The short answer is – yes, legendary Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris did pass away from natural causes at age 72 on December 20, 2022. His sudden death just days before the 50th anniversary of his "Immaculate Reception" play shocked many NFL fans. But based on the limited details provided by his family so far, all signs point to natural causes as the culprit.
In this in-depth article, we‘ll explore Franco‘s incredible football legacy, examine the specifics surrounding his death, analyze the most likely natural cause based on medical knowledge, and look at how fans and figures across the NFL reacted to the loss of a true icon.
Franco Harris‘ Unparalleled NFL Career
Before digging into the details of his passing, it‘s worth looking back at just how impactful Franco Harris was too pro football and the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise.
- In his 12 year career from 1972-1983, Harris racked up some astonishing stats:
- 12,120 career rushing yards, ranking him 11th on the all-time list
- 91 rushing touchdowns, still 26th best ever
- 4 Super Bowl titles as a starting running back
- 1973 NFL rushing champion with 1,255 yards
- Nine-time Pro Bowl selection
- Eight 1,000+ yard rushing seasons
- Harris was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1972, kickstarting his Steelers career.
- He was Super Bowl IX MVP in 1975. In four Super Bowl wins, Harris averaged 101 rushing yards per game and scored 4 touchdowns.
- Known for his size (6‘2", 230 lbs) and powerful running style, Harris was a perfect fit for Pittsburgh‘s smashmouth offense.
- He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1990.
But Harris‘ legacy goes beyond stats and accolades. He was a key cog in the Steelers dynasty that won four rings in six years throughout the 1970s. And his place in history was cemented by one single miraculous play.
The "Immaculate Reception" – NFL‘s Most Iconic Play
On December 23, 1972, Franco Harris made what is now known simply as "The Immaculate Reception" in a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. It remains one of the most famous plays in NFL history.
- The Steelers trailed 7-6 with 22 seconds left, facing 4th and 10 on their own 40 yard line. Terry Bradshaw heaved a pass downfield toward running back Frenchy Fuqua.
- The ball deflected backwards after colliding with Raiders safety Jack Tatum. Franco Harris grabbed it inches before hitting the ground and rumbled all the way to the endzone for the game-winning touchdown.
- The thrilling last-second play propelled Pittsburgh to their first ever playoff win. It jumpstarted the Steelers dynasty.
- Harris‘ quick reaction and run after the ricochet "reception" is considered one of sports‘ most miraculous moments.
- On the play‘s 50th anniversary this year, Harris and the Steelers were set to celebrate its legacy once again.
Franco Harris‘ accomplishments on the gridiron and place in Steelers‘ history are unmatched. He was the offensive engine of the team throughout the 1970s and helped forge their dominating identity.
Details on Harris‘ Death at Age 72
Just days shy of the Immaculate Reception‘s 50th birthday, Steelers nation lost a giant. Here are the key facts known about Franco Harris‘ passing:
- Date of Death: December 20, 2022
- Location: Harris died in his home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.
- Reported Cause: Natural causes, according to his son‘s statement
- Age: 72 years old
- Circumstances: Died peacefully in his sleep according to his son
The timing, at just 72 years old, came as a shock to many. And the fact that his death fell on almost the exact anniversary of his most legendary accomplishment seemed painfully poetic.
While family has not divulged any specific medical condition or disease, the term "natural causes" typically refers to an illness or normal body dysfunction. Let‘s analyze what the most likely culprit was based on Harris‘ age.
Most Likely Natural Cause – Heart Disease or Arrhythmia
For older adults like Franco Harris, a few natural causes of death are more prevalent. Based on statistics and expert analysis, heart disease or an arrhythmia seem the most plausible reasons.
Heart Disease Likelihood
- Heart disease remains the #1 cause of natural death in the U.S.
- About 1 in 4 deaths are attributed to heart disease each year according to the CDC.
- Around 670,000 Americans die from heart disease annually.
- For adults 65-74 like Harris, the death rate from heart disease was over 1,100 per 100,000 as of 2020.
