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Extended interview: Franco Harris discusses his legacy just days before his death

In this Dec. 23, 1972, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers' Franco Harris (32) eludes a tackle by Oakland Raiders' Jimmy Warren as he runs 42-yards for a touchdown after catching a deflected pass during an AFC Divisional NFL football playoff game in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Steelers announced on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022 they will retire the No. 32 of Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris during a Christmas Eve game against the Las Vegas Raiders. The honor will come 50 years and one day after Harris' iconic "Immaculate Reception" in a playoff victory over the Raiders.
Harry Cabluck
In this Dec. 23, 1972, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers' Franco Harris (32) eludes a tackle by Oakland Raiders' Jimmy Warren as he runs 42-yards for a touchdown after catching a deflected pass during an AFC Divisional NFL football playoff game in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Steelers announced on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022 they will retire the No. 32 of Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris during a Christmas Eve game against the Las Vegas Raiders. The honor will come 50 years and one day after Harris' iconic "Immaculate Reception" in a playoff victory over the Raiders.

This weekend was supposed to be a huge celebration for Pittsburgh and the Steelers. Friday marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous plays in NFL history — Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception." The Steelers host the Raiders this Saturday and were planning on retiring Harris' No. 32 during a ceremony at the game.

But the celebration will now likely become a somber memorial, as Harris died overnight at age 72.

WESA's Kevin Gavin spoke with Franco on Monday, in one of his last interviews, about his time on the Steelers and his career-defining play.

Kevin Gavin: Franco, welcome to the program and happy anniversary.

Franco Harris: Hello, Kevin. Thank you very much. Hard to believe, 50 years.

KG: Yes. And you, of course, were a rookie. What a way to sort of top off your rookie season.

FH: Oh, my gosh. I tell you what. The rookie season was incredible. And, you know, as a team, we had a great season. Individually, it worked out great for me. And then going into the playoff game, right? And this was the first winning season for the Steelers, I believe, in about 10 years. And what a winning season, going 11 and three, going into the second playoff game ever in the 40 year history of the Steelers.

KG: Exactly. And of course, it was the first playoff victory for the franchise.

FH: First playoff touchdown for the playoffs in Steeler history.

KG: Oh, forgot about that because the earlier scores in that game were Roy Gerala field goals!

FH: Yes. Next to nothing. And, and then, and they played one other playoff game previously and they had a big goose egg.

KG: [laughs] Well, you know, Franco, many fans, including myself, get chills when we hear that play by play or see the video replay. What are you thinking, feeling, when you hear that description? See that replay nowadays?

FH: You know what? I have to admit, you know what? There's, there's still that, you know, unbelievable feeling, a little chill in the air. I'm saying, 'Wow, is that me?' And just reflect back and realize how special that year in 1972 was, how incredible the play was, and then the unbelievable run that we had during the seventies. So when you connect it all, you know, like it just makes you feel so good. It makes you, like, it just makes you say, 'Wow, what a run did we have.'

KG: Mm hmm. I played that radio clip for a very specific reason because most of us actually heard it on the radio. We didn't see it live. We heard it live on the radio because the NFL had the blackout rule at that time for local television. We only got to see it late that night on a video replay.

FH: But everybody says that they saw it. And one interesting thing is that it was not a sold out game. And yet, everybody says they were at the stadium. [Laughs]

KG: [Laughs] We have selective memory sometimes, I think. But yeah. So, if we saw it, we either had a lot of friends 75 miles outside of Pittsburgh, or we drove to a bar 75 miles south of Pittsburgh to see the game on television.

FH: Right, or as you said, later on that night in the news or another time you caught it, and it's ingrained in you. 'Oh, yeah, like I saw it at that time.' But, but even, you know, people who saw it or heard it at that time, nobody knew what was going on. There was so much confusion.

KG: Now, did you think it was a legal catch all the way? I mean, the Raiders argued that the ball ricocheted off your teammate, [John William] "Frenchy" Fuqua. Which would have been, at that time, an illegal catch because two offensive players couldn't touch the ball in a row. Did you think it was legal all the time? I know the Raiders, they probably still argue it was illegal.

FH: Well, you know what? When I do see the film, like, I feel pretty sure that, that it came off of [Oakland player Jack] Tatum and like, especially with, with that force of a ricochet. And when I do watch it, to me, it looks like it hits Tatum last. Now, if it hit Frenchy, if it grazed Frenchy first going past him, you know, sure. But, you know, from what I see in the film, it definitely bounced, you know, hit Tatum.

KG: Yeah, his coming forward to tackle or break up the pass, that force of the ricochet. I mean, if it had hit off of Frenchy it would not have gone that far backwards.

FH: And really that quick. I mean, when I watch the film and watch the film in real time. It blows my mind how quick it was. It was like, boom! And, and, and I've always had good reflexes, my whole life. I've just been, just born with good reflexes. But little did I know that, how quick that ball came back. And, and to be able to have that type of reaction, that quick. And to have the sense of mind to not break stride, otherwise I'd have been tackled and, you know, to get into the end zone. But the hard part is, I remember none of that. I have no recollection of anything. Like I have no visual of the ball. I have no visual of me thinking, you know, 'Hey, you know, catch it, don't break stride.' You know, my first memory is stiff arming Jimmy Warren going into the end zone.

