Football player Franco Harris was a running back whose 12,120 yards gained rushing over 13 seasons broke Jim Brown’s record, and he gained more than 1000 yards in each of eight National Football League seasons. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, four-time Super Bowl winner, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, NFL rushing touchdowns leader, NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, and a Pro Football Hall of Famer. He was most famous for his “Immaculate Reception” on December 23, 1972, that gave the Pittsburgh Steelers their first playoff win ever. This famous play helped to raise the Steelers from a very mediocre team to one of the NFL’s finest teams.
The Steelers were scheduled to honor Harris by retiring his No. 32 jersey at halftime of its game against the Las Vegas Raiders on the 50th anniversary of the play. Three days before the 50th anniversary celebration, Harris died of an unreported cause. It is most likely that he died suddenly of an irregular heartbeat (more below) because there were no reported warning signs that he was in poor health.
The “Immaculate Reception”
In a 1972 playoff game, the Oakland Raiders were leading Harris’s Pittsburgh Steelers 7–6 with 22 seconds to play in the game, and Pittsburgh had the ball on their own 40-yard line. Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw eluded several tacklers just to be able to throw his pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua. However, Oakland defender Jack Tatum deflected the pass with such force that the ball went backward more than 20 yards and Harris caught the ball on what was described as “just before it hit the ground,” and he ran with the ball more than 50 yards into the end zone for the touchdown that gave Pittsburgh its first playoff win ever. A local sportscaster dubbed the play the “Immaculate Reception.”
NFL Films calls the Immaculate Reception “the greatest play of all time” (and probably the most controversial). NFL Network’s 100 series selected this play as “the Greatest Play in NFL History,” and the play reversed four decades of the Pittsburgh Steelers being the doormat of the NFL. After their first playoff win ever, they went on to win four Super Bowls by the end of the 1970s.
To understand the controversy, go through these films:
1) Here is what the television viewers saw.
2) Here it is in more detail.
3) The pass from Pittsburgh’s Bradshaw first hit Pittsburgh receiver (Fuqua)’s helmet and then was batted backward more than 20 yards by Oakland defender Jack Tatum. At that time, the rule stated that “if an offensive player touches a pass first, he is the only offensive player eligible to catch the pass” (Rule 7, Section 5, Article 2, Item 1, Official Rules for Professional Football, The National Football League, 1971, pp 44-45). So once the ball hit the Pittsburgh receiver, no other Pittsburgh player could touch the ball. That rule has since been removed from the books. Another reason that the play may have been disqualified is that the ball may have touched the ground before Harris caught it.
Go to the Wikipedia article on the play, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immaculate_Reception, and scroll down to the section on “Referee Call.”
Early Years and Football Career
Franco Harris’s mother was Italian and his father was a Black U.S. Army soldier who had been stationed in Italy during World World War II. They moved to New Jersey after the war, and Franco was one of their nine children. Franco was an outstanding football player at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly Township, New Jersey in 1968, and then went on a football scholarship to Penn State University. In college, he was a running back who ran for a career total of 2,002 yards, had 24 touchdowns, averaged over five yards per carry, caught 28 passes for 352 yards and another touchdown, and led the team in scoring in 1970. He was selected 13th overall in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, was named the NFL Rookie of the Year by The Sporting News and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press.
After an outstanding professional football career, he joined his Penn State College teammate, Lydell Mitchell, to start Super Bakery in 1990 to produce nutrition-oriented foods for schoolchildren. In 2006, they renamed it RSuper Foods. In 1996, they bought the Parks Sausage Company in Baltimore. He married Dana Dokmanovich and they had one son, Franco “Dok” Harris.
Probable Irregular Heartbeat
I have never seen his medical records, but will give you my opinion. On December 20, 2022, at age 72, Harris died in his sleep at his home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, probably from atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart beat. His wife said that he came home at night, sat down and told her that he as exhausted. She went into the bathroom to brush her teeth and when she returned, she found him unconscious. He had no previous warning signs of heart trouble or other disease.
Michael Irvin, TV sports TV commentator and Pro Football Hall of Famer, reported that Harris had been very active and was not sick before his death. On the day before his death, Harris had spoken to visitors at the Heinz History Center, gave an interview with KDKA-TV, and was scheduled to attend the half-time ceremony during the Steelers game to retire his jersey number. On the day he died, he had said that he was “feeling good” in an interview with Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward for his podcast.
Harris had a family history of heart attacks. His brother, college All-American football player Pete Harris, died from a heart attack on August 15, 2006, at age 49. His father, Cad Harris, died at the young age of 60 in 1980.
Signs of Heart Attack Risk in an Apparently Healthy Person
In the later years of his life, Harris had abdominal obesity with a huge belly and much smaller hips, which is a warning sign of fatty liver disease. Having a fatty liver often causes insulin resistance, diabetes and heart attacks. However, Harris had no chest pain, so it is unlikely that he had a conventional heart attack that usually starts with chest pain. The most likely cause of death was an irregular heartbeat in which his heart stopped beating so it stopped pumping blood to his brain. When the brain lacks oxygen it stops signaling the person to breathe and they die from lack of oxygen.
March 7, 1950 – Dec 20, 2022