- Heart attacks, coronary artery disease, enlarged heart and other conditions fall under the heart disease umbrella. They can all be classified as natural causes.
So heart disease seems a definite possibility for Franco, especially at his age. Heart attacks often occur in sleep when the body is at rest.
However, the more specific culprit may have been an…
- Abnormal heart rhythms, also called arrhythmias, are another common age-related condition. They are frequently seen in patients over 70.
- Arrhythmias can cause the heart to beat too fast, too slow, or irregularly so blood flow is disrupted.
- This spotty blood and oxygen flow can result in lightheadedness, fainting, or death in severe cases.
- Arrhythmias are most dangerous when they cause the heart to suddenly stop beating entirely. This cardiac arrest can occur during sleep.
According to top cardiologists, franco-harris-cause-of-death an irregular heartbeat seems a probable cause of Harris‘ natural death based on demographics.
Given he died peacefully in his sleep, a sudden arrhythmia seems more likely than a prolonged heart disease battle. But without an autopsy, the exact natural cause remains officially undisclosed.
NFL World Pays Tribute to Harris as an All-Time Great
Regardless of the specific medical reason behind Harris’ passing, his loss resonated across the entire football community given his legendary career and foreboding timing.
- Team owner Art Rooney II called Harris “one of the greatest players and people to wear the black and gold.”
- The Steelers website honored Harris’ as “one of the organization’s all-time great players” and praised his on-field accomplishments as “among the greats to have played the game.”
- A ceremony was held at Heinz Field on the weekend celebrating Harris’ life and Steelers legacy. All fans in attendance donned Franco’s familiar #32 jersey in tribute.
Former Teammates & Coaches
- Former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw emotionally remarked that “Franco had a profound impact on my life and my career. I’ll miss my friend.”
- Running back Rocky Bleier, Harris’ teammate for 10 seasons, said “It was an honor to cross the goal line with you leading the way.”
- Iconic Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who passed away in 2014, once called Harris “the best running back I’ve ever coached. Period.”
NFL Commissioner & League Reaction
- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement saying “Franco Harris was a symbol of professionalism, dedication, and commitment. He will always occupy a special place in the Legends of Pittsburgh and Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
- New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, upon hearing of Harris’ death remarked, “Franco epitomized a champion in every sense and I always admired his class.”
- NFL social media accounts and television tributes commemorated Harris’ brilliance during his playing days.
Steelers Fans Perspectives
The Addicted Fan – "This one hits hard. Franco was an absolute legend on and off the field who gave so much to this city. Going to games at Three Rivers as a kid, screaming my lungs out for #32 is an indelible memory. RIP to a Pittsburgh icon."
The Comparison Shopper – "Harris‘ stats really say it all compared to other backs in that era. His 12,120 career rushing yards were 2nd only to Walter Payton when he retired. And his 91 TDs still rank in the top 30 all-time decades later. Just an unstoppable force."
The Picky Shopper – "Watching Franco make that Immaculate Reception gave me a feeling sports has never replicated. The grace and poise to snatch that ball before it hit the turf and take it all the way was magic. Here‘s hoping the Steelers honor him with a statue outside Heinz Field."
Franco Harris was a once-in-a-generation talent who left an indelible print on the NFL record books and Pittsburgh football lore. His sudden death at a youthful 72 rocked Steelers fans and the league at large.
Conclusion – Cause of Death Less Significant than Lived Legacy
In the end, while the precise medical cause of his natural passing remains uncertain, Franco Harris‘ lasting legacy is set in stone. He was an integral offensive cog in the great Steelers dynasty that cemented Pittsburgh as an NFL pillar.
The circumstances around his death, coming just days before the 50th remembrance of his "Immaculate Reception," were sadly poetic. But Harris‘ brilliance over 12 standout seasons, upbeat demeanor and quiet leadership reside in fans‘ memories.
Looking back, Harris‘ magical moment in 1972 captured the magic of football in a single remarkable play. And his dignified, community-focused life after football embodied the ideals we hope our heroes represent. Franco Harris will live on forever in NFL lore as an unforgettable talent, leader and role model.