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They Don’t Make Fame Like Franco Harris’s Anymore

Pittsburgh Steelers' running back Franco Harris is mobed by fans at Three Rivers Stadium after scoring the winning touchdown, nicknamed the "Immaculate Reception," during the American Football Conference (AFC) semi-final game against Oakland. Harris made the touchdown, one of the most famous single plays in the history of professional American football, on a tipped pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw to Frenchy Fuqua to Harris for the score in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh.
Bettmann via Getty Images

Franco Harris has died, and with him a large swath of National Football League history. The famed Pittsburgh Steelers running back created roughly 20 percent of NFL Films inventory from the 1970s and through those achievements became one of the few players whose names are not met with blank stares from the current generation. Franco Harris evoked the Steelers almost reflexively for multiple generations of football geeks, and in an era in which players almost never stay long enough to graft their identity onto that of the company that employed them, Harris was defined by sight as the Steelers at their best. Even his defense of Joe Paterno in the darkest days of Penn State's scandal (or as Penn State people like to call it, Jerry Sandusky's scandal) did not diminish him in Pittsburgh's collective eyes. He was a loyal son of the Nittany Valley, and a lifelong Steeler to boot, period, even if he did spend those lost eight games as a Seahawk, and they will have no dissenting views.

Shame like fame runs in concentric circles, and the further away one gets from the deeds the more jaundiced the light that the eye registers. And it is a particularly cruel trick of fate that Harris died three days before his jersey was to be retired in a stadium ceremony before Saturday's Raiders-Steelers game, which through deliberate scheduling is also the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, a game that ended even more bizarrely than the Patriots-Raiders game Sunday. This was just a regular-season game between two teams that might not make the playoffs. That was a playoff game between the archest of archrivals in a far more linear world.

Harris's family will be processing far more sadness than any public ceremony can assuage, so the hole of his absence will be touching more than just the Yinzers who would gather in his spirit at the contemptibly named Acrisure Stadium. But we are creatures of ceremony, both here and across the globe, so Saturday's game will go on, drenched though it will be in the memory of a man who could not live long enough to see again what he already knew—that he was the spirit of Pittsburgh as much as any human could be, given that he performed the most important deeds for the town's most important civic endeavor.

Then again, maybe his family will attend Saturday's game to remind themselves of his best old days and how long they have lingered. Fifty years is a hell of a run in a culture that can't remember a week ago, and the fact that the Immaculate Reception still doesn't have any more than the two grainy camera angles makes it even more memorable. With all due deference to today's brilliantly intrusive technologies, sometimes the world can be too granular for its own good. Franco Harris was perfect for his time and his town, with all the good and otherwise that implies. He just left a bit too soon for his final encore.

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