Steelers great Franco Harris dies at age 72

Two days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and three days before his number is scheduled to be retired by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris died.

He was 72.

No cause of death was revealed, but family friend Curtis Aiken — the former Pitt basketball star — said Harris died in his sleep.

On Saturday, at halftime of the Steelers’ game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Harris will become the third player in franchise history to have his number retired. He’ll join Ernie Stautner and former teammate Joe Greene.

“I’m thinking that I’m having a nightmare and I want someone to wake me up so I can get over this terrible feeling,” Greene said Wednesday.

Harris authored what is considered to be the greatest play in NFL history when he caught a deflected pass inches from the ground and ran for a 60-yard touchdown with five seconds left in a playoff game against the Raiders on Dec. 23, 1972.

The catch and run, famously dubbed the Immaculate Reception, propelled the Steelers to a 13-7 win that was the first playoff victory in franchise history. It set the stage for the glory years of the 1970s when the Steelers won the Super Bowl four times in six years.

“It is difficult to find the appropriate words to describe Franco Harris’ impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers, his teammates, the City of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. “From his 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.”

The Steelers were planning to recognize the anniversary of the monumental catch on Friday, the day before Harris’ number will be retired during the nationally televised game against the franchise’s archrivals from the 1970s.

Harris was named MVP of Super Bowl IX and was the NFL’s third-leading rusher with 12,120 yards at the time of his retirement in 1984. He spent his first 12 seasons with the Steelers before ending his career with the Seattle Seahawks following a threatened training camp holdout, a move he and the organization later regretted.

Harris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

“It’s just a shocking state of events,” said Terry Bradshaw, the Hall of Fame quarterback who threw the pass that resulted in Harris’ famous catch.

Bradshaw said his wife, Tammy, told him the news after receiving a text from Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount about 3 a.m.

“When I found out, I couldn’t say anything,” Bradshaw said. “When I sat down (later) and read Mel’s comments to me, I told Tammy, ‘Honey, we were just there two weeks ago. We were in L.A. We were filming (a feature) on the Immaculate Reception. We were cutting up, hooting and hollering, making fun of one another, reminiscing about plays. He gave me a jersey. I’m getting it framed.’”

In September, the Steelers announced they would retire Harris’ jersey at the game Saturday, tying the event into the anniversary celebration of the Immaculate Reception. The NFL scheduled the Raiders to play in Pittsburgh this weekend to coincide with the festivities.

Rooney II called it a “long overdue jersey retirement given Franco’s remarkable accomplishments to the team of the decade.”

Harris was overwhelmed by the gesture.

“It’s like giving you flowers while you’re still around to smell them,” he said.

On Tuesday, as the Steelers planned the jersey retirement ceremony, coach Mike Tomlin talked about the impact Harris had on the organization. One day later, he spoke with emotion about Harris’ death.

“This organization, this community, the football world, we lost a great one in Franco Harris,” Tomlin said. “Obviously we’re all heartbroken, but we do look forward to honoring him and his legacy this weekend, and obviously where our attention needs to be is on the preparation required to put together the type of performance that’s fitting of a great man like Franco.”

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