On Dec. 23, 1972, the "Immaculate Reception" heralded the beginning of the Pittsburgh Steelers' dynasty. The team's run of four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s, and the wins in 2006 and 2009, arose from a last-second miracle in a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. Forty years ago Sunday, the Steelers' faithful experienced an awakening at Three Rivers Stadium.
Trailing 7-6 with 0:22 left, the Steelers faced fourth and 10 on their 40-yard line. Dodging a furious pass rush, quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass to running back John "Frenchy" Fuqua. What happened in the ensuing seconds became one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
Pittsburgh had a 40-year history of lackluster football, with only six winning seasons before 1972. No playoff wins, no championships, no answered prayers.
But in one play, a ray of sunshine parted the clouds and shone warmly on Bradshaw, Fuqua and a rookie running back named Franco Harris.
The dramatic game followed an 11-3 regular season in which the Steelers won the AFC Central Division, the franchise's first title of any sort. Coach Chuck Noll, a future Hall of Famer, had a solid team by 1972. The players' names would later become household words — Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham and Mel Blount on defense, plus Bradshaw, Harris and Rocky Bleier on offense.
Pittsburgh hosted Oakland in the division playoff on a cold and snowy Sunday.
Early in the fourth quarter, Raiders coach John Madden sent in quarterback Ken Stabler to replace an ailing Daryle Lamonica. Stabler soon lost a fumble when popped by Greenwood, setting up Roy Gerela's second field goal and a 6-0 lead for the Steelers.
Stabler moved the Raiders to the Pittsburgh 30 on the next possession. Steelers linebacker Andy Russell described the next play. "We called a blitz, but our right defensive end, Craig Hanneman, missed the call and he didn't keep containment on that side."
Stabler, nicknamed "Snake," slithered left, slipped outside and ran down the sideline for a touchdown. George Blanda's extra point gave Oakland a 7-6 lead. The clock showed 1:13.
Bradshaw quickly directed the Steelers to their 40-yard line with completions to Harris and Fuqua. But Oakland safety Jack Tatum broke up two passes, and another fell incomplete to Ron Shanklin. Fourth and 10, with 22 seconds left.
On the Steelers sideline, rookie receiver Barry Pearson, who had not played a down that season, dutifully stayed near Lionel Taylor, his position coach. "Lionel told me to go in for Shanklin," Pearson said in a recent phone interview. "Someone gave me the play to take in to Bradshaw. The plan was to just get a first down." Asked if he was nervous, Pearson chuckled, stuck his tongue in his cheek, and asked back, "Why would I be nervous?"
Harris recalled last week what his thought was as he entered the huddle: "This is our last play of the year."
The play — 66 circle option — had wide receiver Al Young run an out to the left, Fuqua a curl over the middle and tight end John McMakin a deep post. Pearson, the primary receiver, was to run underneath McMakin, about 12 yards deep and just past the big Steelers logo at midfield. Harris stayed in to block.
Oakland played prevent. Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano added more detail recently: "Another linebacker, Gerald Irons, and I were supposed to play man-to-man on the running backs, and I had Harris." According to Villapiano, one Raider shouted, "No penalties. This (expletive) game's over!"
Bradshaw dropped back to his 30, but the pocket quickly collapsed. Defensive ends Tony Cline and Horace Jones chased Bradshaw right. Defensive lineman Otis Sistrunk pushed into Bradshaw's passing lane to Pearson, so Bradshaw ducked back left and saw Fuqua near the left hash marks. Bradshaw snapped a throw to Frenchy, at the Raider 34-yard line.
Tatum, nicknamed "the Assassin," saw the ball and launched at Fuqua. The ball and the two men collided violently, and the ball caromed into the air.
"Jack, being the aggressive player that he was, he went for the big knockout," Raiders safety George Atkinson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this fall. "That was a big mistake for us."
When he saw Bradshaw scrambling, Harris headed downfield. "My thought was to give Terry an outlet pass," Harris said. Villapiano picked up Harris as he left the line of scrimmage and ran on his right shoulder.
When Harris saw the play going to Fuqua, he moved in that direction. "My Penn State training came into play," Harris said. "Joe Paterno always hollered, 'Go to the ball.' "
Backup quarterback Terry Hanratty described what he saw next from the sideline. "The ball popped into the air after hitting a shoulder pad. It flew about 7 or 8 yards back toward the offense." The ball arched in the direction of Harris, apparently guided by the hand of God.
"It was unbelievable," Villapiano said last month on his cell phone. Calling from outside his Jersey-shore home that Hurricane Sandy had hammered, Villapiano said: "The ball could have bounced a million places, but it went right into his hands."
Remarkably, Harris is a bit fuzzy on a few details. "I can't tell you what happened after I left the backfield. I have no memory until I was running down the sideline. It's frustrating at times. But when I watch the game film at regular speed, I say, 'How did that happen?' It was all so fast."
Harris barely broke stride as he caught the ball at the Raiders 42 then sprinted for the end zone. Villapiano gave chase, but McMakin took a swipe at Villapiano's legs from behind. He stumbled and never had a chance. "It was a clip!" Villapiano yelled in mock anger from his tree-strewn front yard.
