On This Day

franco harris, immaculate reception, franco harris immaculate reception, jimmy warren
Harry Cabluck/AP
Franco Harris eludes a tackle by Jimmy Warren on his game-winning touchdown reception.

On This Day: Steelers’ Franco Harris Makes “Immaculate Reception”

December 23, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 23, 1972, the Steelers beat the Raiders on a miraculous—and disputed—last-second touchdown dubbed the “Immaculate Reception.”

“Immaculate Reception” Gives Steelers the Win

By 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers had been in the National Football League for 39 seasons. During that time, they had finished above .500 only nine times and had made just one postseason appearance.

But the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Oakland Raiders brought them redemption. With 22 seconds left, the Steelers trailed the Raiders 7-6. With his team facing fourth-and-10 at its own 40-yard line, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass.

Rolling to the right, Bradshaw fired a pass deep over the middle of the field to running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua. In one of the most bizarre plays in football history, Fuqua, Raiders safety Jack Tatum and the ball all collided simultaneously, sending the ball ricocheting back toward the line of scrimmage. Steelers rookie running back Franco Harris plucked the ball out of the air at his shoestrings and ran it 42 yards into the endzone.

Steelers fans rushed onto the field, though the referees did not signal touchdown. In 1972, it was illegal for a pass to rebound from one receiver to another without it being touched by a defensive player. Because Fuqua, Tatum and the ball hit simultaneously, it was nearly impossible to tell whether it hit Tatum or Fuqua.

The NFL’s supervisor of officials, Art McNally, called referee Fred Swearingen on the field telephone. Some reports say that McNally consulted instant replay in the press box and made the touchdown call, though McNally denies this. After about ten minutes, Swearingen ruled the play a touchdown and the Steelers held on for a 13-7 victory.

The play remains controversial today, as many Raiders players and fans maintain that Fuqua touched the ball. Only Fuqua knows for sure, but he refuses to reveal his secret. “Art Rooney [the late owner of the Steelers] told me to keep it an immaculate secret,” he says. “So I will.”

Background: The Steelers’ Incredible Turnaround

Between 1933 and 1971, the Steelers franchise appeared in only one postseason game, losing 21-0 to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947. Their second appearance in the postseason would prove the team’s turning point, as the Immaculate Reception helped usher in a new era of Steelers success.

Although the Steelers went on to lose the AFC Championship game to the Miami Dolphins—who would win Super Bowl VII to end their historic undefeated season—the next decade saw them become a dominant force in the league.

Led by coach Chuck Noll, Bradshaw, Harris, Lynn Swann and the “Steel Curtain” defense, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in the ‘70s. They won another two in the 2000s, giving the franchise an NFL-record six Super Bowl championships.

Who Touched the Ball?

The legality of the Immaculate Reception remains disputed, as there is no available film that shows definitively who touched the ball last. Tatum insists that the ball hit Fuqua.

“I think to this day the officials were influenced by their fans,” he told the New York Daily News. “I still believe it wasn't a legal touchdown. I came up and hit him from behind and there wasn't any way I could have made contact with the ball.”

Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, the man who made the term “Immaculate Reception” famous, wrote in The New York Times that he once saw film from a different camera angle showing that the catch was legal.

“No question about it: Bradshaw's pass struck Tatum squarely on his right shoulder,” he wrote, “I mean, I saw it.” Unfortunately, the film has been lost and is “virtually unfindable.”

John Fetkovich, an emeritus professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon University, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2004 his scientific analysis of the play shows that “the correct call was made.” Fetkovich believes that only Tatum, running full speed upfield, could have caused the ball to ricochet so far backwards.

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