Franco Harris, Immaculate Reception and Unexpected Friendship

Phil Filipiano Wolks via Pittsburgh Airport. It is late Wednesday evening, three days before Christmas. Even at the age of seventy-three, he still looks like a linebacker – a powerful chest, powerful shoulders and a steel chin. His hair is white, but his eyes dance the way they did decades ago.

Velapiano must hate Pittsburgh. He was the Oakland Raider of the ’70s, which means Pittsburgh or Steelers or something black and gold should get his blood running. The Raiders and Steelers despise each other. Everyone knows this.

But Villapiano is different. Never mind that he was the center of the play that generated all the animosities. Never mind that the bizarre, controversial, and historical “immaculate reception” took place right in front of him.

Villapiano knows that most of those who love the Raiders think Franco Harris is evil. Only he does not feel angry. Not for Harris. It almost certainly gets lost in the history, controversy, and drama of it all, but the most important story to emerge from the most famous play in NFL history was perhaps this beautiful, unlikely friendship between two men who were on opposite sides of the board. For the past 50 years, Velapiano and Harris have dined together and gone to events together. They got their children together and told stories together. They shared time. They exchanged memories.

In fact, every year on December 23rd, Harris will call Villapiano and say, “Hey Phil, what were you doing this time 30 years ago?” And Velapiano will growl and grimace and shout, “We’ve been screwed!” And they will laugh and laugh. So they say, “I love you.”

So this year, three days before Christmas, Velapiano comes to Pittsburgh. He’s here for the game between the Raiders and Steelers as the NFL celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. He’s here to see Harris’ Steelers retirement number. He’s here to honor his friend.

“I came to be with my friend,” Velapiano said at the airport Wednesday night, pausing in front of a statue of Harris that greets everyone who gets off the plane. Then he takes a breath, bends over and signs the book that was placed in front of the statue early that morning.

“Franco” writes in a swooping line. “You were the best. I will miss you.”

The joke between them that when it came to the important part, Franco could not remember.

Preamble, certainly, they could agree on. Last play of the game, the Steelers trailed 1, fourth on the Pittsburgh 40, and Terry Bradshaw threw a pass in the direction of Frenchie Fuqua.

Ask Villapiano what happened next, and he’ll do a solid job – solid – Eight minutes on how he illegally touched the ball when the ball bounced off Fuqua and Harris somehow, plus Harris didn’t actually catch it because the ball was touching the ground, plus one of Harris’ team mates broke the rules by clipping Velapiano so he wouldn’t He manages to tackle Harris while Harris runs the ball into the game for the win. “There were about five penalties and it was completely wrong and we won the match,” Villapiano said earlier this year. He shook his head defiantly.

But ask Harris what he remembers when the ball was floating in his direction, and the details will always come back in some way. A few months ago, sitting on a stool in downtown Pittsburgh, Harris worked out a few details: How the play was called “60 Options” and the reason he ran toward the ball from the interception position is because it’s what Joe Paterno always preached at Penn State.

Then, when he reached the point where the magic had happened, a small smile flickered across his mouth.

“I start to take a few steps towards the ball,” he said, “and I don’t remember anything else, my mind is completely blank.” “It feels so weird that I have brain fog and don’t remember a single thing.” He shrugged, then added that he had always found it interesting that his mother, watching on TV in New Jersey, had put out one of her Italian musical albums just before the play. He said, his eyes widening a little at the time, “Ave Maria was playing. That’s what they told me.”

The shared Italian heritage is actually what brought Harris and Velapiano closer. After months of an immaculate reception, Harris won an Italian-American Athlete Award in New Jersey, and Villapiano’s parents were at the banquet. It turns out that Villapiano’s father and Harris’ mother both came from the same region in Italy, and they strike up a conversation. Harris’ mother was nervous about having to speak in her broken English, but Villapiano’s father—who spoke the same Italian accent—helped her out so she could relax and enjoy her son’s night out.

Harris noted. And the next time he saw Villapiano, he pulled him closer. “Do you know what your father did?” He said. “He made my mom feel like a million bucks.”

They never lost contact. Even after football ended, they went to events, parties, and charity events together. They sat in each other’s kitchens. Once, Harris sent Velapiano, who loves to sing, on stage at a Temptations concert and cheered as he sang “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” Velapiano brought Harris to the Raiders’ legendary backdoor, introduced him to the Raiders’ most ardent fan and made him an honorary member of the Black Hole.

However, the annual phone call was the announcer. It didn’t matter where they were or what they were doing. On December 23, they spoke. In the age of the cell phone, it was even easier. Often, Villapiano, who spends part of the year in Arizona, was golfing when the call came, so “half the country club would listen.” But even before that it was part of their routine.

“He was calling my mom’s house,” Villapiano said. “He would tell my mother to ask me what I was doing [that time] at noon. he was asking my mother. My mother would say, “Honey, Franco called again this year.” It was funny how he would do that.”

On Tuesday, the fourth Days before Christmas, Phil Villapiano goes to bed in Arizona with his packed suitcases. He will leave for Pittsburgh the next morning. He is excited. A few hours later, he wakes up with a start. Something he feels. It’s three in the morning, but he’s getting out of bed. He looks at his phone and sees a text message from his daughter, Andrea, who lives in New Jersey, telling him to call her ASAP.

“Franco is dead,” I told him when they got on the phone. There are reports all over the place that Harris died in his sleep at the age of 72. “He… he couldn’t do it — I just spoke to him this afternoon…”

“Dad, he just died,” Andrea says.

Villapiano doesn’t know what to think. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what this means for the weekend, this celebration of Franco Harris and the play that brought them together.

Villapiano gets on the plane and flies to Pittsburgh anyway. He walks down the hallway. He stopped at the statue and signed the book. He goes to his hotel and has a drink at the bar, where he overhears everyone talking about Franco Harris and what he meant to the city. He talks about his friend. He remembers.

As Villapiano goes to sleep on a Wednesday night, he’s not sure what the weekend will bring, how it will make him feel, or what it will be like to walk this town without his friend.

The only thing he knows for sure is what will happen on Friday, December 23rd.

“Doc, Franco’s son, doesn’t know this, but I called him then,” Villapiano said in a crackling voice. “I’m calling him because I want this to continue. I don’t want this to end.”

ESPN feature producer Joshua Forensky contributed to this report.

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