How the Immaculate Reception sparked an unlikely friendship

How the Immaculate Reception sparked an unlikely friendship

Dec 23, 2022

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    Sam BordenESPN Senior Writer


      Sam Borden is a senior writer for

PHIL VILLAPIANO WALKS through the Pittsburgh airport. It’s Wednesday evening, three days before Christmas. Even at 73, he still looks like a linebacker — sturdy chest, stout shoulders, steel chin. His hair is white but his eyes still dance as they have for decades.

Villapiano should hate Pittsburgh. He was an Oakland Raider in the 1970s, which means Pittsburgh or the Steelers or really anything with black and gold ought to make his blood run hot. The Steelers and Raiders hate each other. This is something everyone knows.

But Villapiano is different. It doesn’t matter that Villapiano was in the middle the play that created all the animosity. It doesn’t matter that the controversial and historic “Immaculate Reception”, took place right in front of him.

Villapiano knows most who love the Raiders think of Franco Harris as a villain. He doesn’t feel anger. Harris is not one of them. Harris is the exception. Over the past 50 years, Villapiano and Harris have eaten together and gone to events together. They have shared stories and brought their children together. They have shared their time. They have shared many memories.

In fact, every year on Dec. 23, Harris will call Villapiano and say, “Hey Phil, what were you doing this time 30 years ago?” Villapiano will grunt and grimace, shouting “We were getting screwed!” They will laugh and laugh. It’s how they say “I love you.” “

This year, Villapiano arrives in Pittsburgh three days before Christmas. He is here for the game between the Raiders and Steelers where the NFL will celebrate 50 years since the Immaculate Reception. He is here to see Harris’ number retired by the Steelers. He is here to remember his friend.

“I came here to be with my friend,” Villapiano said in the airport on Wednesday night. He stopped in front of the statue that commemorates Harris, which greets all those who have just landed from a plane. He takes a deep breath, then he signs the book which was placed in front the statue that morning.

“Franco,” he writes in swooping script. “You were the best. I will miss your company. “

THE JOKE BETWEEN them was that when it came to the part that mattered, Franco couldn’t remember.

They could agree on the preamble. Last play of the game, Steelers down 1, fourth-and-a-mile from the Pittsburgh 40 and Terry Bradshaw throws a pass in the direction of Frenchy Fuqua.

Ask Villapiano about what happened then, and he’ll do a solid — solid — eight minutes on how there was illegal touching when the ball ricocheted off Fuqua and Harris somehow caught it, plus Harris didn’t actually catch it because the ball grazed the ground and, in addition, one of Harris’ teammates broke the rules by clipping Villapiano so he couldn’t tackle Harris as Harris ran the ball in for the game-winning score. Villapiano stated earlier this year that there were five penalties and it was completely wrong. We won the game. He nodded in defiance.

But, ask Harris what he remembers as the ball flew in his direction. The details will always fall away. A few months ago, sitting in a chair in downtown Pittsburgh, Harris ticked off specifics: how the play was called “60 option” and the reason he ran toward the ball from his blocking position was because it’s what Joe Paterno had always preached to him at Penn State.

Then, when he reached the magic moment, a small smile pulled at his lips.

” I start to take a few steps towards the ball and I don’t remember anything else. My mind is completely blank,” he said. “It just seems so odd that I have brain fog, and I don’t remember anything.” He shrugged and then said that he always found it fascinating that his mother, who was watching from New Jersey, had played one of her Italian music CDs right before the play. He said, with his eyes widening, “And right at the time,” “Ave Maria was being played. They told me that. “

A shared Italian heritage is what brought Harris and Villapiano together. Harris won an Italian American athlete award for New Jersey a few months after the Immaculate Reception. Villapiano’s parents were at the banquet. It turned out that Villapiano’s father was from the same region as Harris’ mother and they had a great conversation. Harris’ mother was nervous about speaking in her broken English. Villapiano’s father, who spoke the same dialect as Italian, helped her relax and enjoy her son.

Harris noticed. He pulled Villapiano close the next time they saw him. “Do you know what happened to your father?” He said. “He made my mother feel like a million bucks. “

They never lost touch. They continued to go to charity events, parties, and events together even after football was over. They would sit in each other’s kitchens. Harris once took Villapiano, who loves singing, to a Temptations concert. They cheered as he sang “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” Villapiano introduced Harris to Raiders’ most passionate Raiders fans, and inducted him as an Honorary Member of the Black Hole.

The annual phone call was, however, the anchor. It didn’t matter where or what they were doing. On Dec. 23, they talked. It was much easier in the cell phone era. Villapiano, who lives in Arizona for part of the year, would often be out on the golf course when the call came in so that “half of the country club could listen in”. It was part of their daily routine since childhood.

“He would call his mother’s house,” Villapiano stated. “He would ask my mother what I was doing at that time in the afternoon. He would ask my mom. My mother would reply, “Dear Franco, Franco called again this summer.” It was hilarious to see how he would do this. “

ON TUESDAY, FOUR days before Christmas, Phil Villapiano goes to bed in Arizona with his bags packed. He will be leaving for Pittsburgh the following morning. He is excited. He wakes up with a start a few hours later. Something is off. He gets up at 3 a.m. He glances at his phone to see a text message from Andrea, his daughter who lives in New Jersey. He asks her to call him as soon as possible.

“Franco has died,” she informs him when they pick up the phone. There are reports all over the place that Harris died in his sleep at age 72. Villapiano rocks back. “He… He couldn’t have — I just spoke to him this afternoon …” He trails away.

“Dad, he just died,” Andrea says.

Villapiano doesn’t know what to think. He doesn’t know where to start. This weekend, the celebration of Franco Harris’s play and the play that brought them closer, he doesn’t know what to do.

Villapiano gets on the plane and flies to Pittsburgh anyway. He walks through the concourse. He stops at the statue to sign the book. He returns to his hotel, and he has a drink at the bar. There, he hears everyone discussing Franco Harris and what it meant to the city. He speaks about his friend. He recalls.

Villapiano goes to bed on Wednesday night. He isn’t sure how the weekend will go, how it will affect him, or what it will feel like to walk around this city without his friend.

The only thing that Villapiano knows with absolute certainty about is what will happen Friday, December. 23.

“Franco’s son, Dok, doesn’t know this, but I’m calling him then,” Villapiano says, his voice cracking. “I’m calling him, because I want this to continue. This is not the end. “

ESPN Feature Producer Joshua Vorensky contributed to this report.

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