PHIL VILLAPIANO WALKS through the Pittsburgh airport. It is late 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 dance the way 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 Raiders and Steelers despise each other. Everyone knows this.
But Villapiano is different. It doesn’t matter that he was in the middle of the play that birthed all the animosity. It doesn’t matter that the weird and controversial and historic “Immaculate Reception” happened right in front of him.
Villapiano knows most who love the Raiders think of Franco Harris as a villain. Only he doesn’t feel anger. Not for Harris. It almost surely gets lost in the history and controversy and drama of it all, but the most meaningful story to come out of the most famous play in NFL history might have been this beautiful, unlikely friendship between two men who were on opposite sides. Over the past 50 years, Villapiano and Harris have eaten together and gone to events together. They have brought their kids together and told stories together. They have shared time. They have shared 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?” and Villapiano will growl and grimace and shout out, “We were getting screwed!” and they will laugh and laugh. It is how they say, “I love you.”
So this year, three days before Christmas, Villapiano comes to Pittsburgh. 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 the Steelers retire Harris’ number. He is here to honor his friend.
“I came to be with my buddy,” Villapiano says in the airport on Wednesday night, pausing in front of the statue of Harris that greets everyone coming off a plane. Then he takes a breath, bends down and signs the book that was placed in front 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 came to the part that mattered, Franco couldn’t remember.
The preamble, sure, they could agree on. 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. “There were about five penalties, it was totally wrong and we won the game,” Villapiano said earlier this year. He nodded defiantly.
But ask Harris about what he recalls as the ball floated in his direction, and the details would always somehow 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 got to the point where the magic happened, 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 said. “It just seems so strange that I have brain fog and I remember not one single thing.” He shrugged, then added that he has always found it interesting that his mother, watching on television back in New Jersey, had put on one of her Italian music albums right before the play. “And right at that time,” he said, his eyes a little bit wider, “Ave Maria was playing. That’s what they tell me.”
A shared Italian heritage is actually what brought Harris and Villapiano closer. Months after the Immaculate Reception, Harris won an Italian American athlete award in New Jersey, and Villapiano’s parents happened to be at the banquet. Villapiano’s father and Harris’ mother, it turned out, came from the same region of Italy, and they struck up a conversation. Harris’ mom was nervous about having to speak in her broken English, but Villapiano’s dad — who spoke the same dialect of Italian — helped her so she could relax and enjoy her son’s night.
Harris noticed. And the next time he saw Villapiano, he pulled him close. “Do you know what your father did?” he said. “He made my mother feel like a million dollars.”
They never fell out of touch. Even after football was over, they went to events and parties and charity functions together. They sat in each other’s kitchens. Once, Harris sent Villapiano, who loves to sing, up on stage at a Temptations concert and cheered as he sang “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” Villapiano brought Harris out to the Raiders’ legendary tailgate, introduced him to the most passionate Raiders fans and inducted him as an honorary member of the Black Hole.
The annual phone call, though, was the anchor. It didn’t matter where they were or what they were doing. On Dec. 23, they talked. In the cell phone era, it was easier. Oftentimes Villapiano, who spends part of the year in Arizona, would be golfing when the call came, so “half the country club would listen in.” But even before that it was part of their routine.
“He would call my mother’s house,” Villapiano said. “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 before Christmas, Phil Villapiano goes to bed in Arizona with his bags packed. He is leaving for Pittsburgh the next morning. He is excited. A few hours later, he wakes up with a start. Something feels off. It is 3 a.m., but he gets out of bed. He looks at his phone and sees a text from his daughter, Andrea, who lives in New Jersey, asking him to call her as soon as he can.
“Franco died,” she tells him when they get on 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 talked to him this afternoon …” He trails off.
“Dad, he just died,” Andrea says.
Villapiano doesn’t know what to think. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what this means for this weekend, this celebration of Franco Harris and the play that brought them together.
Villapiano gets on the plane and flies to Pittsburgh anyway. He walks through the concourse. He stops at the statue and signs the book. He goes to his hotel and has a drink in the bar, where he hears everyone talking about Franco Harris and what he meant to the city. He talks about his friend. He remembers.
As Villapiano goes to sleep on Wednesday night, he isn’t sure what the weekend will bring or how it will make him feel or what it will be like to walk through this city without his friend.
The only thing he knows with absolute certainty is what will happen 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 Feature Producer Joshua Vorensky contributed to this report.