LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — In a game schedule makers intended as an opportunity to remember the “Immaculate Reception,” the Raiders and the Steelers will play Christmas Eve in bitter cold at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium.
The death of Franco Harris on Wednesday overshadows the 50th anniversary of the famous play, which came in the 1972 playoff game between the Raiders and the Steelers. He was 72.
“That play really represents our teams of the ’70s,” Harris said after the “Immaculate Reception” was voted the greatest play in the league’s first 100 years in 2020.
John Madden, who coached the Raiders in the game, died on Dec. 28 last year.
Several players from both teams who were on the field that day will be in attendance as Pittsburgh retires Harris’ No. 32.
The contributions Harris made to the game and the city of Pittsburgh have produced an outpouring of emotion as he is remembered. Harris stayed close to the franchise, forming relationships with players including running back Najee Harris, who Franco called his “cousin.”
“When those guys spend time with him, they realize that he didn’t want anything from them, he just wanted the absolute best for them,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “And that unconditional love, guys feel that and that’s why they felt about him the way they felt about him.”
Those who knew him told stories of his humility, with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell saying, “It’s hard to go back and think of a better citizen that Pennsylvania has had other than Franco Harris.”
Former Oakland Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, who chased Harris to the end zone at frozen Three Rivers Stadium in the final seconds of what became a gut-wrenching loss on Dec. 23, 1972, plans to be in attendance on Saturday night.
Villpiano’s Italian father and Harris’ mother bonded at an Italian American athlete of the year dinner. Villapiano knew he and Harris would be forever linked.
“We did so many things together,” Villapiano told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I can’t remember all these things over the last 50 years. It’s crazy. We were always doing the Immaculate Reception story and it got bigger and bigger. He would invite me to places he needed me. I would invite him to places I needed him and our friendship just grew and grew.”
That was Harris, the athlete who was on a first-name basis with people from all walks of life.
With temperatures expected to be near zero, it could mark the coldest home game in Steelers history.
Pittsburgh starting QB Kenny Pickett is expected to play, but weather conditions could favor the Raiders running game. Josh Jacobs leads the NFL in rushing, averaging over 100 yards per game (106.8). Jacobs needs 69 yards from scrimmage to move into second place in franchise history for a season. Marcus Allen holds that mark with 2,314 yards in 1985.
Las Vegas QB Derek Carr surpassed 35,000 passing yards Sunday, one of four quarterbacks to reach that figure in his first nine seasons.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.