More than 47 years ago, he made the most amazing play in NFL history. Seventy years ago today, he was born.
Happy birthday, Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. The man who scooped a Jack Tatum ricochet and ran it in for a touchdown as a rookie with the Steelers in 1972 turns 70 today.
Though we’re not in the business of commemorating birthdays, I’ve got two reasons for mentioning No. 32 embarking on decade No. 8. First, I noticed that it’s Franco’s birthday, thanks to a tweet from Gil Brandt. Second, the Immaculate Reception (as it was dubbed by Myron Cope) became for me the moment that I decided football is a pretty big deal and that I should pay attention to it.
It happened not only because of that play but also because of the broader circumstances. In 1972, all games were blacked out within 75 miles of the stadium, even if they were sold out. (Commissioner Pete Rozelle believed that no game would ever sell out if a sellout allowed the game to be televised locally. Under pressure from two members of Congress — including former West Virginia representative Harley Staggers — Rozelle adjusted the rule for Super Bowl VII and beyond, to permit local broadcast if a game is sold out.)
I grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, 60 miles from Pittsburgh. (Sorry, Bengals truthers, but I wasn’t and am not a Steelers fan.) Somehow, our house was the only house on Haddale Avenue that was able to capture the signal of an NBC affiliate that fell outside the 75-mile bubble. So my mom opened the doors to any and all neighbors who wanted to watch the Raiders-Steelers playoff game and the combination living room/TV room was for the first and only time filled with grown ups and so I did what all seven-year-olds do in a room full of grown ups: I stayed as far away from them as I could and played with my Hot Wheels.
I could have just gone to my room, but my desire not to be around a bunch of grown ups was overcome by my fascination with this thing on TV that compelled them to come to our house, and more amazingly that prompted my mother to step so far out of character and to allow so many shoes on the carpet that featured a wide, thick plastic runner from front door to couch and so many asses on the “good” furniture. Then, when whatever it was that happened at the end of the game happened (I wasn’t watching), they all started jumping and shouting and acting like anything but grown ups.
That was the hook for me. The logic was simple; if football can make grown ups act like kids, maybe kids should be watching it, too. Franco Harris, then 22 and as of today 70, was the one who made that link for me, with a little help from Jack Tatum and a lot of help from Terry Bradshaw, who reflected on the play during his visit to the PFT Live set at Super Bowl LIV. (The full interview is attached to this story.)
Years later, Tony Dungy would tell me that Franco’s decision to run toward the ball on that play was no surprise because that’s what Franco always did, even in practice. Two years ago, I met Franco while waiting for our flight from Minneapolis back to Pittsburgh. Last month, he also was on our flight from Miami. Instantly recognizable, he genuinely engages in conversation with everyone who talks to him, and almost everyone wants to talk to him.
I’ll cap my Franco love-fest with this: Every Monday when I get home from the weekend NFL stint at NBC, I see the incredibly realistic statue of Franco Harris forever frozen in the moment of making the Immaculate Reception, I remember the fire that moment lit, I think about where it’s all led, and I smile.
So happy birthday, Franco, from a seven-year-old who was forgot about the Hot Wheels on December 20, 1972, and from all the grown ups who in a haze of cigarettes forgot about their grown-up’s problems and turned their own clocks back to seven, for a little while.