Harris, Villapiano and the Immaculate Reception of 1972

PHIL VILLAPIANO WALKS by way of the Pittsburgh airport. It’s late Wednesday night, three days earlier than Christmas. Even at 73, he nonetheless appears to be like like a linebacker — sturdy chest, stout shoulders, metal chin. His hair is white, however his eyes dance the best way they’ve for many years.

Villapiano ought to hate Pittsburgh. He was an Oakland Raider within the Nineteen Seventies, which implies Pittsburgh or the Steelers or actually something with black and gold should make his blood run scorching. The Raiders and Steelers despise one another. Everybody is aware of this.

However Villapiano is completely different. It would not matter that he was in the course of the play that birthed all of the animosity. It would not matter that the bizarre and controversial and historic “Immaculate Reception” occurred proper in entrance of him.

Villapiano is aware of most who love the Raiders consider Franco Harris as a villain. Solely he would not really feel anger. Not for Harris. It virtually certainly will get misplaced within the historical past and controversy and drama of all of it, however probably the most significant story to return out of probably the most well-known play in NFL historical past may need been this stunning, unlikely friendship between two males who had been on reverse sides. Over the previous 50 years, Villapiano and Harris have eaten collectively and gone to occasions collectively. They’ve introduced their children collectively and advised tales collectively. They’ve shared time. They’ve shared recollections.

Actually, yearly on Dec. 23, Harris will name Villapiano and say, “Hey Phil, what were you doing this time 30 years ago?” and Villapiano will growl and grimace and shout out, “We were getting screwed!” and they’ll snigger and snigger. It’s how they are saying, “I love you.”

So this yr, three days earlier than Christmas, Villapiano involves Pittsburgh. He’s right here for the sport between the Raiders and Steelers the place the NFL will have fun 50 years because the Immaculate Reception. He’s right here to see the Steelers retire Harris’ quantity. He’s right here to honor his good friend.

“I came to be with my buddy,” Villapiano says within the airport on Wednesday night time, pausing in entrance of the statue of Harris that greets everybody coming off a aircraft. Then he takes a breath, bends down and indicators the ebook that was positioned in entrance of the statue early that morning.

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

THE JOKE BETWEEN them was that when it got here to the half that mattered, Franco could not keep in mind.

The preamble, certain, they might agree on. Final play of the sport, Steelers down 1, fourth-and-a-mile from the Pittsburgh 40 and Terry Bradshaw throws a move within the route of Frenchy Fuqua.

Ask Villapiano about what occurred then, and he’ll do a stable — stable — eight minutes on how there was unlawful touching when the ball ricocheted off Fuqua and Harris one way or the other caught it, plus Harris did not truly catch it as a result of the ball grazed the bottom and, as well as, considered one of Harris’ teammates broke the principles by clipping Villapiano so he could not deal with Harris as Harris ran the ball in for the game-winning rating. “There were about five penalties, it was totally wrong and we won the game,” Villapiano stated earlier this yr. He nodded defiantly.

However ask Harris about what he remembers because the ball floated in his route, and the main points would at all times one way or the other fall away. Just a few months in the past, sitting in a chair in downtown Pittsburgh, Harris ticked off specifics: how the play was referred to as “60 option” and the explanation he ran towards the ball from his blocking place was as a result of it is what Joe Paterno had at all times preached to him at Penn State.

Then, when he acquired to the purpose the place the magic occurred, a tiny grin pulled at his mouth.

“I start taking a couple steps to the ball, and I remember nothing else, my mind is a complete blank,” he stated. “It just seems so strange that I have brain fog and I remember not one single thing.” He shrugged, then added that he has at all times discovered it attention-grabbing that his mom, watching on tv again in New Jersey, had placed on considered one of her Italian music albums proper earlier than the play. “And right at that time,” he stated, his eyes a little bit bit wider, “Ave Maria was playing. That’s what they tell me.”

A shared Italian heritage is definitely what introduced Harris and Villapiano nearer. Months after the Immaculate Reception, Harris received an Italian American athlete award in New Jersey, and Villapiano’s mother and father occurred to be on the banquet. Villapiano’s father and Harris’ mom, it turned out, got here from the identical area of Italy, they usually struck up a dialog. Harris’ mother was nervous about having to talk in her damaged English, however Villapiano’s dad — who spoke the identical dialect of Italian — helped her so she might chill out and revel in her son’s night time.

Harris observed. And the subsequent time he noticed Villapiano, he pulled him shut. “Do you know what your father did?” he stated. “He made my mother feel like a million dollars.”

They by no means fell out of contact. Even after soccer was over, they went to occasions and events and charity capabilities collectively. They sat in one another’s kitchens. As soon as, Harris despatched Villapiano, who likes to sing, up on stage at a Temptations live performance and cheered as he sang “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” Villapiano introduced Harris out to the Raiders’ legendary tailgate, launched him to probably the most passionate Raiders followers and inducted him as an honorary member of the Black Gap.

The annual telephone name, although, was the anchor. It did not matter the place they had been or what they had been doing. On Dec. 23, they talked. Within the cellphone period, it was simpler. Oftentimes Villapiano, who spends a part of the yr in Arizona, can be {golfing} when the decision got here, so “half the country club would listen in.” However even earlier than that it was a part of their routine.

“He would call my mother’s house,” Villapiano stated. “He would tell my mother to ask me what I’m doing at [that time] in the afternoon. He would ask my mother. My mother would say, ‘Dear, Franco called again this year.’ It was so funny how he would do that.”

ON TUESDAY, FOUR days earlier than Christmas, Phil Villapiano goes to mattress in Arizona together with his baggage packed. He’s leaving for Pittsburgh the subsequent morning. He’s excited. Just a few hours later, he wakes up with a begin. One thing feels off. It’s 3 a.m., however he will get off the bed. He appears to be like at his telephone and sees a textual content from his daughter, Andrea, who lives in New Jersey, asking him to name her as quickly as he can.

“Franco died,” she tells him once they get on the telephone. There are studies in all places that Harris died in his sleep at age 72. Villapiano rocks again. “He … he couldn’t have — I just talked to him this afternoon …” He trails off.

“Dad, he just died,” Andrea says.

Villapiano would not know what to assume. He would not know what to do. He would not know what this implies for this weekend, this celebration of Franco Harris and the play that introduced them collectively.

Villapiano will get on the aircraft and flies to Pittsburgh anyway. He walks by way of the concourse. He stops on the statue and indicators the ebook. He goes to his resort and has a drink within the bar, the place he hears everybody speaking about Franco Harris and what he meant to town. He talks about his good friend. He remembers.

As Villapiano goes to sleep on Wednesday night time, he is not certain what the weekend will carry or the way it will make him really feel or what it is going to be prefer to stroll by way of this metropolis with out his good friend.

The one factor he is aware of with absolute certainty is what is going to occur on Friday, Dec. 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 keep going. I don’t want this to end.”

ESPN Function Producer Joshua Vorensky contributed to this report.