Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception
The month of December is one of remembrance for fans of Pittsburgh sports and those who still live in the city. This year is especially important as it marks the 50th anniversary of two events that will stand the test of time and represent the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for Pittsburgh Steelers fans and Pirates fans everywhere.
I recently authored an article for Abstract Sports on how this December marks the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Roberto Clemente. But as sad as his passing was and still is, just eight short days before his fatal plane crash that took his life, inside the old Three Rivers Stadium a football game was being played between the Steelers and the Oakland Raiders.
For the men in black and gold that day, December 23, 1972, the team had taken the Steelers to their very first playoff game facing the Oakland Raiders and a rookie running back named Franco Harris was of many stars that made up that great team. The Raiders and Steelers would develop a fierce rivalry that was not just heated but brutal in its physicality.
Sadly, and much unexpectedly, Franco Harris passed away just days before the Raiders and Steelers were scheduled to meet again on the field in Pittsburgh. Oddly enough, the infamous play occurred in 1972 and Harris was 72 at the time of his death. Go figure. But special events were scheduled to take place to honor that one play and what impact Harris’s passing has on that remained to be seen.
These two teams did not like each other, and it showed on the field. Just Google Atkinson vs Swann on YouTube and watch the clothesline hit on Swann delivered by the Raiders' secondary player. It was brutal and I remember it well. It was so deliberate that then Steelers head coach Chuck Noll wanted charges brought against Atkinson for assault. What made it worse is the fact that Swann was not even involved in the play as it was a running play when it occurred.
But in that 1972 playoff game in which the Raiders were favored, the game was tight throughout and Oakland had the game won when quarterback Ken Stabler scrambled 30 yards for a go-ahead touchdown to take the lead 7-6 late in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had one last shot to win the game, but the clock was ticking, and Pittsburgh had no timeouts to their credit.
Oakland was able to keep the Steelers in check, eventually forcing them into a fourth-and-10 situation with only 22 ticks left in regulation. From their own 40 yard-line, Terry Bradshaw was forced to either get a first down on a play that would go out of bounds or try a hail-mary pass. As the snap took place the Raiders brought heavy pressure on Bradshaw but somehow, he avoided a certain sack and tossed the ball downfield in the direction of John “Frenchy” Fuqua.
What happened next was unthinkable. In a controversy that still stirs to this day, the ball bounded off of Fuqua or Oakland’s Jack Tatum something that cannot be definitively determined even now, but the deflection was heading towards the ground when that rookie named Franco Harris reached down to his shoelace level and picked up the ball just before it hit the artificial turf of Three Rivers Stadium.
Harris would run past Oakland’s Gerald Irons and linebacker Phil Villapiano who was blocked by Pittsburgh’s John McMakin and using a stiff arm, Harris finished off the Raiders by putting his hand in the facemask of Jimmy Warren.
Franco made it to the end zone winning the game for the Steelers sending his “Italian Army” into a frenzy and the thousands of fans in their seats into a wild celebration. My father was at that game and his recollection was that a fan in front of him was eating some chicken and when the touchdown was scored, he got so excited he threw his food into the air in celebration.
Then Steelers owner Art Rooney actually missed the play because he was already on his way into the locker room to congratulate his players on a great season and was in the stadium tunnel when he heard the tremendous roar of the fans in the stands.
Of course, the Raiders objected saying the ball had hit Fuqua which in 1972 would have made the play illegal because rules back then stated a ball that hits an offensive player cannot be retrieved by another offensive player. The referees gathered to make a decision and since there was no instant replay back then, so it had to be a subjective decision to make a ruling.
After much conferring the play was not overruled, and the Steelers advanced to the AFC championship game. To this day surviving Raiders players will tell you they got robbed. The play earned the name “Immaculate Reception” and has often been voted the greatest play in the history of the NFL. Oakland’s Atkinson likes to call the play the “Immaculate Deception.”
Jack Tatum, the Raiders player who clearly hits Frenchy Fuqua on the play insists the ball hit Fuqua. Fuqua for his part, still contends he knows exactly what happened but will not give his side of the story and has said repeatedly that he is taking his version to the grave. The play became so famous that if you travel through Pittsburgh’s international airport you will see a statue of Franco Harris on display displaying this historic play.
