On Tuesday afternoon, Phil Villapiano and Franco Harris spoke on the phone, finalizing plans for their weekend in Pittsburgh together to mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic plays in NFL history.
Early Wednesday, Villapiano, an all-time great Raiders’ linebacker awoke to the unthinkable. His close friend suddenly died at age 72, just three days before his No. 32 was to be retired by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On Friday afternoon, Villapiano, his family, former Raiders’ teammate Mike Siani and Harris’ son Dok were among a group of people to gather in a parking lot near Acrisure Stadium at the very spot where Harris made the Immaculate Reception at the old Three River’s Stadium at 3:08 p.m. (the exact time when the play occurred 50 years ago to the day).
The group prayed in Harris’ honor and told stories about their dear friend, braving bitter cold. It was minus-1 with howling winds that made it feel like it was minus-26 and Villapiano said the current weather in the Steel City is colder than a playoff game he played there in the 1970s, which was the coldest game he’d ever played in. Of course, the Raiders and Steelers play in Pittsburgh on Saturday night with a 5:15 p.m. PT kickoff.
“But it was worth it,” Villapiano said in a phone interview with Silver and Black Pride less than 90 minutes after the ceremony. “We honored my good friend and we said ‘we love you, Franco.’ What a beautiful guy he was.”
Villapiano laughed about when he played the Steelers there was nothing more he wanted to do that tackle Harris the hardest he could. Yet, somehow, they became “best friends.”
They had a lot of common bonds. They each had parents who hailed from the same area in Italy and Villapiano said they had a deep connections personally from the time they met. They did many ‘Immaculate Reception’ events together. They helped each other’s charities. Villapiano did a lot of business in Pennsylvania over the years and he often would impress clients there by bringing Harris along to meetings.
“Franco closed so many deals for me,” Villapiano said with a laugh.\, “and he didn’t even know what he was doing.”
One of Villapiano’s greatest memories was bringing Harris to a game in Oakland in 2018 complete with a famous parking lot tailgate party and a trip the legendary Black Hole.
Remembering Franco Harris.— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) December 21, 2022
Thanks to Phil Villapiano, the Steelers legend was inducted as an honorary member of The Black Hole in 2018 pic.twitter.com/3eVlw28QCO
Wednesday, Villapiano and Siani spoke to try to come to grips with their mutual friend’s sudden passing.
“Mike said, ‘I guess we’re not going to Pittsburgh now,’ ” Villapiano said. “I said ‘fuck yeah we are. We’re going for Franco’ ... I’m so glad to be here. This city is in mourning. Everywhere you look, it’s all about Franco. I just lost a great buddy, but being here during this anniversary with Steelers fans and the Raider Nation is where I’m supposed to be.”