Originally published: 12/15/2022, WESA

As news of the passing of Pittsburgh Steelers football legend Franco Harris hit Pittsburgh Wednesday morning, tributes began pouring in from across the city and the country on social media.

Harris’ No. 32 jersey was about to be retired this weekend by the Steelers, a gesture that would coincide with the 50th anniversary of “The Immaculate Reception,” one of the most famous plays in the history of football. But instead, several fans laid flowers and a Terrible Towel at a memorial to the play on the North Side. Top players, coaches and football experts were sending their condolences from across the country.

Harris stayed in the Pittsburgh area, and many of the early tributes to him were about small, everyday matters, such as bumping into Harris around town or the work Harris did for nonprofits and politicians in the city.

Chris Ivey, a filmmaker in Pittsburgh, met Harris in 2009 when he began producing commercials for Harris’ son Dok, who was running for mayor of Pittsburgh. Ivey referred to Harris as “Pittsburgh Jesus” because of how famous and beloved he was and also because of how warm and generous he was in the community.

Ivey remembers that, during Steelers games, Harris would move around to different parts of the stadium because he loved being around people. And when the Steelers were losing and Ivey would get discouraged, he said, Harris would tell him, “It’s not over yet.”

Ivey served as Harris’ tech guy and would come over even to help fix his internet router. Often times when Ivey called to talk about a project, he said, Harris would be on the treadmill, keeping in shape.

Joe Gordon, the longtime public relations director for the Steelers, said Harris called him up every couple of weeks during the pandemic to check up on him and his wife and ask if they needed anything.

“And that was typical Franco,” he said. “He probably was calling 20 other people with the same thing.”

Albert Vento, the owner of Vento’s Pizza in East Liberty, remembers going to Steelers games for years as a kid and watching the team lose. Vento’s dad started the fan group “Franco’s Italian Army” with his cousin after Harris, whose mother was Italian, joined the team.

The Immaculate Reception changed everything, he said.

“Pittsburgh had the gloom and doom. You had the steel mills with the dark clouds coming out of the mills,” he said. “Now, the Immaculate Reception happens. Sunlight came in. Steelers Nation was born.”

After that, he said, games were like a party. They even brought a tank to the game, for which they had to get a permit.

It was like going to the game with Goodfellas,” he said. “We had 12 seats. So when the Steelers started winning, those seats were a commodity. Two seats were for food — two seats! So you had 10 crazy Italians and all kinds of food.

Harris ate at Vento’s one last time on Monday because a couple of friends had asked if Albert could help them get in touch with Harris to give him a religious piece they had made. Another fan wanted him to sign a ticket stub from the Immaculate Reception game. Harris was, unusually, right on time, Albert said. And he stayed for more than three hours.

On Wednesday, Albert put on his signed Harris jersey and wore it to work, behind his apron. It was, the first time, he had ever worn it because he didn’t want it to get ruined.

“Today I have to make my tribute,” he said.

During Harris’ rookie season with the Steelers, he was quiet, like most rookies, but quickly earned the respect of older players, Gordon said.

“Joe Greene often said, ‘We never made the playoffs until Franco came, and then we made them eight straight years with Franco,'” he said.

Earlier this year, Harris headlined a rally for then-U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman in the Strip District.

“Franco was a true legend and icon on and off the field,” said Fetterman in an emailed statement. “He gave so much to everyone and was a truly selfless man.”

“Franco’s Italian Army” was formed in the fall of 1972, with many of its fan members wearing army helmets.

“He was the champion of the Italian community here and the most beloved,” Ivey said. “It was an amazing time back then during his rookie year. The Italian community had a lot of hopes for him, and they were cheering him on, and then to have the Immaculate Reception during his rookie year the way that it happened — that was it.”

Carlos Carter, the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Urban League, said Harris was a big supporter, with both his money and time, and went to great lengths to help the Black community in Pittsburgh. Harris agreed to serve as a spokesperson for the league’s campaign to try to encourage people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He also received its prestigious Ronald H. Brown Leadership award in February in recognition of his charitable work.

Harris served for years as the chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship board, which provides scholarships to Pittsburgh Public School graduates. For 15 years, Harris supported the scholarship, even dancing with kids on the day they declared what college they would attend.

Saleem Ghubril, the executive director of Pittsburgh Promise, said he was both sad and angry to hear about Harris’ passing.

“We know the time comes for all humans to one day die. But not today,” Ghubril wrote in a statement. “Not the week where the whole country was preparing to say ‘Thank you’ to a legend who always thought more highly of others than himself…”

Harris was still amazed by his own life and football success. He told The Confluence in an interview this week about the 50-year anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. He bragged that it was the first-ever touchdown by a Steeler in the playoffs, leading to the first-ever Steelers playoff victory. But he said he has no actual memories of that most famous moment, only the moments just before the catch and just after.

Hard to believe. 50 years, 50 years,” Harris said. “And it’s wonderful that we’re around to celebrate it.”