Most sports fans mark their early memories by recalling where they were when their favorite team’s best players made memorable moves. I was born too late to have actual memories of Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception,” the improbable last-second touchdown catch that most sports historians credit with being the spark that ignited the Pittsburgh Steelers’ incredible four-Super Bowl-dynasty in the 1970s. Some consider it the most famous play, ever, in the NFL.
But for a kid born in Pittsburgh in the ‘70s, you didn’t need actual memories of that December 1972 game against the Oakland Raiders to know it was important. The story was told over and over again by old school fans, enough that the memories were created for you. The Immaculate Reception wasn’t just lore in these parts but rather a historical marker and semi-religious precept. There was the Pittsburgh that existed before the reception—a hardscrabble steel town in the throes of America’s de-industrialization—and the Pittsburgh that evolved after, a place where no matter how many layoffs or furloughs its everyday citizens suffered, you could still identify with being a champion. And the city had Harris, along with a cohort of other future Hall of Famers, to thank for creating a championship mythology subsequent generations could enjoy. God wanted it that way.
Franco Harris died in his sleep early Wednesday morning at the age of 72 in the city he helped retain its relevance. God called him home just three days before the Steelers, the city and the NFL planned to celebrate the Immaculate Reception’s 50th anniversary with a weekend of events, culminating in a primetime home game against the now Las Vegas Raiders, the team once on the losing end of Harris’ iconic catch. His number 32 will be only the third Black & Gold jersey ever to be retired, remarkable for a franchise that boasts 30 Hall of Famers.
I met and interacted with Harris numerous times. While I was an editor at ESPN, he came to the network to give a talk to employees. I also, quite randomly, ran into him several times on the streets of Pittsburgh as well as a few times at a coffee shop owned by his former Steelers teammate J.T. Thomas in the Hill District, a historically-Black neighborhood that’s also home to the church Thomas and I both attended. What’s notable about this is, unlike many star athletes of the modern era who decamp for warmer climes and prettier locales once their playing days are done, Harris made cold-ass Pittsburgh his home, for better or worse. He invested his money here by starting several companies during his retirement, and was constantly involved in charitable endeavors.
He also left another legacy, although one I imagine not many in the local sports media will focus on in the coming days: He was among the first generation of Black athletes to be truly embraced by a city that, to this day, is still rife with structural racism and its outcomes. Just three years ago, University of Pittsburgh researchers released a study about racial stratification in American cities which concluded about Pittsburgh that, “if Black residents got up today and left and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S., automatically by just moving their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up as well as their employment.”
That’s Pittsburgh in the 2020s. The Pittsburgh of Harris’ 1970s heyday was one in which all of the city’s current problems with disproportionate police violence, housing and occupational segregation, a high rate of Black infant mortality and low rates of educational achievement still persisted but without the university professors to put labels on them. Against that backdrop, Harris caught his Immaculate Reception just days before the death of Roberto Clemente who, aside from Harris, Steelers teammate “Mean” Joe Greene and Jerome Bettis are perhaps the most beloved Black athletes to ever live or play here. But Bettis wouldn’t show up until two decades later, after men like Harris, Greene, Clemente and Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame slugger Willie Stargell owned Pittsburgh. Along with Harris, the Steelers’ dynasty was forged by a man named Bill Nunn, a Black sportswriter who Steelers’ founder Art Rooney Sr. poached from the Pittsburgh Courier (where I also got my start in journalism) and sent to scout talent at HBCUs in the south to turn his feckless team into a winner.
It worked, masterfully. Along the way, Harris, Nunn, Greene, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and others became symbols of Black excellence in a town that had few and celebrated even fewer.
Strictly speaking, Harris was bi-racial, the son of a Black father and an Italian-American mother. Fans made note of his heritage, showing up weekly at the old Three Rivers Stadium with banners reading, “Franco’s Italian Army,” which probably seemed weird knowing it was a reference to a six-foot-two, 230-pound bruiser who sported an afro as immaculate as his catch.
To us, nothing about Franco Harris was ever weird. He was ours. God wanted it that way.