December 23, 1972—Franco Harris’ late-game, 42-yard run following a Terry Bradshaw pass—immortalized as the “Immaculate Reception”—became more than just one of the most controversial plays in the history of professional football. It also marked the moment when the Pittsburgh Steelers, a venerable but vulnerable National Football League (NFL) franchise, indicated that its doormat days were over, and that they were only a step away from becoming a dynasty.
Most of their 13-7 victory in the AFC divisional playoff that Saturday 40 years ago was a titanic defensive struggle with the Oakland Raiders. The first half was scoreless, and the Steelers’ offense had only eked out two field goals by Roy Gerela by the start of the fourth quarter. That appeared to be enough for a while, as what would come to be called the “Steel Curtain” managed to bottle up, throttle, and bamboozle flu-ridden Raiders quarterback Daryle “Mad Bomber” Lamonica.
But when Lamonica's replacement, Ken Stabler, exploited rookie defensive end Rookie Craig Hanneman to make an uncharacteristic 30-yard touchdown run, and the Raiders kicked the point-after attempt, the day appeared to have become colder and lonelier for the Steelers.
Even the grand old man of the franchise, owner Art Rooney, slipped down the stairs, expecting he’d need to console his players. It wasn’t enough that they’d compiled an 11-3 regular-season record, capturing the AFC Central title. The only playoff appearance the team had made since first joining the NFL in 1933 was a loss in 1947, and this appeared to be a case of the “Same Old Steelers” (a nickname inadvertently supplied years ago by Rooney in answer to a reporter’s question about new uniforms).
For one of the few times in his life, the devoutly Catholic Rooney displayed lack of faith and disbelief in luck. He couldn’t have imagined that he had already supplied the answer to an entire city’s prayers.
Most explanations of the team’s good fortunes that day 40 years ago point to personnel, a missed call, or a good old-fashioned Oliver Stone-like conspiracy by referees to hush up the truth. Faithful Reader, I would call your attention to something more elementary.
The Rooney sons had bonded with a prelate from their ancestral homeland, Fr. John Duggan, studying for a degree in the United States. The 71-year-old owner, who had once made such a killing at the racetrack that he was able to contribute sizably to an orphanage, knew a good-luck charm when he saw one, and he invited the priest to attend the team’s games as an "unofficial chaplain" of the team. Of the subsequent dozen that the lucky padre attended, the team won all but one.
Fr. Duggan had even hung around Three Rivers Stadium practices. One of these turned out to be the week of the playoff game, involving the Raiders. Their coach, John Madden, believed that the priest, harboring evil intentions, was reporting what he saw to the Rooneys. He ordered the prelate off the field.
Madden shouldn't have wasted his time. The Kilkenny-born priest wouldn't have been able to report anything because he knew absolutely nothing about football and admitted, even after seeing a number of games, that the American game confused him. It must have distressed him no end, then, that he had been dissed by another person of Irish descent, because he warned the Raider coach that he would be consulting “my superiors about this.”
If “my superiors” had consisted simply of the good reverend’s religious order, Madden might have been able to handle it. But he was powerless against the real source of these “superiors”—i.e., Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all the saints and angels in Heaven.
With 22 seconds left in the game on the Steelers’ own 40-yard line, on fourth down with 10 yards to go and no timeouts, this heavenly host made their presence felt indelibly.
Bradshaw, under intense pressure from the Steeler defense, scrambled just out of their reach. His principal passing option for the play, rookie receiver Barry Pearson, was open in midfield, waving his arms, but Bradshaw, out of the pocket and his comfort zone, flung the ball toward the second option, running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua.
A figure that Steeler fans over the years came to regard as demonic, Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum, sensed the ball going in Fuqua’s direction. For the third play out of the last four, he was involved in the outcome. As with the prior plays in the series, he made his presence felt.