KG: Jimmy Warren, a defensive back for the Raiders.

FH: And I remember going to the backfield and saying, 'Go to the ball,' when Bradshaw threw it. And then, complete blank. But I watched the film and I'm saying, 'Wow.' I'm going to say, and what timing. You know, when you look at everything, how did everything come together like that? You know, it's, like that's the part you shake your head with. I mean, how did it all come together?

KG: There was no instant replay yet in the NFL. I think that would come 12, 14 years later, officially. What were you thinking when the officials were discussing it for maybe what seemed like an eternity to you and your teammates?

FH: Well, I mean, I was hoping that they wouldn't overturn it, but I was happy that they signaled a touchdown. Now, I'm a rookie, not that I really knew the rules of regulation and, but they signaled a touchdown. And as you said, I'm not sure back then, how do you overturn that back then? You know what I mean? Because now, instant replay, they can overturn it. But back in 1972, if a touchdown is signaled, what other alternative is there? I don't know, still don't know I guess.

KG: Franco, the team had already, by that time, had been drafting some future Hall of Famers: Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, you. But for the franchise, do you believe this was the turning point? This, as you said, was the first playoff victory ever. Was this the turning point that moved this team forward to be Super Bowl champs two years later?

FH: 1972 was just an incredible year. And that year changed everything. People had to remember that from 1933 to when they were founded, to 1972, just about 40 years... In that 40 years, they only had, I believe, nine winning seasons. And the last winning season they had before 1972 was 1963, about ten years earlier. So, they were known, you know, just as losers. And luckily, we didn't know all the history of the Steelers back then, right? And like, as you said, they brought in Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, other players, and things really gelled in 1972, and it clicked. And in that 14-game season, we won 11 games and only lost three, and lost the three games by a total of 11 points. So, I mean, we were playing some really good football, and this is my rookie year, right? And, and I'm thinking, ‘wow, this is the way it’s always been,’ you know, like, until I really looked at their history, you know. You know, you know, you know, later on. Here I am thinking, ‘Wow, this is great.’ You know, great players, and we really started to gel, and we really started to believe. But the big thing, you know, like when I watched the film, I saw one of the signs. Back then they started putting up a lot of signs, right.

KG: Franco's Italian Army, Gerela's Gorillas.

FH: Gorillas, you know.

KG: Dobre Shunka for Jack Ham.

FH: Dobre Shunka and I saw one that said Super Bowl. And it's interesting that, here we are. Okay, we win the "Immaculate Reception" game, right? Next week, we play for the championship, one game away from the Super Bowl. That's like, oh, my gosh, my rookie year. Right? One game away from the Super Bowl. And we're playing the undefeated Miami Dolphins, and they‘re playing us in Pittsburgh, right? Just, you know, rules were different then about winning and winning record. And they come to Pittsburgh, and I'm walking outside for warmups, and it was sunny and 65 degrees at the end of December in Pittsburgh. And I said, 'This is not a good omen.' And I could not believe it, it was 65, you know, around 65 and sunny in Pittsburgh. But you know, like, you know, we gave it, we gave them a game and, and they went on to be undefeated, which is, which is great, had their undefeated season in ‘72, but it started making us thinking: Super Bowl. And, you know, like, I just doubt they, they were they were thinking that when Chuck Noll came in at ‘69?

KG: Yes.

FH: ‘69, ‘70, and ‘71. I'm sure nobody had any thoughts of Super Bowl. And here we are after the '72 season thinking Super Bowl. And I don't think any of us foresaw the future of how great it would be.

KG: Yeah. Chuck's first season as coach, I believe, was one and 13. So, if he was thinking about it, he was holding it to himself.

FH: Yeah, one and 13, five and nine, six and eight. So they had three losing seasons right off the bat.

KG: Franco, you're just one of three Steelers to have his number retired, joining Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene. You're number 32. How does that feel?

FH: I’ll tell you what, huge honor. And, and it's an unbelievable feeling and… But, you know, like, it's just not me, you know? This is where my line, my teammates, you know. I mean, what a team we had, just great guys and, you know, to accomplish what we accomplished, and, and even myself individually, what I accomplish is, well. Never came into the league thinking that so much good fortune would happen. And it was a heck of a run, it really was. And when I had lunch with Art Rooney [II] and he broke that news to me. I was like, really taken aback. And I was like, ‘Wow, I can't believe this.’ But what an honor. And I guess it’s… well, you know, we have so many great players on our team in the seventies out of the 22 starters, we have ten Hall of Famers. But to be the first offensive player to have the jersey retired. That's, that's quite an honor. It really is. And about time we get some offense, I know with Steelers, [unintelligible], but we had some offense, too.

KG: [laughs] Yes, you did. All right. So, third player, first offensive player to have jersey retired, Hall of Famer, four time Super Bowl winner, MVP of Super Bowl nine. Where does the "Immaculate Reception" rank in all those honors, those accomplishments, team and individual?

