Franco Harris’s ‘Immaculate Reception’ turns 50

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In the days before he died this week at 72, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris did interviews about his central role in the “Immaculate Reception,” which occurred 50 years ago Friday and ushered in a dominant era for a franchise that had seven winning seasons and nary a playoff win in four decades of existence.

Reliving the play voted the greatest in NFL history ahead of the league’s 100th season in 2019 never seemed to get old for Harris.

“There’s still that unbelievable feeling, a little chill in the air,” he told WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR news station, on Monday, when asked what it was like to see replays of his controversial 60-yard touchdown half a century later. “I’m saying, ‘Wow, is that me?'”

On Dec. 23, 1972, the AFC Central champion Steelers hosted the AFC West champion Oakland Raiders in a first-round playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium. Pittsburgh’s only previous postseason appearance was a 21-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947.

The Steelers took a 6-0 lead on Roy Gerela’s second field goal with less than four minutes remaining, and that figured to be enough for a Pittsburgh defense that hadn’t allowed a touchdown in its final three regular season games. But backup quarterback Ken Stabler capped an 80-yard drive with a 30-yard touchdown run on a busted play on Oakland’s ensuing possession, putting the Raiders ahead 7-6 with 1:13 to play and setting the stage for Harris’s heroics.

On fourth and 10 at the Pittsburgh 40-yard line with 22 seconds on the clock, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back, rolled to his right and rifled a pass in the direction of running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua over the middle.

Jack Tatum, the Raiders’ hard-hitting safety, broke on the ball and collided with Fuqua just as it arrived at the Oakland 35-yard line. Tatum’s right forearm caught Fuqua in the head, knocking him to the turf. The ball ricocheted back towards midfield and hung in the air just long enough for Harris to snatch it before it hit the ground. Harris headed toward the sideline, stiff-armed Raiders defensive back Jimmy Warren at the 15-yard line and raced into the end zone with five seconds remaining.

“Right place at the right time,” a smiling Harris said in the Steelers’ locker room after the game. “A little bit of luck.”

Harris’s assignment on the play — 66 Option — was to block the outside linebacker. In interviews over the ensuing years, Harris, who was a rookie in 1972, mentioned a mantra that had been instilled in him by Coach Joe Paterno during his college career at Penn State and which served him well: “Go to the ball.” Harris had started upfield a couple seconds before Bradshaw’s toss.

“Don’t ask me what happened next,” Bradshaw told reporters afterward. “Somebody decked me, but I heard the shouting. When I got up, there was Franco, at the 5, going to the flags. I was a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ all the way down to kiss him.”

The ‘moment of humanity’ when a cart drives off and an NFL game goes on

Bradshaw wasn’t the only one unsure about what had transpired. There was confusion and controversy, which only added to the mystique of the play. At issue was whether Bradshaw’s pass ricocheted off Tatum or Fuqua; an NFL rule at the time prohibited consecutive touches by two offensive players.

Tatum maintained he didn’t touch the ball.

“I heard the ball bounce away from Tatum and me and said to myself, ‘Well, that’s all for this year,'” Fuqua told reporters. “I never really saw the ball hit Tatum or anybody. I heard it. Then I was flattened and was laying there when everybody started going crazy.”

As hundreds of fans poured out of the stands, referee Fred Swearingen conferred with his crew and then used the phone in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dugout to call the press box. After speaking with Art McNally, the NFL’s supervisor of officials, Swearingen emerged from the dugout and signaled a touchdown. It took 10 minutes to clear the fans from the field so Gerela could kick the extra point.

Raiders Coach John Madden was convinced the ball never hit Tatum and that Swearingen had called the press box to ask for a ruling based on a television replay. (The league wouldn’t introduce instant replay until 1986.) Jim Kensil, the NFL’s executive director, denied Madden’s claim and said Swearingen was “simply clearing up a confusing situation.”

“There was no way they were going to call it any other way with all those people on the field,” Madden, still stewing over the outcome of the game, told reporters back in Oakland two days later. “Somebody would have been killed.”

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ first playoff win marked the dawn of a new day for the franchise.

“The God of all the losers who have ever been smiled down through a ghostly gray sky yesterday, and in the last desperate seconds of a mean, bitterly-fought football game did truly wondrous things,” Phil Musick wrote in the Pittsburgh Press. “History would have it no other way. And after 40 endless years of spilling salt and breaking mirrors and walking under ladders, the Steelers were smiled upon by a benevolent fate.”

The Steelers lost to the Dolphins, 21-17, in the AFC championship game the following week, despite Harris’s 16 carries for 76 yards. Pittsburgh returned to the AFC championship game in 1974 and defeated the Raiders en route to winning its first of four Super Bowl titles in the ’70s.

“Many have said, and I agree, that the ‘Immaculate Reception’ marked the turning point in franchise history,” Steelers President Art Rooney II said in September, when the team announced Harris would become the third Steelers player to have his number retired at halftime of Saturday night’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders.

In a 1997 column for the New York Times to mark the 25th anniversary of Harris’s miraculous touchdown, legendary Pittsburgh radio analyst and sportscaster Myron Cope explained the origin of the play’s nickname, which he introduced to the masses. As the story goes, Steelers fan Michael Ord stood on a chair at a downtown bar after the game, tapped his glass with a spoon and declared, “This day will forever be known as the Feast of the Immaculate Reception!” Ord then convinced his friend, Sharon Levosky, to call the WTAE newsroom and share the clever moniker with Cope.

“I heard out Sharon and said: ‘That’s fantastic. Let me give it some thought,’” Cope wrote. “The Immaculate Reception? Tasteless? I pondered the matter for 15 seconds and cried out ‘Whoopee!’ Having conferred upon Franco’s touchdown its name for 11 o’clock news viewers to embrace, I accept neither credit nor, should you hold the moniker to be impious, blame.”

In the same column, Cope, who was Jewish, declared Franco’s catch “kosher” based on a frame-by-frame review of video shot by a WTAE cameraman.

“No question about it — Bradshaw’s pass hit Tatum squarely on his right shoulder,” Cope wrote. “I mean, I saw it.”

Harris could never say for sure whether the ball ricocheted off Tatum or Fuqua, because he didn’t remember much of anything about the play before he reached the end zone. The joy the “Immaculate Reception” sparked for him, his teammates and a generation of Steelers fans never faded.

“Fifty years ago,” Harris said Tuesday on SiriusXM Radio, “and it still feels brand new.”

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