PITTSBURGH — Days after the death of Franco Harris shocked and mourned a city, an organization and the football world, Steelers president Art Rooney II is walking away Got on the riser and participated in a half-time ritual that sparked mixed emotions.
Fifty years later (one more day), after Harris’ incredible small-ball reception started a dynasty, the Steelers are back in the stadium, beating the same Raiders on Dec. 12. February 23, 1972. A dozen former players from the “Perfect Reception” game were on hand, wearing their old numbers and lumbering onto the field on crutches and wobbly knees. Joe Green was there. Mel Blunt. French Fuqua. there are more.
Harris’ absence, however, leaves a large and irreplaceable void.
‘Still unbelievable’: Fans honor Franco Harris with scary towels and golden flowers
“It shouldn’t be like this,” Rooney said. “The big guy should be right next to me. I want to thank (Harris’ wife) Dana and (his son) Doc for being here tonight and sharing Franco with us for the past 50 years.
“It’s been said that life brings you sorrow. It’s up to us to bring joy. Franco gave us 50 years of joy.”
It’s an exciting time for Pittsburgh as Franco Harris’ No. 32 jersey is officially retired. 🙏 pic.twitter.com/cpbufU6qgG
— National Football League (@NFL) December 25, 2022
While decommissioning ceremony Harris’ number. 32 went as originally planned, with a dramatic change in tone. What was supposed to be a celebration of Harris and all of his accomplishments turned into a night of reflection and remembrance as those closest to Harris and those who never met him continued to grapple with the first phase of a new grief .
Rooney presented a number to Harris’ wife and son. No. 32 jersey, Dana cried. Rooney hugged her to comfort the recently widowed footballer’s wife. “Franco! Franco! Franco!” rang out from the crowd. Many fans braving single-digit temperatures may have done so just to pay tribute to Harris. Meanwhile, members of the 1972 team stood up waving dreadful towels in honor of their late teammates.
The 1972 team and all of Steeler Nation are waving the dreaded towel for Franco. 🙏 @Steelers | #perfect50 pic.twitter.com/zxVe2xlwHt
— National Football League (@NFL) December 25, 2022
Harris may not have been present in person. But it’s still his day, start to finish.
Pat Freiermuth — who has a special relationship with fellow Penn State Harris — came up with the idea of wearing No. 1. 32 jerseys. The look was worn by everyone from coach Mike Tomlin to general manager Omar Khan to quarterback Kenny Pickett. During pregame introductions, defensive captain Cameron Hayward burst out of the tunnel, holding a giant jersey number. 32 flags. There was a moment of silence across the stadium just before kick-off.
A moment of silence for Franco Harris pic.twitter.com/kDHySyKRRo
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) December 25, 2022
Those little hat tips continued throughout the game. The Steelers installed a dummy snap count. The only time quarterback Kenny Pickett said, “Franco! Franco!” was live. NFL Network Microphone pick up the rhythmwhen Pickett completed a quarterback sneak on a crucial quarter-and-one.
Others, especially Hayward, seemed to play like a maniac. Hayward finished with two sacks and an extra tackle, broke up a pass at the line of scrimmage and made a cheeky move on a stunt to free Alex Highsmith. Space for a sack.
“I think for us, it’s not just Steele’s legend, it’s a small part of a great man,” Hayward said. Someone who still wants to be your teammate. I can say that during my time here, Franco welcomed me with open arms.
“There were so many good men who loved him. ‘Mean’ Joe (Green). Mel Blunt. Countless people. Terry Bradshaw. Mike (Tomlin). They all. Me. Najee Harris. Decades have passed, but we still care about a man who brought us so much.”
In their words and actions, the Steelers paid tribute to a football player who was much more than that. If it stops there, it’s more than enough for a memorable night that unites generations and pays homage to one of the most beloved Steelers in franchise history.
Then, the Steelers did better.
Trailing by four with less than three minutes left, the Steelers got the ball 76 yards from a necessary go-ahead touchdown. In what Tomlin called the “growing” game of the young Steelers offense, Pickett led Pittsburgh forward on the field.
With 46 seconds left, receiver George Pickens found a soft spot between two high-safety looks on a seam route. Pickett passed the ball from rookie to rookie and drove the ball into the narrow window for a touchdown.
got that guy on him
📲 Play on NFL+ https://t.co/E0NYNUAdNa pic.twitter.com/I4fnw9zVEw
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 25, 2022
Until their last chance, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr let one fly. Cameron Sutton sealed the memorable victory with his final interception with 36 seconds remaining.
“You’ve got to keep your composure the whole time, but you know the importance of the game,” Pickett said. “We wanted to go out there and win for (Franco Harris). Everyone kept (their emotions) together and obviously, after the game, there was a very special moment in the locker room. For sure Saying I’m going to keep this (Harris No. 32) jersey. I’m probably going to give it to my parents and hang it up. It’s a very special win.”
It’s not a deflected pass caught and a touchdown to win a playoff game. But the last-minute victory and the fact that it produced a very similar 13-10 scoreline must have sent chills to many.
‘It’s a part of him’: Man with Immaculate Reception football won’t let it go
“We have an opportunity to be a part of Steele history tonight, and man, we’re not taking it lightly,” Tomlin said. “We are very grateful for the groundwork that came before us. The guys love this men’s sweatshirt (Franco Harris) that I’m wearing. As far as the standards of expectations here in Pittsburgh are concerned, we get to enjoy the fruits of their labor every day, and we have a great relationship with the fan base. Relationship.
“We just want to pay tribute to (Franco Harris), his teammates and everyone who came before us, man, for making black and gold.”
(Photo by George Pickens and Kenny Pickett: Charles Leclerc/USA TODAY)