The Immaculate Reception is the nickname given to one of the most famous plays in the history of American football. It occurred in the AFC divisional playoff game of the National Football League (NFL), between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 23, 1972. With the Steelers trailing in the last 30 seconds of the game, Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass to John Fuqua, who was immediately hit and lost possession of the ball. As the ball fell towards the ground, Steelers fullback Franco Harris scooped it up and ran for a game-winning touchdown. The play has been a source of unresolved controversy and speculation ever since, as many have contested that the ball touched either Fuqua or the ground before Harris caught it, either of which would have resulted in an incomplete pass by the rules at the time. Kevin Cook's The Last Headbangers cites the play as the beginning of a bitter rivalry between Pittsburgh and Oakland that fueled a historically brutal Raiders team during the NFL's most controversially physical era.
NFL Films has chosen it as the greatest play of all time, as well as the most controversial. The play was a turning point for the Steelers, who reversed four decades of futility with their first playoff win ever, and went on to win four Super Bowls by the end of the decade. The play's name is a pun derived from the Immaculate Conception, a dogma in the Roman Catholic Church. The phrase was first used on air by Myron Cope, a Pittsburgh sportscaster who was reporting on the Steelers' victory. A Pittsburgh woman, Sharon Levosky, called Cope before his 11 PM sports broadcast on the 23rd and suggested the name, which was coined by her friend Michael Ord. Cope used the term on television and the phrase stuck.
Events of the play
After Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler scored a touchdown on a 30-yard run with 1:17 left, the Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7–6, facing fourth-and-10 on their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the game and no time-outs. Head coach Chuck Noll called a pass play, 66 Circle Option, intended for receiver Barry Pearson, a rookie who was playing in his first NFL game. Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw (1 in diagram), under great pressure from Raiders linemen Tony Cline and Horace Jones, threw the ball to the Raiders' 35-yard line, toward halfback John "Frenchy" Fuqua. Raiders safety Jack Tatum collided with Fuqua just as the ball arrived (2). Tatum's hit knocked Fuqua to the ground and sent the ball sailing backward several yards, end over end. Steelers fullback Franco Harris, after initially blocking on the play, had run downfield in case Bradshaw needed another eligible receiver. He scooped up the sailing ball just before it hit the ground (3). Harris ran past Raiders linebacker Gerald Irons, while linebacker Phil Villapiano, who had been covering Harris, was blocked by Steelers tight end John McMakin (4). Harris used a stiff arm to ward off Raiders defensive back Jimmy Warren (5), and went in for a touchdown. The touchdown gave the Steelers a 13–7 lead, allowing them to win the game.
The critical question was: whom did the football touch in the Fuqua/Tatum collision? If it bounced off Fuqua without ever touching Tatum, then Harris's reception was illegal. If the ball bounced off only Tatum, or if it bounced off both Fuqua and Tatum (in any order), then the reception was legal. The rule stated in the pertinent part that once an offensive player touches a pass, he is the only offensive player eligible to catch the pass. However, if a defensive player touches the pass "first, or simultaneously with or subsequent to its having been touched by only one [offensive] player, then all [offensive] players become and remain eligible" to catch the pass. (This rule was later rescinded in 1978.) If the reception were illegal, the Raiders would have gained possession (by a turnover on downs), clinching a victory.
One official, Back Judge Adrian Burk, signaled that the play was a touchdown, but the other game officials did not immediately make any signal. When the officials huddled, Burk and another official, Umpire Pat Harder, thought that the play was a touchdown because Tatum and Fuqua had both touched the ball, while three others said that they were not in a position to rule. Referee Fred Swearingen approached Steelers sideline official Jim Boston and asked to be taken to a telephone. Boston took Swearingen to a baseball dugout in the stadium. There was a video monitor in the dugout, but it was not used by Swearingen. (Terry Bradshaw's assertion that a special television was rigged up on the sideline so that Swearingen could watch the replay is not supported by other accounts.) From the dugout telephone Boston put in a call to the press box to reach the NFL's supervisor of officials, Art McNally. Before the call McNally had "an opinion from the get-go" that the ball had hit Tatum's chest, which he confirmed by looking "at one shot on instant replay." In the press box the telephone was answered either by Dan Rooney, son of Steelers owner Art Rooney, or by Steelers public relations director Joe Gordon (reports vary), and McNally was put on the line. According to McNally, Swearingen "never asked me about the rule, and never asked what I saw. All he said was, 'Two of my men say that opposing players touched the ball.' And I said, 'everything's fine then, go ahead.'" After Swearingen hung up the phone Boston asked, "What do we got?" "We got a touchdown," answered Swearingen, who then went back onto the field to signal the ruling to the crowd. Franco Harris crossed the goal line at approximately 3:29 PM EST. Fans immediately rushed the field, and it took 15 minutes to clear them so that the extra point could be kicked to give the Steelers what turned out to be their final margin of victory, 13–7.
