- The play happened precisely a week before my 4 month birthday, making me a member of Steelers Nation’s post Immaculate Reception generation.
Comprehending what that means requires knowing what came before, experiencing what followed, and appreciating the almost super natural aspect of what occurred on that day. Scroll down or click on the links below to reach each thread of the story behind the Big Bang the created Steelers Nation.
While the Steelers lost in the following week to Don Shula’s perfect 1972 Dolphins team, the Immaculate Reception ushered in an unheralded era of pro football prosperity. Since that fateful the Pittsburgh Steelers have:
- Won 6 Super Bowls, more than any other team
- Played in 8 Super Bowls, tying the mark for championship appearances
- Achieved a winning record in 32 of those 40 years, again, more than anyone else
- Posted an overall winning percentage that is better than any other NFL team
- Sent 64 players on the NFL’s All Pro Teams, more than any other franchise
- Never once did they win fewer than 5 games something that no one else in the NFL can say
These stats come courtesy of Tim Gleason, author of From Black to Gold, whose article on the Immaculate Reception on Behind the Steel Curtain is simply one of the best articles on the Pittsburgh Steelers I have ever read (full disclosure – I also writer for BTSC.)
Pittsburgh measures success in Super Bowls. Few other NFL cities can make that claim. Its often said that Steelers fans are spoiled, and to a large extent that’s true.
No other NFL franchise can match the Steelers record of success, stability and sustained since that day in December 1972.
The Immaculate Reception was also the Steelers first playoff victory.
- That’s hard for many fans to fathom, just as it was hard for me to grasp as a child.
The morning after the Penguins most recent Stanley Cup victory, I declared that Pittsburgh was once again the City of Champions.
In doing so, I shared memories of seeing framed copies of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell adorning walls that overlooked barbershop counters where Iron City Steelers Championship cans were proudly displayed.
An unremarkable memory, until you consider the fact that Dino’s barbershop lay in Aspen Hill, Maryland, which is about 10 miles from the DC border.
But to a 7 year old all of this was “normal.” Neither of my parents followed sports closely, but as a child I naturally asked them if they’d similarly been Steelers fans growing up.
“You don’t understand, the Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were growing up,” was the response.
The Pirates did have their moments in the sun, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were a paragon to futility for 40 years. Aside from failing to win a playoff game, the pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers could “boast” of:
- A single playoff appearance (a 1962 loss to Detroit)
- A mere 8 winning seasons and 5 more seasons at .500
- Not even allowing Johnny Unitas, perhaps the best quarterback ever to play, to throw a pass in practice before giving him his walking papers
- Cutting Len Dawson, future Super Bowl Champion and NFL Hall of Famer
- Trading Bill Neilson away for nothing to the arch-rival Cleveland Browns where he’d appear in two NFL Championships
- Passing on future Hall of Famers Bill Schmidt and Lenny Moore opting to pick dud Gerry Glick in the later case
- Stubbornly sticking to the obsolete Single Wing formatting deep into the 50’s
The pre-Immaculate Reception Pittsburgh Steelers also suffered their share of bad luck.
Legendary Pitt coach Jock Sutherland coached the Steelers two winning seasons following World War II, but unfortunately died after the 1947 season on a scouting trip. Joe Bach was also making progress towards building a winner, until health problems forced him form the game.
Then there was Gene Lipscomb aka “Big Daddy” tragic death to heroin in 1963. Former Colorado stand out Byron White led the NFL in scoring, rushing, and total offense in 1938, but decided to study for a year at Oxford and played for Detroit in 1940. (White later went on to the US Supreme Court.)
The Steelers just couldn’t seem to get a break.
The root of many if not all of the Steelers ills for those 40 years was the simple fact that Art Rooney Sr., for as decent and honorable of a man he was, was as bad at picking coaches as he was good at handicapping horses.
Dan Rooney began to take over control of the Steelers in the 1960’s while Art Rooney Jr. began building the scouting department. Rooney in fact influenced his father’s decision to fire the mercurial Buddy Parker, yet could not persuade The Chief to ignore Vince Lombardi’s advice to hire Bill Austin.
