The NFL lost an icon this week when Steelers great and Pro Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris died at the age of 72.
Just hours before his death, Harris had a chance to reflect on his storied Immaculate Reception ahead of the play’s 50th anniversary in one of his final interviews. In arguably the most famous play in NFL history, the legendary running back caught a deflected fourth-place pass just before it hit the ground and ran for a game-winning 60-yard touchdown to put the Raiders in a playoff game of the beat AFC Division on December 23, 1972.
Harris came to SiriusXM’s “Mad Dog Unleashed” on Tuesday to talk about the play with host Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, and reminisced about the moments leading up to and during his iconic walk-off score.
“So, as you know, those first three tracks didn’t do so well. And then it goes down to the fourth down. A long way to go [in] 22 seconds,” Harris said. “And I go into the scrum and I’m like, ‘Franco, this will probably be the last game of the season. It’s been a good season. Just play it to the end.’ and [the coach] called the 66 halfback option.
The four-time Super Bowl champion explained to Russo that his job was to stay home and block with the linemen while quarterback Terry Bradshaw tried to make a play. Bradshaw threw a pass to halfback John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who was then hit by Raiders safety Jack Tatum as the ball landed, sending it backwards.
As Harris watched the game unfold, he said he called to go to the ball, a lesson former Penn State star Joe Paterno, the longtime Nittany Lions coach, “preached to us every four years.” Has”. Sixty yards later, Harris was in the end zone, which he explained is a sequence that still blew his mind five decades later.
“So I start taking some steps to the ball and I don’t remember anything after that, which blows my mind that I have no image, no memory of anything, until I’m (Raiders defender) Jimmy Warren with stiff arms and go into the end zone,” he said.
Harris continued, “When I watch the film, and I see it in real time, I’m just blown away by how fast it’s going. … I have no idea how I reacted so quickly and understood and kept up. And even looked up a bit to try and get the lay of the land. I say, ‘How did all this happen in just a few seconds?’ It made no sense. I just do not understand.
“I’ve always had great reflexes, but that’s not something you practice.”
While many football fans rightly remember the game in all its glory, some fans still debate whether Harris caught the ball before it hit the ground, or whether the ball bounced off Fuqua (which would have made Harris’ reception illegal ). Harris also offered his opinion during the call, which will hopefully settle the controversy once and for all.
“I don’t see Frenchy. I don’t see Tatum,” he began, “I can’t see the ball. I have no memory. But when I look at how it came back and how fast it came back, I think it could only have been Tatum that the ball bounced off.”
Harris retired in 1984 with 12,120 rushing yards, the most in NFL history at the time, and nine Pro Bowl pitches. The Steelers will retire his No. 32 jersey in Saturday’s game against the Raiders in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the famous game.