fuqua were set to celebrate the moment at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum on Thursday, Dec. 22. That event has been canceled.

“All of us at the Heinz History Center and Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum are shocked and devastated over the sudden passing of our friend Franco Harris, said Senator John Heinz History Center President and CEO Andy Masich in a statement.

“To us, he was more than an iconic sports figure. Franco was family. It has been a gift to spend so much time with him over these past few months as we lead up to the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. If it’s possible, we came to admire and respect him even more, not just as an athlete, but as a man and a Pittsburgher. Franco touched all of our lives in some way. His story and ours are intertwined. We are all diminished by his loss.”

To celebrate and honor Harris, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey declared Dec. 24, as “Franco Harris Day” in the City of Pittsburgh. Gainey says the city will always remember him for his generosity and kind spirit.

Jason Phox

Jason Phox is a journalist in the Pittsburgh area sharing important information with the people of the Steel City. He enjoys writing, photography, and mostly comic books.