It was a chance encounter that John Damico will never forget.
When the Forest Hills resident visited the Immaculate Reception Memorial on the North Shore Wednesday afternoon just hours after legendary Steelers running Franco Harris died suddenly at the age of 72, the memories came rushing back.
“I can remember when I was probably about 10 years old playing tennis with him at Forest Hills Park,” Damico recalled of his time spent with the former Steelers great decades ago. “He was a spokesperson for Whirlpool Corp., that sold appliances and stuff, and a neighbor up the street was affiliated with them, and he would bring them to the swimming pool and tennis courts, and I got to play tennis with him when I was a little kid.”
The Immaculate Reception Memorial marks the spot where Harris caught quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s pass that deflected off teammate John “Frenchy” Fuqua before he rushed into the Three Rivers Stadium end zone to give the Steelers a victory against the Oakland Raiders in a 1972 AFC divisional-round playoff game.
Fans and well-wishers flocked to the site after the news of Harris’ passing. Some left flowers, Terrible Towels and pictures.
Others, like Damico, stopped to place their hand on the picture of Harris emblazoned in bronze on a marble monument in a sign of respect to the man who helped lead the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s.
“You just felt great when you were around him whether you were right there with him or watching him on TV,” Damico said. “That’s a great part of what Pittsburgh is, how the Steelers brought the city together. It’s about family. The Steelers are a family.”
Sandy and Marty Hartman of Beaver visited the memorial on Wednesday along with their son, Connor.
“We were planning on going to the Strip this afternoon anyway for the holidays,” Sandy Hartman said. “Then when the news broke and we saw this, we were like, let’s divert and stop and give our respects and then go on. We’re huge football fans.”
The Hartmans are also Penn State fans, which is the university where Harris was drafted from by the Steelers with the 13th overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft. Sandy and Marty are Penn State alumni, while their son is currently enrolled at the university.
Marty Hartman said he will always remember Harris for his philanthropic activities in addition to his feats on the football field.
“He probably did more for Pittsburgh after he finished playing in 30 years than he did playing,” Marty said. “He was so philanthropic, and they said if anybody needed him for a fundraiser or anything, he showed up.
“He was a gentlemanm and he was so giving of all his time,” he added.
The Steelers are set to retire Harris’ No. 32 in a ceremony during the team’s Saturday night game against the Las Vegas Raiders, which falls near the 50th anniversary of the Dec. 23, 1972, Immaculate Reception.
Although Sandy expressed sadness for the Harris family — the Steelers great is survived by his wife, Dana Dokmanovich, and son, Dok — the Hartman family agreed there is a silver lining emerging from the sadness of the great running back’s passing.
“He gets a three-day eulogy,” Marty said. “He gets celebrated throughout football. I was watching the NFL [Network] today, and that’s all they’re talking about is his life.”
Devin Shelgren of Evans City also visited the memorial, wearing a replica of Harris’ No. 32 Steelers jersey to pay his respects.
“It was like a gut punch,” Shelgren said of hearing the news of Harris’ passing. “I just met the gentleman my first time ever [last week].”
Shelgren met Harris as part of a meet and greet at Giant Eagle in South Fayette last Friday.
“What blew me away was, not only his kindness and he was just very friendly to everybody, but he was looking great,” Shelgren recalled. “He would stand up to take pictures and talk to people, kid around with them and everything. He wanted to be there.”
It was an encounter that lived up to the hype of meeting a Pro Football Hall of Fame player.
“The cool thing is he was what you would expect out of a Steeler — a hardworking person and somebody that gives back to the community, somebody that cares and gives back,” Shelgren said. “The city adopted him, and he adopted the city.”
As news of Harris’ passing began to spread early Wednesday morning, tributes began to pour in from across the NFL.
“Words can’t begin to describe the pain I am feeling,” former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said in a post on Instagram.
Bettis’ tenure with the Steelers spanned 10 seasons and included a Super Bowl XL victory in his hometown of Detroit. He is sixth on the NFL’s all-time rushing leaders list with 13,662 yards.
“Franco will always be a brother, mentor and my definition of greatness,” Bettis’ post continued. “He was a legend on the field and the personification of excellence off the field — a true class act to look up to and aspire to be like.”
Recently retired Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who won two Super trophies in 18 seasons with the franchise, also released a statement about Harris on Twitter.
“Today we lost a Legend, not just on the field, but even more so off,” the tweet read. “Franco always had a smile and a hand shake or a hug for everyone, it seemed. Thank you for being a role model for us all!”
The NFL also released a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“We are heartbroken to hear about the passing of 4x Super Bowl champion, Hall of Famer and the man behind the ‘Immaculate Reception,’ Franco Harris,” the statement read. “Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time. Franco’s legacy and impact will live on forever.”
Tributes about the Steelers great also came from the political world.
Gov. Tom Wolf, speaking at the ceremonial ribbon-cutting for the Fern Hollow Bridge in Squirrel Hill, said Harris’ death created a “bittersweet moment for all of us.” He said he had dinner with Harris recently to celebrate the Immaculate Reception.
“This is really a sad day for Pennsylvania and especially Pittsburgh,” he said.
At the same event, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said in his conversations with Harris the running back was always more proud of what that famous play meant for his team rather than its celebrated status in NFL history.
“He always said, ‘It was the birth of those four Super Bowls. That meant more to me than anything else,’” Gainey recalled.
Gainey also noted Harris always was willing to help with events that benefit the city, such as his service on the board of the Pittsburgh Promise, a college scholarship program for city students.
President Joe Biden also offered a statement, recalling the time when Art Rooney Sr., Harris and Steelers teammate Rocky Bleier visited the then-U.S. senator after a car crash killed his first wife, his daughter and injured his two young sons.
Biden called the visit from the Steelers contingent a “small act of kindness that meant the world to us.”
“Sports have a powerful way of bringing people together,” the statement read in part. “As families gather for Christmas this weekend, there will be countless Pittsburgh Steeler and Penn State fans sharing stories of Franco with their children and grandchildren who will discover his greatness on the field. But I know there will also be countless families like mine that will remember him for all that he did to lift our spirits when we needed it — in the most quiet, personal, and American of ways. We don’t have to ask. We show up. We reach out. We share a compassion that is a source of our enduring strength as a nation.”
One of the ways Harris expressed his compassion was through his work with the Pittsburgh Promise.
Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, celebrated the work Harris did over 15 years with the organization.
“He loved our Board and served so faithfully on it,” Ghubril said in a statement. “He did so when our praises were being sung, and when our necks were being wrung. He never thought the price was too high to do right by our mission. He played to the end for our mission.
“He also cared about so many others, served in many unseen ways, and gave so very generously of every resource he had,” the statement continued. “I can name a dozen other missions with which he was engaged, and I am certain there are many more of which I was not aware. Just a month ago I was at an event with … Franco to support children whose parents were incarcerated. He played to the end for them, too.”
Pittsburgh Union Progress reporter Ed Blazina contributed to this report.