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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Thrill of Victory…Agony of Defeat

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

When I learned that Franco Harris, the iconic linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers passed away, a flood of memories engulfed me. Best known for his role in the Immaculate Reception, a play chosen by NFL Films as the greatest play in football history (as well as the most controversial), Franco Harris became a hero to generations of sports fans, young and old over the years.

Tragically, Harris died just a few days before the 50th anniversary celebration of the Immaculate Reception, a catch he made on fourth down with 22 seconds left in the 1972 AFC divisional playoff game between the Steelers and their cross country rivals the Oakland Raiders. While the celebration still took place on Christmas Eve 2022, it turned into an extended wake over several days. For the past week, Harris was eulogized around the country from individuals on Facebook to President Joe Biden whose family was one of the many beneficiaries of Harris’ quiet thoughtfulness over the years. While Harris’ jersey sporting his player number 32 is now retired, his memory and the impact he had on people far and wide over his lifetime will long be remembered.

The week following the Immaculate Reception in 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost the conference championship to the Miami Dolphins 21-17. It would be two more years before the Steelers would win their first of six Super Bowls.

As disappointing as that defeat was, it was overshadowed by an even greater loss. On December 31, 1972, one week after the Immaculate Reception, Roberto Clemente, right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates died. Known to many as The Great One, Clemente, my childhood hero, perished in a plane crash.

Clemente spent much of his time during the off-season involved in charity work. When Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, was affected by a massive earthquake on December 23, 1972, Clemente (who visited Managua three weeks before the quake) immediately set to work arranging emergency relief flights. After learning that the aid packages on the first three flights had been diverted by corrupt officials of the Somoza government, never reaching victims of the quake, he decided to accompany the fourth relief flight, hoping that his presence would ensure that the aid would be delivered to the survivors.

Tragically the Douglas DC-7 cargo plane he chartered for the New Year's Eve flight, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff due to engine failure.

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