Pittsburgh Steelers’ John ‘Frenchy’ Fuqua Reflects on Franco Harris, 50 Years of Friendship and the Immaculate Reception — Andscape

The sudden death of Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris on Wednesday sent shock waves through the entire family of NFL players, executives and fans.

Harris dies at 72 occurred three days before he was to be honored on the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, the most iconic play in NFL and Pittsburgh Steelers history. No one was more stunned or saddened than John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who spent five seasons as Harris’ teammate and teammate from 1972 when Harris was a rookie until 1976, Fuqua’s final season with Pittsburgh.

Like the legendary Chicago Cubs double-play combination from Joe Tinker to Johnny Evers to Frank Chance, Terry Bradshaw’s combination to Fuqua to Harris became steeped in NFL lore on December 23, 1972.

“I couldn’t believe it, I still can’t believe Franco is gone,” Fuqua said in a phone interview. “I can’t believe it, man.”

I spoke with Fuqua on Thursday as he and hundreds of other former Steelers players and managers gathered in Pittsburgh to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and watch Harris’ No. 32 jersey become the third jersey for the Steelers to be retired.

I knew Harris through Fuqua, who was my teammate at Morgan State. We met in 1968, my freshman year at Morgan. Fuqua was a senior and had only lost one game in four years. His professional career would be another matter.

He was drafted by the New York Giants in 1969. Fuqua was traded to the Steelers in 1970 and while he enjoyed individual success as the Steelers’ main runner, the team lost: They finished 5- 9 in 1970; 6-8 in 1971. Things turned around with the arrival of Harris in 1972.

Fuqua said he was overjoyed when the Steelers made Harris their first-round pick.

“When Franco arrived I moved to what I thought was my natural position; I went from fullback to halfback and had my biggest racing year of my life,” Fuqua said.

Eventually, Fuqua was supplanted by Harris as running back for the Steelers.

“I went from the No. 1 running back to the No. 2, which didn’t hurt because I knew it would extend my career as a 5-foot-11, 195-pound running back,” Fuqua said. “Franco extended my time.”

There were no hard feelings, even though Harris replaced him as the main runner.

“Yes, he did, but you know what? After four years in the NFL, you would like to extend your career as long as possible. And only the player knows when that moment comes. It was coming for me,” Fuqua said. “Franco excelled. What made Franco even more exceptional was not only that he could crush you, but also that he could bypass you. And you wouldn’t catch him if you were behind him. I didn’t complain at all. I say it was the perfect scenario for me.

Their main competition was off the field.

“We played chess, and if we really had any competition, it was on the chessboard,” Fuqua said. “I used to kick his ass.”

With 22 seconds remaining in the Pittsburgh Steelers-Oakland Raiders playoff game, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a desperate fourth pass aimed at John “Frenchy” Fuqua (left). When the ball was deflected by Raiders safety Jack Tatum (left), it traveled seven yards into the arms of Franco Harris (right), who traveled 42 yards for the game-winning touchdown.


Fuqua and Harris won two Super Bowl titles as teammates: Super Bowl IX when Pittsburgh beat the Minnesota Vikings and Super Bowl X when Pittsburgh beat the Dallas Cowboys.

But what they will forever be joined in is the last game of desperation on December 23, 1972, when Pittsburgh defeated Oakland 13-7 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.

The game became one of the most enduring sports debates, matched only if catcher Yogi Berra scored Jackie Robinson in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series when Robinson stole the house.

No one has ever established whether Bradshaw’s ball pass hit Fuqua first or ricocheted off Jack Tatum, the Raiders safety who tied Fuqua on the play. attacking – Fuqua – the game would have been called off as soon as Harris touched the ball. Officials ruled, perhaps for conservation reasons, that the pass ricocheted off Tatum. Harris picked it up and rushed for the touchdown.

For 50 years, Fuqua maintained that he knew but would not tell. I thought I might make it clear to him when we spoke on Thursday.

OK, I’ll tell you, only because you’re an alumnus and a teammate,” he said. I’ll tell you.”

Fuqua paused.

“I will never tell.”

Pittsburgh’s victory over the Raiders became the foundation of the fledgling Steelers dynasty. Fuqua had no idea the play would be celebrated 50 years later.

“I had no idea, but you know what? I think that year the Steelers put it all in. We weren’t supposed to lose to Oakland,” he said.

“Franco was a blessing, not only to the Pittsburgh franchise, but to his teammates, as this game instilled confidence and got us four Super Bowl rings.”

Fuqua was careful to point out that his relationship with Harris — and Harris himself — was more important than just the iconic piece. They maintained a lasting friendship from the time Harris entered the league.

“Oh man, we were really close,” he said. “Franco used to come to my apartment. He would bring his girlfriend then. His girlfriend and my wife got along very well. We had a good relationship. All the ball carriers, we would meet either at my apartment or at Franco’s, and we would talk about football. We talked about private things, which we have continued to keep private over the years.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris (center) is mobbed by fans at Three Rivers Stadium after scoring the game-winning touchdown, dubbed the ‘Immaculate reception,’ in the AFC Divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders .


What impressed Fuqua was Harris’ commitment to staying in shape and taking care of his body.

“He was a big fan of eating the right foods, staying away from foods that shouldn’t be eaten, and when we drank three to four beers, he only drank one,” Fuqua said. .

Fuqua recalled how Harris was always ready to offer advice and guidance to young people, including Fuqua’s three children.

“Franco was compassionate,” Fuqua said. “I saw that with him. We made a lot of appearances. He took children aside, while we were signing, and talked to them. I know it made a difference in their lives.

“I was with Franco for five years, and those years that I was with him, one of our promoters was Iron City Beer. Franco didn’t let go. He started getting in shape a month after football season. I said, “Man, you need to rest”, and he said, “Man, we need to be fit.” You couldn’t ask for a more perfect football player, far from it. team, taking care of his body. I can vouch for that. When we were playing cards, he had a dumbbell sitting next to him, when he was trying to make a decision when he was playing [cards]he would lift it.

As we finished our conversation and Fuqua prepared to go to one of the many celebratory events, the finality and shock of his friend’s sudden death set in. Fuqua repeated what he had said when we started our conversation. His friend of over 50 years had passed away.

“Man, I still can’t believe Franco is gone,” Fuqua said. ” I can not believe it. Franco was one of a kind.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning New York Times sports columnist and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer for Andscape.

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