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Franco Harris’s death on December 20, 2022, upset football fans who appreciated the retired running back’s incredible legacy. It was also heartbreaking because his Pittsburgh Steelers No. 32 jersey was about to be retired, and his death was three days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. So how did Franco Harris die, and how have the Steelers honored the NFL player since then?

Franco Harris cause of death

According to the running back’s son, on December 21, 2022, Franco Harris died of natural causes in his sleep at his Sewickley, Pennsylvania, home. The Hall of Famer’s death was considered sudden as, according to everyone around him, including his former teammate and longtime friend Terry Bradshaw, he’d been in high spirits in the days leading up to his death.

Harris had been active on social media days before and even had a live interview from the Heinz History Center. In his last public interview, the four-time Super Bowl champion said he was “feeling good.” Harris expressed excitement about making it to the 50th anniversary of his famous catch against the Oakland Raiders during his rookie season.

The star was set to grace the halftime ceremony of a Steelers game against the Las Vegas Raiders on December 24, 2022, to retire his jersey number. Immediately after news broke of Harris’ death, many gave public tributes. FOX NFL Sunday aired a special edition highlighting the Immaculate Reception. The pregame show concluded with a visibly emotional Bradshaw recounting their time together and speaking highly of Harris.

“Just a great man. Great personality. Big smile. Great teammate,” the former quarterback recalled, choking up. Bradshaw noted he “never will stop thinking about him” and said he would miss Harris. Others who paid tribute include former President Barack Obama, President Joe Biden, Steelers President Art Rooney II, former and current Steelers and Pittsburgh celebrities, and other members of the NFL.

Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception

Before Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception, the Steelers were the oldest NFL franchise to have never won a championship. However, when 1972 rolled around, the team won their first-ever division title after going 11-3. The events during the team’s first playoff game against the Oakland Raiders changed sports history and the Steelers’ trajectory forever.

In a defensive scoreless battle, the Steelers dragged 7-6 with only 22 seconds left on the clock. On the snap, the team’s QB, Bradshaw, tried to pass the ball, but the Raiders’ defensive linemen Tony Cline and Horace Jones were on his neck. After scrambling, he stepped to his left and threw the ball in John Fuqua’s direction.

But Fuqua never received the ball as Raiders safety Jack Tatum collided with him, knocking Fuqua to the ground and sending the ball backward. Quick-thinking Harris caught the fast-moving ball before it touched the ground and ran into the end zone for an incredible yet controversial touchdown.

Franco Harris stats


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Franco Harris joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 13th overall pick of the 1972 NFL Draft. During the Penn State alum’s rookie season with the Steelers, Harris was named NFL Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year. That season, the future Hall of Famer gained 1,055 yards on 188 carries and rushed for 10 touchdowns.

The 1977 All-Pro made nine consecutive Pro Bowls from 1972–80. Harris broke legendary player Jim Brown‘s record for rushing more than 1,000 yards in eight seasons. He was Super Bowl IX’s MVP in 1975 after he ran 158 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries.

Harris played 13 seasons in the NFL, gaining 12,120 yards on 2,949 carries and scoring 91 rushing touchdowns. He won four Super Bowls throughout his career and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.