Harris, Villapiano and the Immaculate Reception 1972

WALKING PHIL VILLAPIANO through the Pittsburgh airport. It is late Wednesday night, three days before Christmas. Even at 73, he looks like a full-back – muscular chest, muscular shoulders, steel chin. His hair was white, but his eyes remained the same for decades.

Villapiano should hate Pittsburgh. He was an Oakland Raider racer in the 1970s, which meant that the Pittsburgh or the Steelers or really anything black and gold had to get his blood boiling. Raiders and Steelers despise each other. Everyone knows this.

But Villapiano is different. It doesn’t matter that he’s in the middle of the play that spawned all the hostility. It doesn’t matter that the strange and controversial “Immaculate Reception” and history happens right in front of him.

Villapiano knows most Raiders fans see Franco Harris as a bad guy. Only he didn’t feel angry. Not for Harris. It’s almost certainly lost in history and controversy and drama of it all, but the most meaningful story that comes out of the most famous play in NFL history may be the beautiful, unlikely friendship. between two men on opposite sides. For more than 50 years, Villapiano and Harris have eaten together and attended events together. They brought their kids together and told stories together. They shared time. They shared memories.

In fact, every year on December 23, Harris would call Villapiano and say, “Hey Phil, what were you doing at this time 30 years ago?” and Villapiano would growl, grimace, and scream, “We’ve been fooled!” and they will laugh and laugh. It’s their way of saying, “I love you.”

So this year, three days before Christmas, Villapiano arrived in Pittsburgh. He’s here for the Raiders vs Steelers game, where the NFL will celebrate 50 years since the Immaculate Reception. He’s here to watch the Steelers retract Harris’ number. He is here to honor his friend.

“I came to stay with my friend,” Villapiano said in the airport Wednesday night, stopping in front of a statue of Harris welcoming people off the plane. Then he took a breath, bent down, and signed the book that was placed in front of the statue early that morning.

“Franco,” he wrote in swooping. “You are the best. I will miss you.”

BETWEEN GAME that is when it comes to the important part, Franco can’t remember.

The preamble, sure, they might agree. The last play of the game, the Steelers were 1.4 miles down the Pittsburgh 40 and Terry Bradshaw tossed a pass in the direction of Frenchy Fuqua.

Ask Villapiano what happened after that, and he’ll answer with certainty — solids — eight minutes of illegal touch when the ball bounced off Fuqua and Harris somehow caught it, plus Harris didn’t actually catch it because the ball grazed the ground and in addition, one One of Harris’s teammates broke the law by cutting Villapiano so he couldn’t handle Harris when Harris took the ball to set the score. “There were about five penalties, it was completely wrong and we won the game,” Villapiano said earlier this year. He nodded defiantly.

But ask Harris what he recalls when the ball flies towards him, and the details will always fade away somehow. A few months ago, while sitting on a chair in downtown Pittsburgh, Harris ticked off the specifics: how to play is known as “sixty pick” and why he ran towards the ball from position. because that’s what Joe Paterno always preaches to him. in Penn State.

Then, when he got to the point where the magic happened, a small smile appeared on his mouth.

“I started taking a few steps to the ball, and I don’t remember anything else, my mind went completely blank,” he said. “It’s strange that I have brain fog and I don’t remember a thing.” He shrugged, then added that he was always amused when his mother, watching on television in New Jersey, included one of her Italian music albums right before the play. “And at that moment,” he said, eyes widening a little, “Ave Maria was playing. People told me so.”

The shared Italian heritage is really what brought Harris and Villapiano closer together. Months after Immaculate Reception, Harris won the Italian-American athlete award in New Jersey, and Villapiano’s parents happened to be at the party. Villapiano’s father and Harris’ mother, it turns out, were from the same region of Italy, and they struck up a conversation. Harris’s mother was worried about speaking her native English, but Villapiano’s father – who also spoke the same Italian dialect – helped her relax and enjoy his son’s night out.

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

They never lost contact. Even after football is over, they still go to events, parties and charity activities together. They sat in each other’s kitchen. Once, Harris sent Villapiano, an avid singer, on stage at a Temptations concert and cheered him on as he sang “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” Villapiano brought Harris to the legendary back gate of the Raiders, introduced him to the most avid Raiders fans, and introduced him as an honorary member of the Black Hole.

However, the annual phone call is the anchor. It doesn’t matter where they are or what they are doing. On December 23, they talked. In the mobile phone age, it’s easier. Normally, Villapiano, who spends part of the year in Arizona, would play golf when the call came in, so “half the country club would listen.” But even before that it was part of their routine.

“He would phone my mother’s house,” Villapiano said. “He would have my mother ask me what I was doing in [that time] in the afternoon. You will ask my mother. My mother would say, ‘Honey, this year Franco called again.’ It’s funny when he does that.”

ON THURSDAY, WEDNESDAY A few days before Christmas, Phil Villapiano went to bed in Arizona with his luggage packed. He’s leaving for Pittsburgh the next morning. He’s excited. A few hours later, he was startled awake. Something feels off. It’s 3 am, but he’s already out of bed. He looks at his phone and sees a message from his daughter, Andrea, who lives in New Jersey, asking him to call her as soon as he can.

“Franco is dead,” she told him when they answered the phone. There are reports everywhere that Harris died in his sleep at the age of 72. Villapiano returns. “He… he can’t — I just spoke to him this afternoon…” He hesitated.

“Dad, he just died,” Andrea said.

Villapiano didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know what to do. He has no idea what this means this weekend, the celebration of Franco Harris and the play that brought them together.

Villapiano still got on the plane and flew to Pittsburgh. He passed the waiting room. He stopped at the statue and signed the book. He went to his hotel and had a drink in a bar, where he heard people talking about Franco Harris and what he meant to the city. He talks about his friend. He remembers.

When Villapiano went to bed on a Wednesday night, he wasn’t sure what the weekend would bring or how it would make him feel or what it would be like to walk through this city without his friends.

The only thing he knows with absolute certainty is what will happen on Friday, December 23.

“Franco’s son, Dok, doesn’t know this, but I’ll call him,” Villapiano said, his voice cracking. “I called him because I wanted this to continue. I didn’t want this to end.”

ESPN feature producer Joshua Vorensky contributed to this report.


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