Sadly, many of the players from that game have passed. Among the deceased are the entire Steelers' “Steel Curtain” front defensive line minus Joe Greene (now 76) but his linemates Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood, and Dwight White are all gone. Other Steelers players who have since passed and were on the roster in 1972 are Ron Shanklin, Sam Davis, Ray Mansfield, and Steve Furness.
The Oakland Raiders family since 1972 have lost their Hall of Fame head coach John Madden. “The Snake” Ken Stabler died in 2015. The rugged running back Marv Hubbard passed away in the same year. One of the greatest offensive linemen ever Gene Upshaw passed away when he reached 83 years of age. Willie Brown a fantastic secondary player, has also passed. Gerald Irons died just last year. Jack Tatum lived to be only 61. An amazing wide receiver Cliff Branch joins this list as well. Stabler’s primary backup and a solid quarterback himself Daryle Lamonica also died just this year.
One remarkably interesting bit of trivia regarding the Immaculate Reception for some might be wondering what ever became of the football Franco Harris toted into the end one? Well, in the middle of all that celebrating and craziness surrounding Harris’s game-winning play a man named Jim Baker was at the game with his nephew Bobby. Mr. Baker somehow found the ball and picked it up. Once home he contacted the Steelers and offered the ball back to them in exchange for lifetime season tickets, but the Steelers said no.
According to records, Baker was offered $150,000 but he rejected the offer and to this day the infamous ball is locked away in a bank vault. Jim Baker does bring it to him on certain events mostly when the Steelers are involved.
As for that game itself, it was a defensive struggle, so offensive statistics were nothing to write home about. But for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the game served as a launching pad for one of the greatest single-decade dynasties in history. Pittsburgh would win the Super Bowl a few years later defeating the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX, then repeating the following year by beating Dallas in Super Bowl X. Two seasons after that they won Super Bowl XIII and repeated in Super Bowl XIV.
This Steelers dynasty certainly did not overshadow the success of the Oakland Raiders. If not for the Steelers, it would have been the Raiders who became a dynasty. Their teams in that 1970s decade were about as good as Pittsburgh with an equal amount of talent and many players who would end up in Canton, Ohio in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They had great teams and met the Steelers in the playoffs multiple times as Pittsburgh always got in the way except for that one season in between the Steelers’ four Super Bowl victories that resulted in Oakland winning the Super Bowl.
That AFC title game in 1976 where Pittsburgh had a chance to win three straight Super Bowls was halted by Oakland 24-7 but both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were injured and without a running game, the Steelers had no chance. Ironically, the team Pittsburgh defeated for their first Super Bowl, the Vikings, fell victim to Oakland in Super Bowl XI.
But back to the Immaculate Reception, after beating Oakland the Steelers found themselves up against the undefeated Miami Dolphins the following week. No team in the history of the NFL had finished a season without losing and then winning the league title. The 1972 Dolphins were poised to make history. All that stood in their way was the upstart Steelers.
Pittsburgh held a 10-7 lead in the third quarter but could not hold it and Miami went on to win 21-17. The Dolphins would finish off their perfect season with a victory in Super Bowl VII beating the then Washington Redskins 14-7 in a game that had a controversial play or humorous one in fact when Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian attended to throw a pass following a blocked field goal that was intercepted by the Redskins who took it to the house but still fell short 14-7.
Now for a real case of irony. The day the Steelers played Miami for the AFC title was December 31, 1972. Later that evening all of Pittsburgh, every Pirates fan around the world, and anyone who knew Roberto Clemente got hit with the worst news possible. A legend in Pirates baseball was dead. Just eight days after incredible jubilation over the Steelers' first playoff victory ever that ended in dramatic fashion came the extremely sad news that one of the greatest baseball players ever, one of the finest human beings anywhere in sports had left us.
December 31 was truly a down day for Pittsburghers and both Steelers and Pirates fans everywhere. The Steelers would have many more bright, happy, and successful days ahead but for most Pirates fans, life would never be the same trying to fathom that we would never see Roberto Clemente again. A bigger tragedy is that the plane that was chartered in which he died had an accident earlier that month and repairs to the plane were never fully made. Clemente’s widow Vera and her family would later file a lawsuit against the United States and specifically the FAA for not monitoring the condition of the plane and allowing it to take off on that day.
However, this article is about the pride and joy of the Immaculate Reception and the glorious victory that came because of that one single play on December 23, 1972. The arguments between Steelers and Raiders fans as to whether this was an illegal play will not go anywhere leaving us to guess what really happened on that play. Only Frenchy Fuqua knows.