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The 50th Anniversary of One of the Greatest and Most Controversial NFL Plays Ever

The 50th anniversary of one of the most incredible NFL plays ever came with a sad note as we learned of the passing of Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris. Harris, 72, passed away on December 20, three days before he was supposed to attend a ceremony commemorating this epic game-winning play over the Oakland Raiders and the retirement of his jersey number. Harris’ immortalized game-winning touchdown is also one of the most controversial plays in NFL history, with some wondering if the play should have been ruled an incomplete pass based on the rules and regulations at the time. Regardless, the Steelers, in what was their first divisional game in 25 years, would emerge victorious with a score of 13-7 (via CBS Sports):

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Harris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

"The entire team at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is immensely saddened today," Hall of Fame president Jim Porter said in a statement. "We have lost an incredible football player, an incredible ambassador to the Hall and most importantly, we have lost one of the finest gentlemen anyone will ever meet. Franco not only impacted the game of football, but he also affected the lives of many, many people in profoundly positive ways. 

"The Hall of Fame and historians everywhere will tell Franco's football story forever. His life story can never be told fully, however, without including his greatness off the field. 

"My heart and prayers go out to his wife, Dana, an equally incredible person, a special friend to the Hall and someone who cares so deeply for Franco's Hall of Fame teammates."

Harris was a rookie when he made the "Immaculate Reception" on Dec. 23, 1972, against the Oakland Raiders in one of the most iconic plays in NFL history. However, his introduction into the NFL as the No. 13 overall pick that year was a gauntlet. Franco told CBS Sports in April of 2021 that his "welcome to the NFL" moment came when he was on the receiving end of a hard hit on special teams during the preseason. Then, his regular season-debut against John Madden's Raiders was a different animal entirely as he described the notable uptick in speed and violence "was on a scale I've never seen before." It may have taken Harris a few weeks to get his feet under him in the NFL, but once he did it was off to the races, rushing for 115 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in a Week 5 win over the Oilers. 

"First 100-yard game, first NFL touchdown," Harris said of his breakout performance. "And went on to make over 1,000 yards and made Rookie of the Year. Who would have thought that? But there were some trying times my rookie season, and luckily I was able to get through those trying times. Then the rest of the '70s is really kind of history. … We went on to become the worst football team of all time, to what I'm going to say — and I know there's going to be some controversy on this — to the greatest football team of all time."

The success of that 1972 Steelers club generated a buzz around the organization that is still felt today and Harris was at the center of it all.

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Then-quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who is also enshrined in Canton, threw a pass to wide receiver John Fuqua but bounced off the helmet of Raiders safety Jack Tatum. But Harris caught the ball before it hit the ground, leading to the “Immaculate Reception.” Raiders coach John Madden, also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was not pleased with the officiating, as some thought the ball hit Fuqua’s hand first, which would have killed the play. 

While the Steelers didn’t win the Super Bowl that year, falling to the undefeated 1972 Dolphins team, the start of their ‘Steel Curtain’ dominance earned them four Super Bowls during this decade. The Immaculate Reception is viewed as the start of the vicious rivalry between the Raiders and the Steelers that spanned the better part of ten years. 

Mr. Harris was there for all of them, and he ended his career with four championship rings, 12,000-plus yards rushing, selected for the NFL’s 1970 All-Decade team, and a nine-time NFL Pro-Bowler.

On Christmas Eve, the Raiders return to Heinz Field (I’m never calling it Acrisure Stadium) to take on the Steelers.

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