PITTSBURGH — Days after the death of Franco Harris shocked 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 jumped the improbable, shoestring catch that began a dynasty, the Steelers were once again back in a stadium with the same Raiders they defeated on December 23, 1972. More than a dozen former players from that “immaculate welcome” game were in hand, wearing their old numbers as they walked onto the field with canes and wobbly knees. Joe Greene was there. Mel Blount. Frenchie Fuqua. and many more.
However, Harris’ absence left a huge and irreplaceable void.
‘Still in disbelief’: Franco Harris honored by fans with eerie towels, gold flowers
Rooney said, ‘It shouldn’t have happened. “The big man should have been standing here right next to me. I want to thank (Harris’ wife) Dana and (their son) Doak for being here tonight and sharing Franco with us for the past 50 years.
“It has been said that life will bring you sorrow. It is up to us to bring you joy. Franco gave us happiness 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 initially went as planned, the tone changed dramatically. What should have been a celebration of Harris and all of her achievements instead morphed into a night of reflection and remembrance, as those closest to Harris and those who had never met her moved through the first stages of fresh grief. continued to work.
As Rooney presented the number 32 jersey to Harris’ wife and son, Dana broke down in tears. Rooney hugged the recently widowed footballer’s wife to console her. “Franco! Franco! Franco!!” echoed throughout the crowd. It may have been for the singular reason of honoring Harris that many fans who lowered their single-digit temperatures did so. Meanwhile, members of the 1972 team stood up and waved his eerie towels to salute his late comrade.
– NFL (@NFL) December 25, 2022
Harris may not have been physically present. But it was still his day, from start to finish.
Pat Freermuth – who had a special relationship with Harris, a fellow Penn State product – came up with the idea to wear the No. 32 jersey. 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 Hayward exited the tunnel carrying a giant flag bearing the number 32. And just before kickoff, a moment’s silence was observed throughout the stadium.
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 set up a dummy snap count. The only time quarterback Kenny Puckett said “Franco! Franco! The play was live. NFL Network microphone raised the baras Puckett pulled off a QB sneak on a crucial 4th and 1.
Other men, notably Hayward, were playing as men. Hayward had two sacks and an additional tackle for loss, broke up a pass at the line of scrimmage and made a cheeky move on a stunt to free up Alex Highsmith for a sack.
Hayward said, “I think for us, it was the tip of the hat to not only a Steeler legend but just a great guy.” “A guy from the community you could always count on. A guy who wanted to be your partner even after he retired. I can say in my time here, Franco has welcomed me with open arms.
“There are so many outstanding men who love her. ‘Mean’ Joe (Green). Mel Blount. Countless others. Terry Bradshaw. Mike (Tomlin). All of them. Himself. Nazi Harris. Decades and decades go by, But we still care for a person who has brought us so much.
In their words and actions, the Steelers paid their respects to a football player who was much more than he was. And if 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 put up an even better performance.
Trailing by four with just over three minutes remaining, the Steelers got the ball 76 yards for the needed go-ahead touchdown. Pickett led Pittsburgh down the field in what Tomlin described as a “growing-up” game for the young Steelers offense.
With 46 seconds remaining, receiver George Pickens found the soft spot between two high safety looks on a seam route. Pickett rifled in the tight window, from one rookie to the next, for the touchdown.
got that dog in it
📲 Stream NFL+ on https://t.co/E0NYNUAdNa pic.twitter.com/I4fnw9zVEw
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 25, 2022
On his last chance, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr threw a fumble. Cameron Sutton reeled in the final interception with 36 seconds remaining to seal the memorable victory.
Pickett said, “You’ll be bogged down during it, but you know the magnitude of the game.” “We wanted to go out there and get the win for (Franco Harris). Everyone put (their emotions) together and after the game, obviously, incredibly special moment in the locker room. Safe to say I’m going to keep this (No. 32 Harris) jersey. I’ll probably give it to my parents and get the hang of it. It was a really special win.”
It wasn’t a deflected pass that was caught and taken for the touchdown to win the playoff game. But the last-minute victory and the fact that it produced the same score of 13-10 certainly gave chills to many.
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“We had a chance to be a part of Steeler history tonight and we don’t take that lightly,” Tomlin said. “We are so grateful for the ground laid by those who came before us. Men love this guy’s (Franco Harris) jersey that I’m wearing here. We here in Pittsburgh enjoy the fruits of their labor every day in terms of the standard of expectation the relationship holds 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.”
(Photo of George Pickens and Kenny Pickett: Charles LeClair / USA TODAY)