Remember Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception, the greatest play in the NFL

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In the days leading up to his death this week at the age of 72, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame successor Franco Harris gave interviews about his central role in “Immaculate Reception,” which took place 50 years ago on Friday and ushered in a dominant era for a franchise that’s had seven seasons. A winner and no playoff winner in four decades of existence.

The play recovery was voted the best in NFL history prior to the league’s 100th season in 2019, and it just doesn’t seem like it gets old for Harris.

“There’s still this amazing feeling, a little coolness in the air,” he told WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR news station, Monday, when asked what it’s like to replay his controversial 60-yard touchdown after a half-century. “I say, ‘Wow, is that me?'” “

On December 23, 1972, the Steelers hosted the AFC West Champion Oakland Raiders in a first round game at Three Rivers Stadium. Pittsburgh’s only previous postseason appearance was a 21-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947.

The Steelers took a 6-0 lead on Roy Gerela’s second field goal with less than four minutes remaining, and that was enough for a Pittsburgh defense that did not allow a touchdown in its last three games of the regular season. But backup Ken Stabler capped an 80-yard drive with a 30-yard touchdown run on a crippling play on the ensuing Oakland possession, putting the Raiders up 7-6 with 1:13 to play and setting the stage for the Harris champions.

On fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 40-yard line with 22 seconds on the clock, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back, rolled to his right and fired a pass toward running back John “Frenchie” Fuqua over the middle.

Raiders hard hitting safety Jack Tatum broke the ball and caught Fuqua just as it reached the Oakland 35-yard line. Tatum’s right forearm grabbed Fuqua in the head, forcing him into the grass. The ball bounced back towards midfield and hung in the air long enough for Harris to grab it before it hit the ground. Harris drove toward the sideline, hard-armed tackle back Jimmy Warren at the 15-yard line and raced into the end zone with five seconds remaining.

The right place at the right time smile Harris said In the Steelers locker room after the game. “A little luck.”

Harris’ job on the play – 66 option – was to block the outside linebacker. In interviews over the years that followed, Harris, then a freshman in 1972, has mentioned a mantra that coach Joe Paterno instilled in him during his college career at Penn State that served him well: “Go ball.” Harris started to surge with two seconds left on Bradshaw’s layup.

“Don’t ask me what happened next,” Bradshaw told reporters afterwards. “Someone groomed me, but I could hear the yelling. When I got up, there was Franco, at five, going to the flags. I was hustling and squealing all the way to kiss him.”

The “moment of humanity” is when a wagon pulls up and an NFL game begins

Bradshaw wasn’t the only one who wasn’t sure what had happened. There was confusion and controversy, adding to the play’s mystery. At issue was whether Bradshaw’s pass was bounced off Tatum or Fuqua. An NFL rule at the time prohibited consecutive touches by offensive players.

Tatum confirmed that he did not touch the ball.

“I heard the ball bounce away from me and Tatum and I thought to myself, ‘Okay, that’s it for this year,'” Fuqua told reporters. “I didn’t see the ball hit Tatum or anyone else. I heard it. Then I fell flat and was just lying there when everyone started going crazy.”

As hundreds of fans exited the stands, referee Fred Swearengen conferred with his staff and then used the phone in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dugout to call the press box. After speaking with Art McNally, the NFL’s supervisor of officials, Swearingen came out of the dugout and signaled for a touchdown. It took 10 minutes to clear the crowd from the field so that Gerella could kick the extra point.

Raiders head coach John Madden was satisfied that the ball did not hit Tatum and Swearingen called the press box to request an umpire based on a televised replay. (The league would not introduce immediate replays until 1986.) NFL executive Jim Kinsel denied Madden’s claim and said Swearingen was “simply clearing up a confusing situation.”

“There was no way you could call it any other way with all these people on the court,” Madden, still angry at the outcome of the match, told reporters in Auckland two days later. “It could have killed someone.”

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ first playoff victory marked the dawn of a new day for the franchise.

Phil Musick wrote in the Pittsburgh Press: “The god of all losers who smiled at a gray, ghostly sky yesterday, and in the last desperate seconds of a bitterly fought losing football game, did truly remarkable things.” “History wouldn’t have it any other way. And after 40 endless years of spilling salt, smashing mirrors and walking under stairs, good fortune smiled upon the Steelers.”

The Steelers lost to the Dolphins, 21-17, in the AFC Championship game the following week, despite Harris 16 carries for 76 yards. Pittsburgh returned to the AFC Championship Game in 1974 and defeated the Raiders on the way to winning the first of their four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s.

Steelers president Art Rooney II said in September, when the team announced that Harris would become the third Steelers player to have his retirement at the end of the first half of a Saturday night game against the Las Vegas Raiders.

In a 1997 column in The New York Times celebrating the 25th anniversary of Harris the Miracle, legendary Pittsburgh radio analyst and sportscaster Myron Cobb explained the origin of the play’s nickname, which he introduced to fans. As the story goes, Michael Ord, a Steelers fan, stood on a stool in a downtown tavern after the game, tapped his cup with a spoon and declared, “This day will forever be known as the Feast of the Immaculate Welcome!” Ord then convinced his friend, Sharon Levowski, to call the WTAE newsroom and share the clever nickname with Cobb.

I heard Sharon and I said: That’s great. Let me think about it,” Cobb wrote. “The immaculate reception? tasteless? I thought about it for 15 seconds and exclaimed “Woohoo!” Having given Franco’s landing its name for 11 o’clock news viewers to embrace, I take neither credit nor blame, it should not bear the title as unpapered.”

In the same column, Cobb, who was Jewish, declared Franco’s catch “kosher” based on a frame-by-frame review of a video shot by a WTAE cameraman.

“There’s no doubt about it—Bradshaw’s pass hit Tatum directly over his right shoulder,” Cobb wrote. “I mean, I saw that.”

Harris could never say for sure whether the ball bounced off Tatum or Fuqua, because he didn’t remember much of anything about the play before he reached the end zone. The joy his “immaculate reception” sparked for him, his teammates, and a generation of Steelers fans never faded.

“Fifty years ago, and it still feels brand new,” Harris said Tuesday on SiriusXM Radio.


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