Defensive back Jimmy Warren gave chase and lunged at Harris near the 10-yard line. Harris stiff-armed Warren, sending him to the ground. Touchdown!
Field judge Adrian Burk, who trailed Harris, signaled a touchdown, but umpire Pat Harder wasn't so sure. Harder, Burk and referee Fred Swearingen huddled while the frenzied crowd spilled out of the stands onto the field. The officials asked each other, "Did the ball hit Tatum or Fuqua?"
The rules at that time prohibited two receivers from touching the ball consecutively on a play. So if the pass hit Fuqua's shoulder pads, Swearingen would have to rule the pass incomplete. Had it bounced off Tatum, Harris' catch was legal. There was, of course, no arrangement then for "upon further review."
With the game clock showing :05 left, Swearingen pushed through the mob to the baseball dugout — Three Rivers hosted the Pirates as well. He called the NFL's supervisor of officials, Art McNally, in the press box. Dan Rooney, son of Steelers owner Art Rooney, overheard McNally's end of the conversation and recently described the situation to the Post-Gazette.
"McNally kept saying, 'Call what you saw,' " Rooney recounted. Now the chairman emeritus of the Steelers, Rooney has scotched stories that Swearingen had either asked for McNally's mental replay or extra security if he ruled the pass incomplete. No one used the video recorders in the TV broadcast booth to help.
Swearingen ran back onto the field and held both arms aloft.
After Gerela's PAT and a kickoff, Oakland had time for one play. The Steelers defense was mentally in the locker room, so there was a scramble to get on the field. Safety Mike Wagner couldn't find his helmet. "Mike grabbed a lineman's helmet," Harris recalled, "but it was too big and he worried that it would swivel around and blind him."
Stabler threw an incompletion. Game over. Pittsburgh, 13-7.
Steelers fan Michael Ord, celebrating after the game at a nearby bar, thought of a name for Harris' catch. In his view, the feat rivaled a religious miracle of the first order. Ord quieted the bar crowd, according to longtime sports writer and Steelers radio broadcaster Myron Cope, and proposed a toast to the "Feast of the Immaculate Reception."
Ord's girlfriend at the time, Sharon Levosky, phoned Cope and suggested he use the term during his evening show on WTAE-TV. Cope wrote in the New York Times in 1997 of his thoughts at that moment. "The Immaculate Reception? Tasteless? I pondered the matter for 15 seconds and cried out, 'Whoopee!' " Cope went on to describe the origin of the term and a disclaimer: "I accept neither credit, nor, should you hold the moniker to be impious … "
Back to the play. Swearingen, Burk and Harder began a debate that endures — did the ball hit Tatum or Fuqua? After the game, Tatum said: "All I was trying to do was knock the ball loose. I touched the man, but not the ball."
Frenchy Fuqua makes part of his living on the banquet circuit and is coy about what he knows. Throughout his regular after-dinner speech, he hints that he is the only person who knows for sure what happened. But he ultimately ducks the question of who touched the ball.
"I doubt that Frenchy can remember anything after that hit by Tatum," Russell said, "because he suffered a concussion on the play." Hanratty agrees — "Frenchy is making a few bucks telling the story, so if he can actually remember what happened, he won't spill the beans anytime soon."
Multiple examinations of game film have failed to discern definitively if the ball hit Fuqua or Tatum. Villapiano gave it a try. "NFL Films sent me clips from six different angles, but I couldn't tell," he recalled. "Tatum clearly hit Frenchy early, but no ref would call pass interference at that point in the game."
Cope, who died in 2008, gave his view in the 1997 New York Times article. Two days after the game, he examined, frame by frame, film by WTAE cameraman. Cope wrote that the clip, which had never aired, had been destroyed by 1997. "No question about it: Bradshaw's pass struck Tatum squarely on his right shoulder. I mean, I saw it."
But all agree, the play changed the face of football in Pittsburgh.
"It was the defining moment of the Steelers organization," Pearson declares. Russell agrees. Hanratty calls it "the most memorable moment in sports." Harris likely speaks for all in Pittsburgh: "The play meant a lot to the team. We were not losers anymore. We could play against anybody and win." Even a member of the self-styled demonic Raiders, Villapiano, whispers, "Amen."
A 2012 Sports Illustrated poll confirmed the players' opinions. More than 87,000 respondents named the Immaculate Reception the best NFL play ever. The folks at NFL Films concur.
Harris reaches out to his Raiders friends every year as this anniversary nears. "He calls me every Dec. 23," Villapiano said, as he laughed about the friendly insults. " 'What were you doing 30 years ago?' he asks, or another time, '35 years ago?' Every year he calls to needle me."
Harris enjoys the give-and-take. "For years, Phil has been saying that I was loafing on that play, and I say to him, 'Phil, watch the film. You and I were about even when I left the backfield. So Phil, who got to the ball first?' "
The Steelers' joy was short-lived, as they lost to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game.
Pittsburgh's Heinz History Center has commissioned two lifesized statues of Harris making the catch. One is on the main concourse of the Pittsburgh International Airport, with a second in the Center's Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
Harris chuckled when asked about the statue. "People say to me all the time, 'Hey, I saw you at the airport.' But I'm happy that it's out there. It helps people connect with Pittsburgh."