In the many accounts that followed, the testimony of both Tatum and Fuqua would have to be regarded in a court of law as impeachable. Tatum, whose nickname was “Assassin” (and whose later hit on the New England Patriots’ Darryl Stingley left that receiver paralyzed), would earn a jury’s venom. Unfortunately, Fuqua, on this same play, had just had his bell rung by Tatum, so he was in no position to state conclusively what transpired next.
On the YouTube replay I saw, the one thing you can notice clearly is Tatum’s emphatic gloating that he had disrupted the play. Some (including this writer) believe that he could easily have been called for pass interference. But the Steeler faithful—and, eventually and controversially, the referees—decided they had seen him do something else.
Tatum’s disruption of the play was so emphatic that the ball caromed eight yards back. Did he actually get his hands on it, too? The question was crucial, because NFL rules of the time did not allow completed passes if two players from the same team had consecutively touched it.
As it happened, a second Steeler had gotten his hands on the ball: Harris. Again, the heavenly hosts had intervened. The rookie running back was supposed first to hang back and block the outside linebacker coming in at Bradshaw, then, if this didn’t happen, “chip” at anyone else in the vicinity. With no Raider of either description nearby, Harris looked downfield, where he could either block for Fuqua (what he thought immediately he would do) or become the unlikely third passing option for Bradshaw.
That’s when the pigskin ricocheted madly in his direction. Harris scooped it up around his shoelaces, caught (or, according to the Raiders, trapped) it, got up and raced to the end zone, with the Raiders in frantic but ineffectual pursuit.
Five seconds were now left on the clock, but no definitive call had been made on the field yet. Nowadays, multiple camera angles would help referees determine the outcome of hard-to-see plays. But those did not exist at the time. (Crucially, even Harris' pickup of the ball is just out of the camera's reach). The tale now takes another “Who do you believe?” twist.
Referee Fred Swearingen consulted with the game's umpire and back judge, who presumably had a better view of the Fuqua-Tatum collision, then went into the dugout of the Pittsburgh Pirates, accompanied by a Steelers official, to call Art McNally, the NFL supervisor of officials in the press box. Depending on who you believe, Swearingen asked McNally either to confirm the rule about hands touching the ball, or how many security officials would be around to help him evade the clutches of an irate home crowd in the wake of an adverse decision.
Eventually, 15 minutes after the play, Swearingen emerged with the ruling: Tatum had touched the ball before it got into Harris’ hands. Steelers touchdown.
Forty years later and Madden is still too angry to talk about the play. But from the start, Steeler fans weren’t. That night, in a local tavern, two fans announced that the day would forevermore be known as the Feast of the Immaculate Reception. Later that night, one of them called in the nickname to Steeler sportscaster Myron Cope, who used it on the air.
The Steelers had not yet gone on their remarkable run of four Super Bowl triumphs in the era of head coach Chuck Noll. But they had provided undeniable evidence that they would be a force to be reckoned with in the league.
In a way, the play has the same place in Steelers lore as the home run that Derek Jeter hit in the 1996 New York Yankee playoff game against the Baltimore Orioles. Again, a hugely talented rookie was involved in a game-changing play. Again, controversy developed over interference by outside hands (in this case, young Yankee fan Jeffrey Maier). Again, the play was crucial in a victory that presaged better times for an old franchise.
Today, all these years later, in the Pittsburgh International Airport, stand two side-by-side statues. One shows George Washington, the other Franco Harris, bending over to catch the ball (which, of course, is not on the ground).
A far-fetched comparison between these two figures? Not in the eyes of Steeler fans. On a YouTube video I saw, one aficionado mentioned two similarities: 1) One was the first President of the United States, the other a first-round draft pick; 2) One beat the redcoats, the other beat the Raiders. (Guess which losing side was hated more in Pittsburgh sports bars?)
The only thing missing from the Harris statue, I reckon, is a halo over the Hall of Famer’s head. But Fr. Duggan took care of all the other heavenly matters with that talk to his “superiors” 40 years ago. After the 1974 season, when the Steelers had won their first Super Bowl, at long last, Rooney begged the priest to "extend his contract" as chaplain. But the Irish prelate begged off, explaining that he had "prayed out my option."