I just turned 50 years old, an age that, according to studies, is when people begin to grow happier.
- I’m just an infant in this whole “50-something” experience, but I sure hope those studies are correct.
Speaking of turning 50, the Immaculate Reception, a play that many football historians consider to be the greatest and most unlikely in NFL history, will celebrate its 50th birthday on December 23.
To commemorate this play, the Steelers and Raiders, the protagonist and antagonist of that incredible play (or antagonist and protagonist, if you consider silver and black to be your favorite colors), will square off in a primetime affair on Christmas Eve — or 50 years plus one day after the divisional-round matchup at old Three Rivers Stadium that proved to be the grand stage for this magnificent moment on December 23, 1972.
It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this article who would need a refresher on the Immaculate Reception, but if for some reason you do, let me explain it to you: With mere seconds left in the game, and the Raiders, who were representing the City of Oakland at the time (and not Las Vegas), leading 7-6, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass on fourth and 10. After avoiding several Raiders’ pass-rushers, Bradshaw, with his howitzer of a right arm, uncorked a pass down the middle of the field that was intended for running back Frenchy Fuqua. Unfortunately, Fuqua was headed for a collision with Jack Tatum, the Raiders’ late, great safety who preferred decapitations over pass breakups. Sure enough, the two players met right as the ball was arriving. “BOOM!” to quote the late, great John Madden, the Raiders head coach at the time.
The ball went ricocheting backward, which seemed to signal the end of the play and the Steelers’ season, a surprisingly magical campaign that included 11 victories and a division title. The Steelers, who were founded in 1933 and had never won a playoff game in their four-decade history, were about to go home again without advancing in the postseason. In fact, the Chief, Art Rooney, the founder and owner, was so sure his team was S.O.S (Same Old Steelers) that he left his suite at TRS before the fourth-down play and hopped on the elevator so he could be there in the locker room to console his fellas after a heartbreaking defeat.
- But, wait! Out of nowhere came Franco Harris on a white stallion to save the day for the Steelers.
Harris, the very-popular and productive rookie running back, snagged the backend of the football just inches before it reached the old, hard TRS astroturf and galloped down the left sideline for what looked like a miraculous game-winning touchdown with just five seconds left.
I say “looked like,” because even though delirious Steelers players and fans rushed into the end zone to celebrate with Franco, the game-day officials weren’t initially sure what to call the play. Was it a touchdown, or was it an illegal touch?
Believe it or not, there was a rule that existed back then that prohibited an offensive player from catching a pass after it had already been touched by another eligible receiver. Why did this rule exist? I’m sure the NFL had its reasons, but this rule caused the on-field officials to delay the call. In fact, the referee for the game, Ed Swearingen, reportedly called up to the head of NFL officiating at the time, Art McNally, to tell him that he didn’t think there was illegal touching on the play, a determination that McNally said he agreed with.
- That was six points for Pittsburgh! The Steelers won the game and launched a dynasty in the process.
To reiterate, the play has gone on the become the stuff of legend. Here I am talking about it 50 years later. The NFL still thinks so much of this play that it made sure to honor it on its 50th anniversary.
The Steelers have always been happy with the Immaculate Reception, of course, and didn’t need to wait for it to turn 50 in order to appreciate it.
The Raiders, on the other hand, have never gotten over the possibility that Fuqua touched the football right before Harris did. They’ve always thrown around wild conspiracy theories about the officials and their motives in the immediate aftermath of the play. They sometimes even bring up the fact that Franco Harris may have trapped the football to the turf before pulling it in and galloping for a score.
- Fact is, none of this stuff can be proven one way or another. (Myron Cope argued to the contrary in Doble Yoi)
I could see if there was clear evidence that the ball hit Fuqua before reaching Harris, but there isn’t. The play has been dissected a zillion times at many different angles, and nobody has ever been able to determine anything definitively. In fact, if I understand the archaic rule correctly, once the ball hit Tatum (and there’s just as much evidence that it hit him as there is of it touching Frenchy), all bets were off regarding illegal touching. As for the football hitting the turf before Franco could catch hit, again, where’s the clear-cut evidence?
And those conspiracy theories about the officials being afraid to call it an illegal play for fear of being mobbed by thousands of angry Steelers fans? That seems like a stretch.
Again, nothing about the Immaculate Reception can be proven or disproven — even 50 years after the fact–and if the Steelers were on the losing end of the officials’ ruling, they could have had just as big of an ax to grind as Oakland — if not bigger.
I don’t know why the Raiders, after 50 years, still can’t let go of a play that has always been shrouded in a cloud of mystery, especially when they went on to have so much success for the next decade and won three Super Bowls by 1983.
Instead of being bitter about a play that happened 50 years ago, the Raiders and their fans should be bitter about how far their organization has fallen over the past two decades due to incompetent ownership and/or living in the past, a la the Cowboys and Commanders.
It’s time to let go of the Immaculate Reception, Raiders.
- You’ve moved three different times since the early-80s, which means you have no trouble moving on from cities.
It’s now time to move on from the past.