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Franco Harris, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers running back whose heads-up thinking created the “Immaculate Reception”, considered the most famous play in NFL history, has died. He was 72.

Harris’s son, Dok Harris, said his father died overnight. No cause of death was given.

Harris’s death comes two days before the 50th anniversary of the play that helped transform the Steelers from also-rans to elite and three days before the team will retire his No 32 jersey at halftime of a game against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Harris ran for 12,120 yards and won four Super Bowls with the Steelers in the 1970s, a dynasty that began when Harris decided to keep running during a last-second pass by the quarterback Terry Bradshaw in a playoff against the Raiders, then based in Oakland, in 1972.

With Pittsburgh trailing 7-6 and facing fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line and 22 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Bradshaw threw deep to the running back French Fuqua. Fuqua and the Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum collided, sending the ball towards Harris.

Nearly everyone else stopped but Harris snatched the ball inches above the turf, near the Oakland 45, then outraced several defenders to give the Steelers their first playoff victory in franchise history.

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

While the Steelers fell the next week to Miami in the AFC Championship, they were on their way to becoming the dominant team of the 1970s, winning Super Bowls after the 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979 seasons.

A 6ft 2in, 230lb workhorse from Penn State, Harris ran for a then-record 158 yards rushing and a touchdown in a 16-6 victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX, winning the Most Valuable Player award. He scored at least once in three of the four Super Bowls he played, and his 354 yards rushing on the biggest stage remains a record.

Born in Fort Dix, New Jersey, on 7 March 1950, Harris played at Penn State. The Steelers, in the final stages of a rebuild led by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, saw enough to make him the 13th overall pick in the 1972 draft.

“When [Noll] drafted Franco Harris, he gave the offense heart, he gave it discipline, he gave it desire, he gave it the ability to win a championship in Pittsburgh,” the Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann said of his frequent roommate on road trips.

Harris won the Rookie to the Year award in 1972 after rushing for a then-team-rookie record 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Steelers reached the postseason for the second time in franchise history.

The city’s large Italian-American population embraced Harris, led by local businessmen who founded what became known as Franco’s Italian Army, a nod to Harris’s African American father and Italian mother.

The Immaculate Reception made Harris a star, though he preferred to let his play do the talking. On a team that featured big personalities in Bradshaw, the defensive tackle Joe Greene, linebacker Jack Lambert and others, the intensely quiet Harris spent 12 seasons as the engine of the offense.

He topped 1,000 yards rushing in a season eight times, five in a 14-game schedule. He piled up another 1,556 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns in the playoffs, both second all-time. Harris insisted he was just one cog in an extraordinary machine.

“You see, during that era, each player brought their own little piece with them to make that wonderful decade happen,” he said in his Hall of Fame speech in 1990. “Each player had their strengths and weaknesses, each their own thinking, each their own method, just each, each had their own. But then it was amazing, it all came together, and it stayed together to forge the greatest team of all times.”

Harris stuck up for his teammates. When Bradshaw took what Harris felt was an illegal late hit from the Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson in the second half of the 1978 Super Bowl, Harris basically demanded Bradshaw give him the ball on the next play. Harris sprinted 22 yards, past Henderson, for a touchdown that gave the Steelers an 11-point lead they would not relinquish.

Despite his success, Harris’s time in Pittsburgh ended acrimoniously when the Steelers cut him after he held out during training camp before the 1984 season. Noll famously answered “Franco who?” when asked about Harris’s absence from the camp.

Harris signed with Seattle, running for just 170 yards in eight games before being released. He retired as the NFL’s third all-time leading rusher, behind Walter Payton and Jim Brown.

“I don’t even think about that [any more],” Harris said in 2006. “I’m still black and gold.”

Harris remained in Pittsburgh, opening a bakery and becoming involved in charities including Pittsburgh Promise, which provides college scholarships for public school students. He is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and his son, Dok.