Immaculate Reception was game-changer for Steelers, Pittsburgh
A split-second’s worth of improvisational genius by Franco Harris turned around a game that was lost, a franchise that had gone nowhere for 40 years and the consciousness of a city just beginning to undergo seismic upheaval.
But for years, Harris never realized what it meant when he transformed an all-but-certain Terry Bradshaw incompletion 40 years ago Sunday into what is universally regarded as the greatest play in NFL history.
Even if that pass had ricocheted harmlessly off the Tartan Turf at Three Rivers Stadium and not into his outstretched hands just below the knees, Harris would have been a Hall of Famer and the greatest running back in Steelers history.
The Steelers probably would have won four Super Bowls in six years, still the greatest run in pro football history. And Pittsburgh’s transformation from a big-shouldered city built upon heavy industry into one with a good head on its shoulders guiding an economy based upon health care, higher education, computer wizardry and banking would have taken place.
Franco Harris made the Immaculate Reception, but the Immaculate Reception, he said, did not make him.
“At the time, that play didn’t hold any significance to me, none whatsoever,” Harris said. “It didn’t even enter my mind. … I tell people that we really didn’t reflect on it during that decade. It just wasn’t at the top of your mind because we were doing so many other great things that it wasn’t really part of much conversation.”
But anyone who saw the Immaculate Reception almost instantly recognized that they witnessed something astonishing. The late Steve Sabol, head of NFL Films, once said there wasn’t another play like it in his library of hundreds of thousands of plays.
After time passed, Harris and the Steelers understood that everything that followed in the 1970s had roots to the Immaculate Reception.
“I don’t think any of us realized it might have had the effect it had,” said Steelers president Art Rooney II, who on Dec. 23, 1972, was a 20-year-old sideline worker who tried unsuccessfully to retrieve the Immaculate Reception football. “But in terms of the moment, I think everybody realized it was a pretty darn special moment and something any of us who were there will never forget.”
The Steelers lost the 1972 AFC Championship Game to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins a weekend later — hours before Roberto Clemente died tragically in a plane crash — but Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount argues that the Steelers’ six AFC Championship Game appearances and four Super Bowls that followed in the ’70s resulted from Harris’ sleight of hand.
“Franco and the Immaculate Reception put us over the top and made us believe we could win,” Blount said. “It changed our whole culture and the attitude of the Steelers and their fans. When I came here (in 1969), the city didn’t have a whole lot of respect for the Steelers because were 1-13. In 1972 it all came together.”
Prelude to the play
To put into perspective what Harris’ arrival in ’72 as a big-bodied but raw rookie running back from Penn State meant to the Steelers, consider this: They hadn’t had a winning record for eight years, but they wouldn’t have another losing record until 13 years later, the season after Harris departed.
Those ’72 Steelers showed in their first game that this wouldn’t be like most of the 39 losing-filled seasons that preceded it when they defeated the Oakland Raiders, 34-28 — a portend of things to come. They went on to go 11-3, two more wins than they had ever had in a season.
The Raiders returned to Three Rivers for an AFC divisional playoff game two days before Christmas, and it caused a rearranging of many fans’ holiday travel plans. The NFL still blacked out home games, even if they were sold out, so WIIC-TV Channel 11 (now WPXI) couldn’t televise the game.
So as thousands of fans drove into the city to see the game in person, thousands more abandoned it to drive to Erie or Youngstown, Ohio, or anywhere that had a blackout-free channel.
The Steelers’ first playoff game since 1947 was nothing like the first between the teams three months before. Kicker Roy Gerela’s two field goals, one after coach Chuck Noll decided not to gamble on fourth down from about the 1-yard line, represented the only scoring for three quarters.
Raiders coach John Madden astutely benched ineffective quarterback Daryle Lamonica for Kenny Stabler, who crossed up the Steelers by rolling around left end for a 30-yard touchdown with just over a minute to play. The Steelers trailed, 7-6, and the outcome looked to be inevitable. Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. left his luxury suite to console his players in the locker room.
