• Sal Maiorana

The Immaculate Reception still makes you shake your head

PITTSBURGH (Dec. 23, 1972) - In what certainly qualifies as a cruel twist of irony, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney did not see the greatest play in his team’s history.

Rooney had founded the Steelers - originally known as the Pirates - in 1933 and had suffered through four decades of general ineptness. He had seen his team post a mere eight winning seasons and play in just one playoff game, that in 1947.

The frustration had been nearly unbearable, but now, in 1972, Rooney’s legendary patience was finally rewarded. With a wonderfully talented cast of characters led by Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Mel Blount, and coached by Chuck Noll, all future Hall of Famers, the Steelers won the AFC Central division title with an 11-3 record and were awarded a home playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.

For 59 minutes, the teams battled bitterly at Three Rivers Stadium. Roy Gerela had kicked a pair of field goals - the second with 3:50 left to play after L.C. Greenwood had recovered a Ken Stabler fumble - to give Pittsburgh a 6-0 lead.

But Stabler - who replaced ineffective and flu-stricken starting quarterback Daryle Lamonica in the fourth quarter - scored on a 30-yard scramble with 1:13 remaining and George Blanda’s conversion had given the Raiders a 7-6 lead.

After Bradshaw completed a couple passes to move the Steelers out to their own 40 following the kickoff, he threw three straight incompletions to bring up fourth-and-10 with 22 seconds left to play.

It was at this point, when it looked as though the greatest season in Steeler history was about to be crushed, that Rooney put out his ever-present stogie, left his luxury seat and hopped on the elevator that would take him down to the locker room. The patriarch wanted to get a head start because he wanted to talk to his players privately before the media hoard arrived and tell them how proud he was of their superb performance throughout the season.

The elevator was still descending when Rooney heard a tremendous roar from the sellout crowd of 50,327. Not until a frantic security guard met him when the elevator doors opened at field level did he learn that rookie running back Franco Harris had made what would later become known as the Immaculate Reception.

“You won it, you won it,” the security guard screamed. Rooney, not willing to believe it, said “Are you kidding?” The reply came, “No, no, listen to the crowd.”

Bradshaw had dropped back to pass and was immediately flushed out of the pocket by Oakland defensive linemen Otis Sistrunk and Tony Cline. He sprinted to his right and spotted Frenchy Fuqua over the middle about 25 yards downfield. Bradshaw stopped and winged the ball toward Fuqua hoping for something good to happen.

He had no idea it would be as good as it was.

The ball, Fuqua and Raiders safety Jack Tatum arrived at the same time, sort of like the confluence of the three rivers that flow through the city of Pittsburgh. The ball ricocheted off Fuqua and Tatum - or was it just Fuqua? - and went bounding back toward the line of scrimmage about seven yards.

Just as the Raiders began to celebrate victory, Harris came out of nowhere, caught the ball just before it hit the artificial turf at the Oakland 42, and began running down the left sideline. The Raiders were so stunned, not even the deafening roar of the crowd could snap them out of their funk as Harris crossed the goal line with five seconds left to play.

“I wasn’t supposed to be there,” said Harris. “But I started running to block for Frenchy. I saw him go up with Tatum for the ball, then I saw it fly out from their collision. I thought to myself ‘Oh, no, wow, this is it.’ The ball kept coming straight at me.

“From there it was all instinct. I reached and caught the ball below my knees and never broke stride. The timing was perfect, too perfect to ever be planned.”

There was not an official touchdown signal because referee Fred Swearingen had no idea what had happened. In 1972, the rules stated that a forward pass that hit one offensive player and was caught by another offensive player without touching a defender was an incomplete pass. But two officials told Swearingen they thought the ball had touched both Fuqua and Tatum.

Swearingen went into one of the baseball dugouts to phone upstairs to director of officials Art McNally who was present at the game. He explained what umpire Pat Harder and field judge Adrian Burk saw, said he was going to call it a touchdown, and McNally agreed.

Swearingen then emerged from the dugout, threw his arms in the air, and all bedlam broke out at Three Rivers.

Raiders coach John Madden was in a state of disbelief, waving his arms every which way, refusing to accept the decision. “Tomorrow morning when I wake up and read it in the paper, I still won’t believe it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Steelers were going to win their first playoff game in their 40-year history, 13-7.

“It’s easy to say we didn’t deserve to lose after we played so well,” Rooney said. “It’s easy to feel selfish or sorry for yourself. But those players and those fans, they deserved to win that game. They really did.”

In the locker room after the game, Fuqua refused to shed any light on what really happened, and 26 years after the fact, he still won’t.

“Only I know what happened,” he said. “Physicists and mathematicians can only guess how the ball could have bounced that far back. I’ve never told. Someday, I will, but for now, it’s Frenchy’s little secret. I put the answer in a time capsule.”

Said Tatum: “It hit Frenchy and he knows it.”

The Steelers went on to lose the AFC Championship Game to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins, 21-17, but their victory over the Raiders will never be forgotten.

“That wasn’t fate or luck or football,” said Art Rooney Jr. of the Immaculate Reception. “That was my father’s 70 years of good Christian living.”

#PittsburghSteelers #OaklandRaiders #ImmaculateReception #FrancoHarris