Nearly 50 years to the day after recording the greatest play in Steelers history, Franco Harris will have his No. 32 retired by the franchise. Fittingly, the retirement of Harris’ number will come at halftime of the Steelers’ Week 16 game against the Raiders, the team Harris recorded his “Immaculate Reception” against on Dec. 23, 1972.
“I am thrilled we are going to honor Franco with this recognition by retiring his No. 32 jersey,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. “This is the 50th anniversary of one of the most memorable plays in NFL history; one that changed the course of our success with his ‘Immaculate Reception’ in 1972. My Grandfather was once quoted as saying: ‘Before Franco got here, we didn’t win much, since he got here, we don’t lose.’ I think that sums it up pretty good. Franco’s impact on the franchise would be hard to overstate. That is why I think it is fitting and appropriate that we recognize Franco’s remarkable career by retiring his Number 32 at our game on December 24.”
Harris is the third Steelers player to receive this honor. Ernie Stautner’s No. 70 was retired in 1964, one year after he completed his Pro Football Hall of Fame career. Joe Greene, Harris’ former teammate and a pillar of Pittsburgh’s famed “Steel Curtain” defense, had his No. 75 retired during the 2014 season.
“In my wildest dreams I never expected it,” Harris said of the honor, via Jenna Harner of WPXI. “When Art mentioned it to me, I was blown away. It was a wild moment. It was unbelievable. It’s quite an honor to be the first offensive player to have their number retired.”
Harris represents a drastic turn of events in Steelers’ history. The Steelers did not win a playoff game in the 39 years prior to Harris joining the team in 1972. During Harris’ first season, the Steelers won their first playoff game on the strength of his “Immaculate Reception” that propelled Pittsburgh to a 13-7 win over the Raiders. Harris won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year while becoming an insanely popular figure in Pittsburgh.
“My rookie year was an incredible year,” Harris told CBS Sports in 2021. “That year, [Steelers fans] went crazy. Franco’s Italian Army popped up. And then we had all these fan clubs pop up. That generated so much enthusiasm and so much of a following. And it’s still there today with Steelers Nation. That was a pretty incredible rookie year. I don’t know if anybody ever had as much fun in their rookie year as I did. Going from the worst of all time to this incredible season, to an incredible base of fans to win our first playoff game the way that we won it and to go from there. It was a dream rookie season.”
Harris helped the Steelers win their first Super Bowl two years later, as his 158 yards led Pittsburgh in a 16-6 win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. Harris won Super Bowl MVP after setting then-Super Bowl records for rushing yards and rushing attempts.
A Pro Bowler each year from 1972-80, Harris was the focal point of the offense during the Steelers’ first two Super Bowl wins. He continued to play at a high level as the Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls to close out the ’70s. He scored three touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s wins over Dallas and Los Angeles in Super Bowls XIII and XIV. His 354 career rushing yards in Super Bowl games remains the all-time record.
A first-ballot member of the Hall of Fame, Harris is one of 10 former players from the ’70s Steelers to be inducted in Canton, Ohio. Harris’ 12,120 rushing yards with the Steelers remains the franchise’s career benchmark. He was part of the franchise’s inaugural Hall of Honor class in 2017.
While he is proud of the four Super Bowls he and his teammates won, Harris is equally proud of the fact that, during his first 12 seasons in Pittsburgh, the team appeared in six AFC title games. Both of those achievements, however, pale in comparison to what Harris treasures most.
“They had a couple of down years here and there, but the Steelers overall have kept their level of play at that great level,” Harris said. “They went on to win a couple more Super Bowls and be the first one to win six. The history continues. The legacy continues. That’s what I’m most proud of is that they’ve kept that winning spirit and that winning attitude there.”