Austin failed after just two seasons, and Art Rooney Sr. finally relented in allowing Dan to conduct a thorough coaching search. Then, things began to change for the Pittsburgh Steelers:
- Rooney hired Chuck Noll, the first and as yet only NFL coach to win four Super Bowls
- The city of Pittsburgh agreed to build Three Rivers Stadium, giving the Steelers a modern home
- Noll selected future NFL Hall of Famer Joe Greene with his first pick in 1969 NFL Draft
- Terry Bradshaw, a future Hall of Famer, came to Steelers in the next year as the number one overall pick in the 1970s NFL Draft
- Jack Ham, another future NFL Hall of Famer followed in the second round of the 1971 NFL Draft
Chuck Noll entered the 1972 NFL Draft actually wanting to draft Robert Newhouse. But Art Rooney Jr. and Dan Radakvoich and prevailed on him to ignore Newhouse and instead take Penn State fullback Franco Harris.
- Finally, reason intervened in the draft room and tipped the scales in the Steelers favor to another Hall of Famer.
Still, when Harris first joined the Steelers, team capital Andy Russell feared he wouldn’t make it, as Harris seemed to shy from hitting holes.
Yet, in his first exhibition game start off tackle to the left, found nothing, planted his foot, and cut back to the right, exploding for a 75 yard touchdown. After the play Noll offered his running backs coach, Dick Hoak a simple instruction:
- “Dick, don’t over coach him.”
At 6’2” 220 lbs., Franco Harris was a big back for his day. Yet he was fast. He was also cerebral.
According to The Ones Who Hit the Hardest Harris once confided to NFL Films that “The art of running is being able to change and do things because what you thought would be there is not there.”
- That ability served Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Steelers Nation extremely well on December 23rd 1972.
The Raiders and Steelers staged the first of many hard-fought battles those two teams would fight throughout the 1970’s. The score stood at 0-0 at the half, and the fourth quarter found the Steelers clinging to a 3 point lead.
John Madden benched starter Daryl Lamonica for of “The Snake” Ken Stabler. With just over a minute to play, Stabler exploited the weakness of a the Steeler Curtain without Dwight White, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.
- Art Rooney Sr. had waited 40 years to taste playoff victory, and the Chief concluded he’d have to wait one more, heading to the locker room to console his team.
The Steelers got the ball back, but only advanced to their 40 by the time 22 seconds remained. The call was “66 Circle Option Play” to Barry Pearson.
Terry Bradshaw faded back. The Raiders laid in the blitz. Bradshaw evaded. Bradshaw stepped up. Bradshaw fired a missile downfield to Frenchy Fuqua. The ball soared downfield carrying with the momentum of 40 years of losing.
As the ball reached about the 30 it slammed into a wall created by a hellacious collision between Jack Tatum and Frency Fuqua ricocheting it backwards.
And in that instant, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers changed (available as of 12/23/16):
Certainly no one diagrammed “66 Circle Option Play” to end that way.
Was it luck or did a divine hand intervene to push the ball in Franco’s? I’ll lean towards the later, but you decide that question for yourself.
But there was nothing super natural about Franco being in the right place at the right time.
Franco Harris role in “66 Circle Option Play” was to block the outside linebacker. He wasn’t even supposed to be downfield. But when the linebacker didn’t appear, Franco took off feeling he might contribute elsewhere.
- As Chuck Noll explained, “Franco hustled on every play.”
Fortune’s hand, in one form or fashion, opened the door between winning and losing for Pittsburgh, but it was Franco’s dedication and determination that drove the Steelers through it.
- And for 40 plus years the franchise has continued moving forward.
Since then more Steelers seasons have ended at the Super Bowl than have ended as losing efforts.
Since that fateful day, “Steelers” has been synonymous with success, winning, and championships for an entire generation within Steelers Nation.
You can simply call us Generation Immaculate Reception.