FH: Well, like, this is what I, how I break it down, cause you need to break it down in categories. You know, with individual play, nothing topped the "Immaculate Reception." That's, that's number one. And, so if, for an individual play, the "Immaculate Reception" 50 years ago. For the most important game, I think, of the seventies: Once again, was the Raiders, was the 1974 championship game in Oakland. And when we flew out to Oakland to play them in the championship game in '74 and we beat them there in Oakland, we knew right at that time we were a great football team. And, and not a thing of being cocky, but a thing of being so confident. And, and, and also, believing in ourselves and how good we are. That, that took us to a, that mental attitude took us to a whole new level of us saying, ‘We're a great football team, if not the best football team in the NFL.’ And I'm saying, not, you know, we weren't being cocky. You know, we were just trying to be real, who we are and who we were at that time. And, and, and the season that I pick, you know, I pick a play, a game, and a season. And, and I know this is quite interesting because this is not a Super Bowl season, but I pick 1976, which really showed the true character of our team and what we were able to accomplish against one of the biggest challenges that we had to face during the seventies. And that 1976 season, wow, do we rise to the occasion. And once again, it involves the Oakland Raiders because they end up beating us in a championship game that year.

KG: But you were injured and Rocky was injured.

FH: Frenchy Fuqua was injured. We only had one running back and Jack Delaplaine was injured the game before and so, we had one running back going into that championship game. But there's no doubt in my mind that if we, if we had our running back, that we would have had three in a row. No doubt in my mind, even though the Raiders, 'Oh it wouldn't have made any difference.' It was a big difference because we were playing unbelievable football. And just a quick synopsis of that year: We won two, we won a Super Bowl in ‘74, ‘75. Seventy-six, we start season out, one win and four losses after winning two Super Bowls. And in that fifth game, we lost Terry Bradshaw for the rest of the season and here we are ending up with a rookie quarterback. And so running and defense, we had nine games to go. We had to win all nine games, we won all nine games and our defense had, and this is NFL, right?

KG: Right.

FH: Five shutouts out of the nine games, five zeros. Now I tell our defense, don't get too big of a head because we kept you off the field. Me and Rocky were just, pounding, pounding. And two of the other games, the team only got three points. And in one other game, one got six points. I can't remember what the, what the, you know the other game would be. But, but you want to talk about some football? Oh, my gosh. But then the next year, they made the rule changes, you know what I mean? Because they don't want to see that many zeros and shutouts and all that kind of stuff anymore. You want to talk about some football? If you watch the highlights of that year. If, if you're into that tough, tough football. You'll love our ‘76 season.

KG: Well, I did. I was listening. I was listening. When you were talking about the quarterback, Mike…

FH: Kruczek.

KG: Kruczek. Yes. Yeah. Mike Kruczek, he took care of the ball. He made some plays, you and Rocky. And of course, as you said, the defense was incredible that year.

FH: Oh, yeah. But hey, we kept them off the field. Come on.

KG: All right, I'll give you that. You definitely did. The 50th anniversary, the "Immaculate Reception" will be recognized Saturday night when the Steelers host, of course, the Raiders. Yeah, they're from Vegas now. What are you expecting, the atmosphere?

FH: You know what? I'm just expecting just a lot of excitement in the air and, and you know, like I'm so happy that Steeler nation will be sharing in this with us. You know, that's so important. A lot of our, you know, a lot of our former teammates are coming in. So, we're going to have a nice celebration and it'll be nice to be together once again and reminisce. We can do that now, right? We can talk about, you know and reminisce. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Build up, build up those stories. But it's just going to be nice to be with the guys. Cause a lot of times it feels like, you know, we've never been apart. You know, we just pick up right, right where we were before. And, you know, we do enjoy one another. Plus the same night, you know, to, say, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the "Immaculate Reception," and plus the honor of having the jersey retired. Wow. And then also, this is the 50th anniversary of Franco's Italian Army. You know, you know which happened in my rookie year. Well, you know which started you know, which was one of the bases of Steelers nation which, as you know, we have an unbelievable fan base all over the country.

KG: Hey, and Frank Sinatra jumped on board that army.

FH: Bingo. Yes, he did. Frank Sinatra. So, you know, there's a lot of fun things that connects to all of this. And so, looking at this to be a fun celebration, to have fun and, and reminisce. And I guess when you, when you look at it over, over Christmas, you know, like I love Christmas and the spirit of Christmas. But, you know, Christmas time is when family and friends gather and all that sort of stuff and, and like, that's also what makes it very special that this time of year. Family and friends and I guess, you know, could throw in some football now.

KG: Franco Harris, Hall of Famer, four time Super Bowl champ, one of three Steelers to have his number retired and the man who caught the "Immaculate Reception" 50 years ago. Franco, thanks so much for joining us and please enjoy the celebration.

FH: Thank you, Kevin, and Merry Christmas. Happy holidays. And have a great 2023.

KG: That was Hall of Famer Steelers all time great Franco Harris. I spoke with him Monday in advance of the 50th anniversary of the "Immaculate Reception." Franco died overnight at age 72.

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