PITTSBURGH — Days after Franco Harris’ death shocked and saddened a city, an organization and an entire football community, Steelers president Art Rooney II stepped onto a riser for a halftime ceremony that elicited mixed emotions.
Fifty years (and one day) after Harris’ improbable, shoestring catch jump-started a dynasty, the Steelers were once again back in a stadium with the same Raiders they beat on Dec. 23, 1972. More than a dozen former players from that “Immaculate Reception” game were on hand, wearing their old numbers as they ambled onto the field with canes and wobbly knees. Joe Greene was there. Mel Blount. Frenchy Fuqua. And so many more.
However, Harris’ absence left a sizable and irreplaceable void.
‘Still in disbelief’: Fans honor Franco Harris with Terrible Towels, gold flowers
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Rooney said. “The big man was supposed to be standing here right next to me. I want to thank (Harris’ wife) Dana and (his son) Dok for being here tonight and sharing Franco with us for the last 50 years.
“It’s been said life will bring you sorrow. It’s up to us to bring the joy. Franco brought us joy for 50 years.”
An emotional moment in Pittsburgh as Franco Harris’ #32 jersey is officially retired. 🙏 pic.twitter.com/cpbufU6qgG
— NFL (@NFL) December 25, 2022
While the ceremony to retire Harris’ No. 32 went on as initially planned, the tone dramatically shifted. What was to be a celebration of Harris and all his accomplishments instead morphed into a night of reflection and remembrance, as those closest to Harris and those who never met him all continued to work through the first stages of fresh grief.
As Rooney presented Harris’ wife and son with a No. 32 jersey, Dana wept. Rooney wrapped her in a hug to console the recently widowed football player’s wife. Chants of “Franco! Franco! Franco!” rang out throughout the crowd. Many of the fans who braved the single-digit temperatures might have done so for the singular reason of paying their respects to Harris. Meanwhile, members of the 1972 team stood and waved their Terrible Towels to salute their late teammate.
— NFL (@NFL) December 25, 2022
Harris might not have been physically in attendance. But this was still his day, from start to finish.
Pat Freiermuth — who had a special relationship with Harris, a fellow Penn State product — came up with the idea to wear No. 32 jerseys. Everyone from coach Mike Tomlin to general manager Omar Khan to quarterback Kenny Pickett sported the look. During pre-game introductions, defensive co-captain Cameron Heyward burst out of the tunnel, carrying a massive No. 32 flag. And just before kickoff, the entire stadium observed a moment of silence.
Moment of silence for Franco Harris pic.twitter.com/kDHySyKRRo
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) December 25, 2022
Throughout the game, those little hat tips continued. The Steelers installed a dummy snap count. Only once quarterback Kenny Pickett said “Franco! Franco!” was the play live. The NFL Network microphones picked up the cadenceas Pickett pulled off a QB sneak on a critical fourth-and-1.
Other individuals, especially Heyward, appeared to be playing like men possessed. Heyward racked up two sacks and an additional tackle for loss, broke up a pass at the line of scrimmage and pulled off a cheeky move on a stunt to free up Alex Highsmith for a sack.
“I think for us, it was just a tip of the cap to not only a Steeler legend but just a great man,” Heyward said. “A person in the community who you could always count on. A guy that even when he retired, he still wanted to be your teammate. I can say in my time being here, Franco has welcomed me with open arms.
“There’s so many outstanding men that love him. ‘Mean’ Joe (Greene). Mel Blount. Countless others. Terry Bradshaw. Mike (Tomlin). All of them. Myself. Najee Harris. Decades and decades go on, but we still care for a man that brought so much to us.”
In their words and actions, the Steelers paid their respects to a football player who was much more than that. And had it stopped there, it would have been more than enough for a memorable evening, one that united generations and honored one of the most beloved Steelers in franchise history.
Then, the Steelers did one better.
Trailing by four with just under three minutes remaining, the Steelers got the ball 76 yards from the necessary go-ahead touchdown. In what Tomlin described as a “growing-up” game for the young Steelers offense, Pickett led Pittsburgh down the field.
With 46 seconds remaining, receiver George Pickens found the soft spot between the two-high safety look on a seam route. Pickett rifled it into the tight window, from one rookie to another, for the touchdown.
Got that dawg in him
📲 Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/E0NYNUAdNa pic.twitter.com/I4fnw9zVEw
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 25, 2022
Down to their last chance, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr let one fly. Cameron Sutton reeled in the final interception with 36 seconds remaining to seal the memorable win.
“You gotta stay even keel throughout it, but you know the magnitude of the game,” Pickett said. “We wanted to go out there and get the win for (Franco Harris). Everyone kind of kept (their emotions) together and after the game, obviously, incredibly special moment in the locker room. It’s safe to say I’m going to keep this (No. 32 Harris) jersey. I’ll probably give it to my parents and have it hanging up. It was a really special win.”
It wasn’t a deflected pass caught and taken for a touchdown to win a playoff game. But the last-minute win and the fact that it produced a very similar 13-10 score surely brought chills to many.
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“We had a chance to be a part of Steeler history tonight and, man, we don’t take that lightly,” Tomlin said. “We’re just so appreciative of the ground that’s been laid by those that have come before us. Men like this man’s jersey (Franco Harris) that I’m wearing right here. We get to enjoy the fruit of their labor daily just in terms of the standard of the expectation here in Pittsburgh, the relationship that we have with our fan base.
“We just want to honor (Franco Harris), his teammates, and all the men that have come before us, man, that made the black and gold what it is.”
(Photo of George Pickens and Kenny Pickett: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)