A quarter-century later, one of the most amazing plays in NFL history remains just as miraculous, unforgettable--and, yes, immaculate--as the moment it happened.
Just as debated, too.
It was a moment so special and spontaneous that it demanded a nickname as unique as the play itself: the Immaculate Reception. Franco Harris’ improbable touchdown off a wildly ricocheting pass still conjures up images so vivid that even 25 years of enhanced storytelling, contentious debate and endless second-guessing have not altered them.
“Even to this day, I’m still amazed,” Harris said.
It happened beneath a lead-gray sky in Pittsburgh on Dec. 23, 1972, as the Steelers, long the NFL’s most impoverished franchise, played only the third postseason game in their history. The Oakland Raiders were not yet rivals--they had met only twice since the NFL-AFL merger two years earlier--but that would change.
The night before, a pep rally spilled into the Raiders’ hotel, and Oakland tight end Bob Moore required stitches after a police officer mistook him for a fan and hit him with a billy club. It was a precursor of the rivalry to come.
The Steelers, 1-13 three years before but invigorated with young talent and a rising star coach in Chuck Noll, used two Roy Gerela field goals and a defense that would later be called the Steel Curtain to take a 6-0 lead with 4:50 to play.
The Raiders were going nowhere with a flu-strapped Daryle Lamonica at quarterback, so coach John Madden put in a left-handed scrambler named Ken Stabler in the fourth quarter. Wise move.
Stabler fumbled on his first possession, but came back after Gerela’s second field goal to lead an 80-yard scoring drive that ended with his 30-yard bootleg around left end. Defensive end Craig Hanneman was assigned to contain that sideline but got tangled up along the line of scrimmage.
“I’ve told Kenny many times they needed a miracle to win the way our defense was playing,” said Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh’s quarterback.
Now, the Steelers did--and their prospects were dim.
Out of timeouts, they had only 1:13 to cover the length of the field and set up another Gerela field goal attempt. And Bradshaw had thrown for only 95 yards against one of the league’s most intimidating secondaries.
He passed for two first downs, then threw three consecutive incompletions, making it all come down to this: fourth-and-10 at the Steelers 40 yard line, 26 seconds and, essentially, 60 yards to go.
Bradshaw misheard the play call, so he didn’t find any receivers where he expected them. Flushed out of the pocket by linemen Horace Jones and Tony Cline, he ran to his right and was about to be sacked when he caught a glimpse of running back Frenchy Fuqua near the Raiders 35.
He threw, he fell, he prayed.
The ball, Fuqua and defensive back Jack Tatum, nicknamed the Assassin, arrived at the same time.
“I could see Tatum--he had the reputation of a butcher--and I could hear his foot steps and then I could hear him breathing, he was that close,” Fuqua said. “Terry winged it and I mean he winged it. Tatum cold-cocked me and he got a smile from ear to ear. But, in slow motion, I looked up at him and I saw the expression on Jack go from a smile to a frown.”
The ball had ricocheted 20 yards into the air, only to settle into Harris’ hands at shoe-top height near the Raiders 42. Harris instinctively began running, several uncomprehending Raiders trailing far behind.
“From my training at Penn State, I knew to follow the ball . . . always go to the ball,” Harris said. “Before I knew it, I had the ball. It was just a blur, a blur. The only thing I could think of was, ‘Get into the end zone. Don’t even attempt a field goal, just get into the end zone.”’
Defensive back Jimmy Warren, running across the field, tried to knock him out of bounds, but had a poor angle and Harris straight-armed him out of harm’s way at the 13.
“I heard this roar and I knew it was caught. I thought, ‘You really are amazing. You put that baby right in there,”’ Bradshaw said. “Then this roar got real big and it was like it got out of hand. Before I could get up, I knew I’d thrown a touchdown pass. I just didn’t know how I did it. I was feeling pretty good until everybody told me it was bouncing all over the football field.”
It was a touchdown.
It was a miracle.
Or was it?
Harris was in the end zone, being swarmed by his teammates, but the Raiders were screaming mad. Madden ran onto the field, confronted referee Fred Swearingen and yelled, “No good, no good, no good!”
At the time, NFL rules stated a pass could not be deflected from one teammate to another. If the ball struck Tatum, the touchdown should have counted, but if it touched Fuqua . . . .
“Tatum came over to me and said, ‘You touched that ball, Frenchy! Tell them you touched it! Tell them you touched it!,”’ Fuqua said. “I was so dazed, I almost said, ‘Anything you say, Jack.”’
There was confusion upstairs in the press box, too, apparently because no one saw a touchdown signal. Amid the chaos, Swearingen conferred with the other five officials, then called upstairs to NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally, who was seated beside a TV monitor.
It’s often been written that this was the NFL’s first use of instant replay, but there is no evidence to support the theory. McNally said he wanted only to confirm that he and the referee saw the same thing. Swearingen told him back judge Adrian Burk and umpire Pat Harder both saw the ball deflect off Tatum.
Swearingen, who made the call from one of the baseball dugouts, took a few steps onto the field and raised his arms.
“We got a touchdown,” Swearingen said.
He also had a big argument, and a debate that persists to this day. Fuqua has never confirmed he touched the ball, but most everyone--including his own teammates--think he did.
The Raiders certainly do, and Madden and Tatum say the loss still haunts them.
“You ought to come clean and tell the truth,” Bradshaw told Fuqua recently as they reminisced about the play that ultimately led to four Steelers Super Bowl championships. “You know damn well you touched it.”
Tatum wonders if the officials refused to change the call because they feared for their safety.
“The city was going crazy. If they had ruled against a touchdown, there might have been a riot,” he said.
The words “Immaculate Reception” were first uttered that night on WTAE-TV by Myron Cope, a Steelers’ announcer to this day. A fan, Michael Ord, thought up the name during a postgame party and his friend, Sharon Levosky, called Cope to suggest it.
Cope wondered whether Catholics would be offended, but--just like Harris had a few hours before--decided to run with it.
“It was too good not to use,” Cope said.
Today, Harris owns the copyright on the phrase “Franco’s Immaculate Reception,” but doesn’t own the immaculate football. It was caught by James C. Baker of West Mifflin after Gerela kicked it into the stands on the extra point, and Baker still has it.
Harris also owns the patch of turf where the catch was made, having rescued the faded green Tartan Turf when the stadium’s original artificial surface was replaced 15 years ago.
But only Fuqua owns the knowledge of whether the Immaculate Reception was truly legitimate.
“The only person I’ve told was (late Steelers owner) Art Rooney,” Fuqua said. “I told the Chief once that I’d been offered some nice money to reveal it, and he said, ‘Frenchy, just do one thing. Please keep it immaculate.”’