Five insights from Immaculate Reception
The Steelers are starting what coach Mike Tomlin calls December football — the time when good teams rise, bad teams fall, divisions are clinched, playoff seedings are determined, players prove their value or, in some cases, prove they should be getting on with their life’s work.
Forty years ago this month, the Steelers were discovering they were better than they had been in the franchise’s 40 seasons of existence. Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception on Dec. 23, 1972, was the tipping point that not only altered a game seemingly lost but also proved to the Steelers they were championship-worthy.
In recognition of that anniversary, the Steelers will unveil on Dec. 23 a bronze monument at the very spot on the North Side where Harris transformed an apparent Terry Bradshaw incompletion into something, well, immaculate. Players from that 1972 team will be recognized at the Bengals-Steelers game that day — one that, fittingly, could decide the fate of these ’12 Steelers.
So, in recognition of the five games remaining on the Steelers’ schedule, here are five bits of Immaculate Reception lure that may have been forgotten over the years:
1) The intended receiver on the play was Barry Pearson, who had never made a catch all season and wouldn’t until the 1973 season.
2) The Steelers beat the Raiders twice that season at Three Rivers Stadium; they also won the season opener, 34-28, a fact seemingly forgotten by some Raiders who still claim they were the better team in 1972.
3) That game, more than any other, prompted Congress to lift the NFL’s ban on televising sold-out home games. The Dolphins-Steelers AFC Championship Game the following week also wasn’t televised in Pittsburgh, but every Steelers home game since has been on TV.
4) Legendary Pittsburgh sportscaster Bob Prince was in the stadium but missed seeing the Immaculate Reception, just as he did Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winning homer 12 years before. In ’60, Prince was in the Pirates clubhouse, readying to do post-game TV interviews; in ’72, he was riding an elevator to the locker room with Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr.
5) Rooney’s grandson nearly was crushed to death on the sideline by a jubilant former Steelers player.
We’ll let Steelers president Art Rooney II, a 20-year-old at the time, pick up that story.
“I was one of the ball boys on the field trying in vain to hang on to anything we could, telling the players to keep their helmets on and their equipment on,” Rooney said. “But a fan did get the ball; we didn’t recover that. (It was presented later to Harris) One of our ex-players, Brady Keys, came out of the stands and he got me in a bear hug and was jumping up and down and I literally almost passed out.
“He wasn’t a big guy, but he was a strong guy.”
During the on-field madness that ensued as the officials made sure they called the play correctly, fans streamed onto the field and some grabbed equipment. Safety Mike Wagner had to defend the Raiders’ final pass play of the game while wearing an ill-fitting offensive lineman’s helmet.
“It was without question the craziest moment of my life on a Steelers football field,” Rooney said. “It was something that probably I will never experience again. It was one of those crazy moments that will never happen again — a first for all of us, winning a playoff game like that, and some great memories and just a wild day.”
For the man who survived that hysteria to oversee a team that has gone to three Super Bowls during his tenure, it was a breathtaking moment in every sense of the word.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].