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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris died Wednesday at age 72


Pittsburgh Steelers fans are in mourning today. The team announced the death of running back Franco Harris at age 72. His number, 32, was set to be retired Saturday in part because of his role in the greatest play in NFL history, the Immaculate Reception.


When he was drafted by the Steelers in 1972 out of Penn State University, Harris was ambivalent as he shared in an interview with the team in 2019.


FRANCO HARRIS: At Penn State, I really didn't follow the Steelers at all, and I didn't want to be drafted by the Steelers.

SUMMERS: They stunk. The team hadn't made the playoffs since 1947. And Harris exceeded expectations, winning the NFL's Rookie of the Year award during the regular season. But that accomplishment would soon be eclipsed.


HARRIS: 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.


KELLY: Franco Harris reliving the moment on The Confluence from member station WESA. And even if you saw it that day in the stadium or on TV or now 50 years later, it's sort of hard to comprehend.

SUMMERS: Quarterback Terry Bradshaw's original target deflected the ball, and a charging Harris scoops it before it hits the ground. And he never stops running until he makes it to the end zone.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bradshaw running of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to, fires it downfield. And there's a collision. It's caught out of the air. The ball is pulled in by Franco Harris.


HARRIS: 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 70's.

KELLY: That unbelievable run, it includes four Super Bowl championships. Harris' Immaculate Reception catch and run put him and Terry Bradshaw in the annals of sports history. Bradshaw says he is still in a state of shock after hearing the news.

SUMMERS: And on Twitter, Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said Harris was one of, quote, "the kindest, gentlest men I have ever known. He was a great person and great teammate, a tremendous role model for me." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.