DAILY DIRT: The memories are painful, but the respect immense

franco-cover2jpg

The SI cover that never ran. Sports Illustrated

Daily Dirt for Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022

The Steelers and Browns used to play a special kind of football … Welcome to today’s three thoughts that make up Vol. 484 of The Daily Dirt.

1. I have to admit I was genuinely saddened a couple of days ago when I awoke to the news that Franco Harris had died.

No. 32.

The Immaculate Reception.

Gone, but never to be forgotten.

I always admired the class and tenacity Harris demonstrated, and having grown up a Cleveland Browns fan, a statement like that is admittedly a bit painful. And the 1970s were especially painful. That’s when Harris and Steelers launched a dynasty that, until recently, had remained intact.

Franco’s death came just two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that provided what ESPN coined “the jolt that helped transform the Steelers from perennial also-rans into NFL elite,” and three days before the team was scheduled to retire his No. 32 during a ceremony at halftime of its game against the Las Vegas Raiders. Ironically, it was the Raiders who Harris made the “Immaculate Reception” against way back in December 1972. I remember watching that game on a small black-and-white television set during my senior year in high school.

Harris, who ran for 12,120 yards and won four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers in the 1970s, became a household name during a late December 1972 AFC playoff game against the -then-Oakland Raiders. With the Steelers trailing 7-6 and facing fourth-and-10 from its own 40-yard line and 22 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Bradshaw drifted back and threw deep to running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua. Fuqua and Oakland defensive back Jack “The Assassin” Tatum collided, sending the ball careening back toward midfield in the direction of Harris.

While nearly everyone else on the field stopped, Harris kept his legs churning, grabbing the ball just inches above the Three Rivers Stadium turf near the Oakland 45. Harris then outraced several stunned Raiders defenders to give the Steelers their first playoff victory in the franchise’s four-decade history.

“That play really represents our teams of the ’70s,” Harris said after the “Immaculate Reception” was voted the greatest play in NFL history during the league’s 100th anniversary season in 2020.

Harris scored at least once in three of the four Super Bowls he played in, and his 354 career yards rushing on the NFL’s biggest stage remains a record nearly four decades after his retirement.

Eight times he topped 1,000 yards rushing in a season, including five times while playing a 14-game schedule. He piled up another 1,556 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns in the playoffs, both second all time behind Emmitt Smith.

“Each player had their strengths and weaknesses, each their own thinking, each their own method, just each, each had their own,” Harris once said. “But then it was amazing, it all came together, and it stayed together to forge the greatest team of all times.”

R.I.P. Franco.

2. In a parting tribute to Harris, here’s my choices for the best football players to wear the legendary No. 32.

  • 1. Jim Brown.
  • 2. Franco Harris.
  • 3. O.J. Simpson. (PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Obviously, Steve is holding The Juice’s 1994 season against him, because there’s no way Franco was better than O.J., with no disrespect intended to Franco. JRG)
  • 4. Marcus Allen.
  • 5. Jack Tatum.
  • 6. Edgerrin James.
  • 7. Mike Curtis.
  • 8. Ottis Anderson
  • 9. Jack Pardee.
  • 10. Ricky Watters.

3. Keith Richards turned 79 on Dec. 18.

Wow.

I’m not sure what’s most impressive, that the longtime Rolling Stones guitarist is still among us (c’mon, you’re thinking the same thing!) or the fact he’s 79 and shows no signs of slowing down.
Or … The fact that Keith and wife Patti Hansen recently celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary. All I can say to that one is that Patti must be an honest-to-goodness saint.

Steve Thought O’ The Day — Despite criticism from some friends, my favorite Rolling Stones song remains “She’s A Rainbow.”

Steve Eighinger writes daily for Muddy River News. Please leave milk and cookies out for him tonight.

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