PITTSBURGH — Days after the death of Franco Harris that shocked and saddened a city, an organization and an entire football community, Steelers president Art Rooney II stepped on a riser for a halftime ceremony that drew mixed feelings.
Fifty years (and a day) after Harris’ unlikely close catch started a dynasty, the Steelers were back in a stadium with the same Raiders they defeated on December 23, 1972. More than a dozen former players from The Flawless Reception game stood ready, wearing their old numbers as they sauntered onto the pitch with walking sticks and wobbly knees. Joe Greene was there. Mel Blount. Frenchy Fuqua. And so many more.
However, Harris’ absence left a significant and irreplaceable void.
‘Still in disbelief’: Fans honor Franco Harris with horrific towels and gold flowers
“It shouldn’t be like that,” Rooney said. “The big man should be standing here right next to me. I want to thank (Harris’ wife) Dana and (his son) Dok for being here tonight and for sharing Franco with us over the past 50 years.
“They say life brings sorrow. It’s up to us to bring joy. Franco has brought us joy for 50 years.”
An emotional moment in Pittsburgh as Franco Harris’ No. 32 jersey is officially retired. 🙏 pic.twitter.com/cpbufU6qgG
— NFL (@NFL) December 25, 2022
While Harris’ No. 32’s retirement ceremony went ahead as originally planned, the tone changed dramatically. What was meant to be a celebration of Harris and all his accomplishments instead turned into a night of reflection and remembrance as those closest to Harris and those who had never met him all continued through the early stages of the new grief worked.
When Rooney presented Harris’ wife and son with a No. 32 jersey, Dana cried. Rooney pulled her into a hug to comfort the recently widowed football player’s wife. Songs of “Franco! Franco! Franco!” rang out through the crowd. Many of the fans who braved the single-digit temperatures may have done so for the sole reason of paying their respects to Harris. Meanwhile, members of the 1972 team stood up and waved their horrid towels to salute their departed teammate.
The 1972 team and the entire Steeler Nation waved the terrible towels at Franco. 🙏 @stahler | #Flawless50 pic.twitter.com/zxVe2xlwHt
— NFL (@NFL) December 25, 2022
Harris may not have been physically present. But this was still his day, from start to finish.
Pat Freiermuth — who had a special bond with fellow Penn State fellow Harris — came up with the idea of wearing No. 32 jerseys. Everyone from coach Mike Tomlin to general manager Omar Khan to quarterback Kenny Pickett wore this look. During the pre-game introduction, defensive co-captain Cameron Heyward stormed out of the tunnel carrying a giant No. 32 flag. And just before kick-off, the entire stadium observed a minute’s silence.
Minute of silence for Franco Harris pic.twitter.com/kDHySyKRRo
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) December 25, 2022
Throughout the game, those little hat spikes continued. The Steelers installed a dummy snap count. Only once did quarterback Kenny Pickett say, “Franco! Franco!” the piece was live. The NFL Network’s mics picked up the cadencewhen Pickett pulled off a QB sneak on a critical quarter-and-1.
Other characters, Heyward in particular, seemed to be acting obsessively. Heyward collected two sacks and an extra tackle for loss, stopping a pass at the line of scrimmage and performing a cheeky move on a stunt to free Alex Highsmith for a sack.
“I think for us it wasn’t just a little taste of a Steeler legend, it was just a great man,” Heyward said. “A person in the community who could always be counted on. A guy who even after his retirement still wanted to be your teammate. I can say that Franco welcomed me with open arms during my time here.
“There are so many outstanding men who love him. “Mean” Joe (Greene). Mel Blount. Countless others. Terry Bradshaw. Mike (Tomlin). All of them. Myself. Najee Harris. Decades pass, 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. 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 went one better.
With four more than three minutes behind, the Steelers got the ball 76 yards from the necessary go-ahead touchdown. In what Tomlin called the “adult” game for the young Steelers’ offense, Pickett led Pittsburgh down the field.
With 46 seconds remaining, receiver George Pickens found the weak point between the two-high safety look on a seam stretch. Pickett shot it in the narrow window, rookie to rookie for the touchdown.
Got that buddy in him
📲 Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/E0NYNUAdNa pic.twitter.com/I4fnw9zVEw
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 25, 2022
Up to her last chance, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr let one fly. Cameron Sutton staggered in the final interception with 36 seconds remaining to seal the memorable win.
“You have to stay balanced all the time, but you know the scale of the game,” Pickett said. “We wanted to go out and get the win for (Franco Harris). Everyone was somehow holding (their emotions) together and of course an incredibly special moment in the dressing room after the game. I can safely say that I will keep this jersey (#32 Harris). I’ll probably give it to my parents and have it hung. That was a very special victory.”
It wasn’t a deflected pass that was caught and taken for a touchdown to win a playoff game. But the last-minute win and the fact that he posted a very similar 13-10 score certainly gave many goosebumps.
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“We had a chance to be a part of Steeler history tonight and man we don’t take that lightly,” said Tomlin. “We’re just so grateful for the ground laid by those who came before us. Men like this men’s jersey (Franco Harris) that I’m wearing here. We can savor the fruits of their labor on a daily basis, just by the standard of expectation here in Pittsburgh, the relationship 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, who made the black and gold what it is.”
(Photo by George Pickens and Kenny Pickett: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)