MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

On Saturday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will retire Franco Harris’ jersey number 32 at halftime of the team’s game with the Las Vegas Raiders at Acrisure Stadium in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, which Harris made at Three Rivers Stadium against the Oakland Raiders.

With this in mind, two thoughts: great and deserving news, and what the heck took so long?

“I am thrilled we are going to honor Franco with this recognition by retiring his No. 32 jersey,” Steelers President Art Rooney II said in a team release. “This is the 50th anniversary of one of the most memorable plays in NFL history; one that changed the course of our success with his ‘Immaculate Reception’ in 1972. My grandfather was once quoted as saying: ‘Before Franco got here, we didn’t win much; since he got here, we don’t lose.’ I think that sums it up pretty good. Franco’s impact on the franchise would be hard to overstate. That is why I think it is fitting and appropriate that we recognize Franco’s remarkable career by retiring his number 32 at our game on December 24.”

Couldn’t agree more. But what took so long?

In his 12-year career in Pittsburgh, Harris was part of four Super Bowl championship teams and was named MVP of Super Bowl IX. His 158 yards rushing and 34 attempts against the Minnesota Vikings were Super Bowl records at the time and Harris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

No Steeler has worn No. 32 since 1983, Harris’ last year with the team.

Again, what took so long?

Certainly, I understand an organization with as many great players as the Steelers have had can’t retire all of their numbers, although the Boston Celtics have done their best to do it over the years. But to me, the three Steelers numbers in this lifetime, since 1972 when Steelers fans magically appeared out of nowhere, that should have been retired by the organization years ago are 75, 12 and 32 – Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Harris, for they are the three players, along with their head coach Chuck Noll, that changed everything in Steelers history.

As it turns out, Harris will become the third Steeler in franchise history to have his number retired, joining Ernie Stautner, No. 70, and Greene, No. 75.

The Steelers were downright horrible until 1971; an absolute joke. They were a team that rarely moved the needle or the turnstiles in their own city.

Cumberland, for instance, which had always had an equal-parts fanbase with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles once the Orioles moved to Baltimore in 1954, was absolutely owned in football by the Baltimore Colts. There were a few Redskins fans, there were far fewer Steelers fans here, as Cumberland was a Colts town and, in fact, was a ghost town on Sundays when the Colts played, when at the time was an otherwise thriving city.

The Colts were the defending world champions at the time of the Immaculate Reception, but almost magically, that play changed the fanbase fortunes for millions of football fans, including in Cumberland to the point that there remain to this day more Steelers fans here than Ravens and Commanders fans.

It was a different time for pro football then. The Steelers’ home playoff game with the Raiders that day wasn’t even televised in Pittsburgh, as the NFL blacked out games in host cities to ensure sellouts at the stadiums. In fact, hotels, motels and local watering holes here were filled with fans and gamblers from the Pittsburgh area, who made the drive to Cumberland so they could watch the game on television.

My cousin Steve (a Steelers fan) saw the play take place at the Wonder Bar on Virginia Avenue as a 13-year-old paperboy waiting for his newspapers to be delivered to the Cumberland Electric store across the street. Steve said to even see the television, he had to stand on his tip-toes to look over the shoulders of all of the Pittsburgh gamblers who were in the place.

The fortunes of the Steelers franchise changed forever when Three Rivers was built and the team drafted Greene No. 4 in 1969, Bradshaw No. 1 in 1970 and Harris No. 13 in 1972.

To me, Bradshaw, a Hall of Famer, remains the most underrated quarterback in NFL history. I mean, the guy made throws nobody else could make, set Super Bowl records and quarterbacked four Super Bowl championship teams in a period of six seasons (1975-76, 1979-80), a record he shared with Joe Montana (1981, ’84, ’88-89) until 2016 when Tom Brady quarterbacked his fifth Super Bowl champion. Yet the Steelers have not retired his number?

Stautner was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for Pittsburgh and was the first Steeler to have his number retired. He also enjoyed a long and distinguished career as Tom Landry’s defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys.

Bradshaw’s No. 12 is recognized by the Steelers as an “unofficially” retired number, something nearly all of the teams have, meaning it’s going to take a very special circumstance for another player to wear it.

Joining Bradshaw on the “unofficially” retired numbers list for the Steelers are No. 36 Jerome Bettis, No. 43 Troy Polamalu, No. 47 Mel Blount and No. 52 Mike Webster.

No mention of 58 (Jack Lambert), 59 (Jack Hamm), 82 (Jon Stallworth) or 88 (Lynn Swann).

No, the Steelers can’t retire them all, but they can and should retire Terry Bradshaw’s.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT