Fifty years after the “Immaculate Reception” and just hours before his death, Franco Harris said it “blows my mind” how he pulled off arguably the most memorable play in NFL history.
In a live interview Tuesday on “Mad Dog Unleashed” on SiriusXM radio, Harris recalled December 23, 1972, when he caught a deflected pass just before it hit the ground and ran for a playoff game-winning touchdown to lead his Pittsburgh Steelers over the Oakland Raiders.
Harris said his assignment was to block but he wound up going out for a pass when the fourth-down play broke down with 22 seconds left in the game.
“You know what, when I watch the film I can’t remember anything of the play past just leaving the backfield,” Harris told host Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo. “But when I see the film, and I see it in real time, it just blows my mind how quick that is … And I have no idea how I reacted so quickly, and got it and kept in stride. And even looked up a little bit to try and get the lay of the land … I’m saying, ‘How did all that happen in just those few seconds?’ It didn’t make any sense. Like, I just don’t understand it.”
Harris died just days before the 50th anniversary of the catch, and the Steelers had planned to retire his No. 32 jersey during halftime of their game against the Raiders on Saturday.
The NFL Network in 2019 named the Immaculate Reception the top play in the 100 years of the league.
The play was not without controversy: There were no convincing replays to determine who deflected the ball when two opposing players collided and whether the ball actually hit the ground when Harris caught it.
In the interview, Russo said some believe that the nose of the football hit the turf, “But you’re saying that’s not the case, correct?”
“I have no idea, I have no idea,” Harris said. “I remember nothing. That’s what baffles me…”
Russo noted Harris was “a long way away from where the ball ricocheted.” If another Steeler had touched the ball, Harris’ catch would not have been legal.
“I have no recollection of seeing the ball at all,” Harris said. “I have no visual of the ball. I have no recollection. But look at … how fast it came back.”
Looking at the film, Harris says, “I’m thinking that it could only have been” Raiders defender Jack Tatum “that the ball bounced off of” before Harris made the shoestring catch. Tatum had collided with Steelers fullback Frenchy Fuqua.
In explaining how he made the play, Harris noted that he “always had great reflexes but you don’t practice stuff like this. … So it kind of blows my mind.”
The Steelers won the game 13-7 for the team’s first-ever playoff victory but lost their next game. Still, the team went on to dominate the 1970s, winning four Super Bowls.
Russo, the host, opened the interview by asking, “How are you today, OK pal?” It was likely the last interview Harris did before his death was announced on Wednesday. His cause of death was not provided.
“Doing great. Fantastic,” Harris said, though he was coughing here and there. “And, like as you said, 50 years ago, and, and it still feels brand new.”
Harris then went on to talk about the game-winning drive, how it started off poorly and left the Steelers in a desperate spot.
“So, things didn’t go too well on those first three plays, as you know. And then it gets down to fourth down. A long way to go. 22 seconds.
And I go into the huddle and I tell myself, ‘Franco, this will probably be the last play of the season. It was a good season. Just play it till the end.’
And (the coach) called that 66 halfback option.”
Harris’ assignment was to stay in and block.
He recalled that “there wasn’t much … adrenaline” in the huddle.
We were winning the whole game and right at the end (the Raiders) scored. It seemed more of a letdown than anything.”
Russo noted that Harris “did block well” on the play and noticed that quarterback Terry Bradshaw was scrambling under pressure from the defense.
“My thought was to release to be an outlet pass,” Harris said. “And Bradshaw, being as, you know, big and as strong as he is, you know, guys trying to bring him down, he’s able to fight them off and get the ball into the air.”
Harris said when the ball was in the air, “I tell myself, right, I tell myself ‘Go to the ball, go to the ball.’”
Harris said that was his instinct because that was what he was taught as a running back in college, under Joe Paterno at Penn State University.
“That’s what Joe preached to us all four years at Penn State. You know, always go to the ball … And so I start taking some steps to the ball and I remember nothing after that… which blows my mind, that I have no visual, no recollection of anything until I am stiff arming (Raiders defender) Jimmy Warren, going into the end zone.”
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Harris noted how important it was that he didn’t dive for the ball. In those days when a player hits the ground while possessing the ball, he was officially down and could not advance it.
“How lucky am I that I was conscious that, you know, catch it that low without diving for it,” Harris said.
Harris said that after the players collided and the ball deflected into the air, some of the Raiders started to clap and celebrate.
“And the Raiders stop, just for a few seconds, and that few seconds that they stopped gave me the head start to get into the end zone.”
All these years later, when some old-time Raiders still assert that the catch wasn’t a legal catch, Harris says he pays it no mind.
“As a matter of fact,” Harris said, “I feel good that they’re still sulking about that.”