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Steelers legend Franco Harris dies at 72

Mike Florio and Chris Simms look back on the legacy of Franco Harris, who has died at 72 years old, and honor what made him special on and off the field.

Franco Harris, the Hall of Fame running back who scored perhaps the greatest touchdown in NFL history, has died at the age of 72.

Harris died just two days before the 50th anniversary of the “Immaculate Reception,” his game-winning touchdown that propelled the 1970s Steelers to the first of their postseason victories, which is widely regarded as one of the signature plays in the history of the National Football League.

Harris’s family confirmed his death to KDKA. No cause of death has been reported.

After playing his college football at Penn State, Harris was selected by the Steelers in the first round of the 1972 NFL draft. He was named the league’s rookie of the year for that regular season, but it was in the playoffs that Harris became a legend.

The Steelers had made the playoffs that year for the first time in a quarter-century, but it appeared that their postseason was about to be cut short, as they trailed the Raiders 7-6 late in the fourth quarter of their opening round playoff game. But in the game’s closing seconds, Terry Bradshaw heaved a pass downfield toward John “Frenchy” Fuqua, the ball bounced off either Fuqua or Raiders safety Jack Tatum, and Harris somehow scooped the ball up just as it was going to hit the ground and raced in for a game-winning touchdown.

To this day, members of that Raiders team will insist both that Fuqua touched the ball, which would have made it illegal for Harris to catch it, and that Harris failed to grab the football before it hit the ground. But the officials ruled that it was Tatum who touched it and that Harris made the catch, and the touchdown stood.

If his accomplishments as a rookie had been all he did, Harris would be a legend forever: So great was that play that it’s often the first thing visitors to Pittsburgh learn about, as a statue of Harris making the catch is on display in the Pittsburgh airport. But Harris would go on to win four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers, to win a Super Bowl MVP award, to receive the NFL Man of the Year Award, to go to nine Pro Bowls, and to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The NFL was already planning to honor the memory of the Immaculate Reception with Saturday night’s Raiders-Steelers game, but now that game takes on a special significance, as the entire football world -- even Raiders fans -- will pay their respects to Harris.

Harris will be remembered as one of the all-time great Steelers, as one of the driving forces behind the great 1970s Steelers dynasty, and as a man who was respected and beloved by Steeler Nation and throughout the football world.