The Chief missed the moment he waited much of a lifetime to see.
Ushering in new era
On fourth-and-10 from their own 40, with the Steelers seemingly down to the last play of the best season they had ever had, Bradshaw twice eluded would-be defenders as he rolled right and heaved a pass toward the middle of the field toward running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua.
Raiders safety Jack Tatum and the ball arrived at about the same time. As Fuqua stuck out his left hand to try to make the catch, the ball rebounded wildly into the air. Harris, trailing on the play, somehow snatched it and took off for the end zone. By the time the stunned Raiders reacted, Harris needed only to stiff-arm cornerback Jimmy Warren at the 10 to clear his path to the end zone.
“He came out of nowhere,” former Steelers safety Mike Wagner said.
Many who were there said they never heard a noise like that in Three Rivers’ 40-year-old history — the pent-up release of four decades of Steelers futility and frustration. The Steelers won, 13-7, and after assembling what is considered the greatest draft class in NFL history two years later, they began their Super Bowl run.
Harris ended his career with 12,120 rushing yards — he currently is 13th all-time — and still owns the Steelers’ record with 11,950. And the Steelers have maintained their status as a pre-eminent franchise, playing in four more Super Bowls, winning two.
“I think the play embodies so much of the element that we believe about and we play sports for, and that is never give up and play to the end,” Harris said. “As long as there’s time on the clock, there’s a chance you can win.”
The Raiders never got over the loss. Madden and his players argue to this day that the ball deflected from Fuqua to Harris, which would have been against the rules at the time if no Raiders player touched the ball.
Physics tests performed at Carnegie Mellon University more than a decade ago and an unearthed NBC-TV video of the game — which shows the deflection more clearly than the much-viewed NFL Films version — point clearly to Tatum as the man who created the ricochet.
“What makes the play so special is people started to realize how great of a team we had and we gave everyone a lot of pride,” Harris said. “Pittsburgh was losing jobs, things were shutting down, and people were leaving Western Pennsylvania, but everybody clung to the area through the Steelers.”
Larger than one play
Harris, like many Steelers of that era, stayed in Pittsburgh and built a successful business career. His Super Bakery sells nutritional baked goods like donuts to schools, stores and the military.
Harris, 62, also donates his time to countless charities, and he serves as board chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise, which provides college scholarships to Pittsburgh Public Schools students who achieve at least a 2.5 grade-point average and a 90 percent attendance record.
Last year, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl asked Harris to step down as he effectively served as public defender for disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno during the Jerry Sandusky child sex assault scandal. But Promise Executive Director Saleem Ghubril asked Harris to stay because of his dedication to the job, and Harris still holds the position — and he still defends Paterno.
“Was I surprised?” Wagner said of Harris’ much-criticized stance. “No. Franco is a passionate, quiet, sincere person. He believes in honor, and he wants to defend the honor of the Paterno name and the university.”
What would Harris have been without the Immaculate Reception, a nickname that emanated from a suggestion by Steelers fan Michael Ord to broadcaster Myron Cope?
“I don’t know if it changed my life,” Harris said. “I would say it added a lot to my life in a lot of ways. … My career was beyond my wildest dreams, and would things have been different if I hadn’t made that play? I don’t know. … I do know that in a lot of publications they pick that as the No. 1 play of all time, and that adds to it. As far as I was concerned, we were the No. 1 team of all time, and you can’t separate that play from the decade. We went from the worst to the best.”
He added, “It was an unbelievable decade just when we in Pittsburgh needed it the most — the City of Champions, Pitt winning the national title, the Pirates (winning two World Series) — and it just adds to the whole allure of the decade.”
Unlike so many other great moments and signature plays in sports, it wasn’t the end. For the Steelers and the man who made the impossible catch, it was just the beginning.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.