Friday, December 23, 2022

Franco Harris Finishes the Race

Rest In Peace, Franco Harris.🏈

The 72-year-old Hall of Fame running back—who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the “glory days” when they won four Super Bowls and fielded one of the most awesome teams in American Football history—passed away unexpectedly at his home on Tuesday of an undisclosed illness. 

His death at this time has an added poignancy, coming three days short of today, the 50th anniversary of a play he made in his rookie season that transformed last-minute defeat into astonishing victory in a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. Numerous polls of sports experts and fans alike in the U.S.A. have rated it the greatest play in sports history.

I remember this incredible afternoon so well, though it was 50 years ago.

The Steelers trailed 7-6 with only a few seconds left on the clock. On 4th down, Terry Bradshaw threw a desperate pass to Frenchy Fuqua. What followed is best expressed in the words that still echo in my mind:

”And the pass is deflected, incomplete… but WAIT, Franco Harris comes up with the football! FRANCO HARRIS IS RUNNING WITH THE FOOTBALL!! Franco Harris is running down the field. He’s running into the end zone FOR A TOUCHDOWN!!!” 

My father, my brother, and I were there… in front of the radio in our house in Pittsburgh listening to the Steelers radio announcer broadcasting the game to local blacked-out Steelers fans (home games were not televised in the teams’ local areas back then). It was Sunday afternoon, December 23, 1972. Later, we saw the television replay again and again and again, but there was a kind of unforgettable craziness in first hearing it, live, on the radio. The announcers didn’t know how he’d gotten the ball. Everyone was so confused and happy. 

Franco caught the deflection near the sidelines, on the run, inches above the ground. And he just kept running. It was a “miraculous catch”—but that night, our local lovable, quirky, sports talk-show-host Myron Cope coined the term that would come to define the legend: the “Immaculate Reception.”

I was a week shy of 10 years old. I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s… the “City of Champions”!🏆 I have some vivid and precious sports memories from those years growing up. I saw some great teams, great athletes, and even—in the case of the next approaching 50-year-old memory—the singular, magnificent heroism of Roberto Clemente. 

What makes all these memories most evocative for me is that they were moments I shared with my father.

Franco Harris, my Dad, Roberto Clemente—they have all gone to God now, as the Christmas Season of 2022 approaches. May God receive them into the embrace of His mercy.