How the famous NFL game got its name
Decades after the iconic game, there is still much debate as to whether Franco Harris’ touchdown was legitimate for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Nowadays Instant Replay would answer the questions about the game.
Did Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum bounce the ball and shoot back? Or was it Steelers running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua who deflected Terry Bradshaw’s pass to Harris (then an illegal “double touch”)? Did the ball buckle the turf when Harris caught it?
“What makes the play great is the mystery,” said Neil Zender, who produced a show on NFL Network to commemorate the iconic play’s 40th anniversary. Zender said that allows for a personal interpretation: “The Raiders can see it as a crime, and the Steelers can see it as the hand of God.”
TRANSITION OF A LEGEND:Legendary Steelers running back Franco Harris has died at the age of 72
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December 23, 1972
In an AFC division playoff game, the Steelers were 7-6 behind the Raiders with 22 seconds left and were fourth and tenth at their 40-yard line. The play’s main recipient was to be rookie Barry Pearson, who starred in his first game. After a scramble, Bradshaw threw the middle to Fuqua at the Raiders’ 35-yard line. Fuqua and Oakland defenseman Jack Tatum collided and sent the ball back towards midfield towards Harris, who snatched the ball inches off the turf of Three Rivers Stadium near the Oakland 45 before passing several stunned Raider defensemen, to score a goal.
Harris’ touchdown gave the Pittsburgh Steelers their first-ever playoff win. The Steelers would win four Super Bowl rings in six years.
“The official got into one of those troubles (after the game) and that was before the immediate replay. And then I ran onto the field,” former Raiders coach and Hall of Famer John Madden said in a documentary about the game. “They say, ‘We don’t know what happened.’ I say, “I know you don’t know what happened. I’ll tell you what happened.” I said, ‘It hit Frenchy Fuqua illegally, Frank Harris can’t get it.’ Well, they told me to get off the field.”
What were the rules surrounding the play?
The rule at the time — abolished in 1978 — was that if an offensive receiver was the first player to tip over a pass, that pass could not legally be next touched and caught by another offensive player.
NFL Films summarized all the visual evidence it could find, including his shots from high up in midfield and the Steelers’ end zone. NBC’s full television coverage of the game was lost. But NBC footage of the game from high midfield and from above and behind the game survived.
Tatum, who died in 2010, always said he never touched the ball. Former Raiders defenseman George Atkinson, who calls the play The Immaculate Deception, supports this. “Jack Tatum hit[Fuqua]the ball from behind,” he told NFL Films.
NBC’s end zone shot shows the ball approaching Tatum’s right shoulder. In slow motion it looks like Tatum is touching the ball. But it’s blurry, and the Tatum-Fuqua collision is partially obscured by a post of the goalpost.
Did Harris legally catch the ball?
“He caught it, I’d say calf-high on the left side of his body,” Art McNally, the former NFL officials supervisor who was in the press box in Pittsburgh that day, told USA TODAY in a 2012 interview.
Former Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano said Harris made a great catch.
But Bradshaw and Harris feed the mystery. “Most likely he probably caught it,” Bradshaw said with a laugh on an NFL Network documentary.
What is Harris’ opinion on whether it hit the ground?
“I can’t say,” he said with a shrug.
Why is it called Immaculate Reception?
“December 23 will henceforth be celebrated in Pittsburgh as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception,” proclaimed legendary local sportscaster Myron Cope.
According to the Associated Press, Cope got the idea from a caller whose friend had coined the name at a victory celebration in a pub – giving a twist to the recently adopted Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception, which marks the belief that the Virgin Mary procreated without her became sin.
How far did the Steelers get into the playoffs after that?
While the Steelers fell to Miami in the AFC Championship the next week, Pittsburgh was on course to become the dominant team of the 1970s and win back-to-back Super Bowls, first after the 1974 and 1975 seasons and again after the 1978 and 1979 seasons.