Although this has been described as the first known use of television replay to confirm a call (there was no instant replay review then), at the time the NFL denied that the decision was made in the press box or using a television replay. An Oakland Tribune article two days after the game reported that Steelers publicist Joe Gordon told reporters in the press box that the decision had been made using the replay. Gordon has dismissed this as "a total fabrication." NFL officials Jim Kensil and Val Pinchbeck, who were in the press box with McNally, also deny that replay was used in making the decision on the play.
In various NFL Films productions about the play years later, various Raiders have theorized that the real purpose of Swearingen's phone conversation was to see if there were enough police on hand to ensure the players' safety if the play was ruled incomplete, and was then called in the Steelers' favor out of fear; in one of them, McNally laughs at the suggestion.
The play is still disputed by those involved, particularly by living personnel from the Raiders and their fans, who insist the Raiders should have won. Tatum said that the ball did not bounce off him, both immediately after the game as well as later; however, in his memoirs, Tatum equivocated, stating that he could not honestly say if the ball hit him. Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, who was covering Harris at the time, maintains that the ball hit Fuqua. Fuqua has been coy, supposedly saying he knows exactly what happened that day but will never tell.
According to Raiders defensive back George Atkinson, the play is known by the Raiders and their fans as the "Immaculate Deception" because "the public was deceived, the officials were deceived, and we got deceived".
John Madden, coach of the 1972 Raiders, has said that he will never get over the play, and has indicated that he was bothered more by the delay between the end of the play and the final signal of touchdown than by which player the ball truly hit. After the game he indicated that from his view the football had indeed touched Tatum. Although a few days later Madden indicated that the Raiders game films showed that the ball hit Fuqua's shoulder pads, Jack Tatum conceded that "even after we viewed the game films with stop action, nobody could tell who the ball hit on that moment of impact." Years later Madden wrote, "No matter how many times I watch the films of the 'immaculate reception' play, I never know for sure what happened."
In 1998, during halftime of the AFC Championship game, NBC showed a replay from its original broadcast. The replay presented a different angle than the NFL Films clip that is most often shown. According to a writer for the New York Daily News, "NBC's replay showed the ball clearly hit one and only one man[:] Oakland DB Jack Tatum." Curt Gowdy, doing the live TV play-by-play, called it as having been deflected by Tatum, and reiterated that during the video replay.
Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope, in a 1997 article and in his 2002 book Double Yoi!, related that two days after the game he reviewed film taken by local Pittsburgh TV station WTAE-TV, and that the film showed "[n]o question about it – Bradshaw's pass struck Tatum squarely on his right shoulder." Cope stated that the local film would be next to impossible to find again, because of inadequate filing procedures.
In 2004 John Fetkovich, an emeritus professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon University, analyzed the NFL Films clip of the play. He came to the conclusion, based on the trajectory of the bounced ball and conservation of momentum, that the ball must have bounced off Tatum, who was running upfield at the time, rather than Fuqua, who was running across and down the field. Fetkovich also performed experiments by throwing a football against a brick wall at a velocity greater than 60 feet per second, twice the speed Fetkovich calculated that Bradshaw's pass was traveling when it reached Tatum and Fuqua. Fetkovitch achieved a maximum rebound of 10 feet when the ball hit point first, and 15 feet when the ball hit belly first, both less than the 24 feet that the ball actually rebounded during the play. Timothy Gay, a physics professor and a longtime Raiders fan, cited Fetkovich's work with approval in his book The Physics of Football, and concluded that "the referees made the right call in the Immaculate Reception."
Terry Bradshaw himself had made points similar to those of Fetkovich 15 years earlier, stating that he did not think that he had thrown the ball hard enough for it to bounce that far back off Fuqua, and that since Fuqua was running across the field, the ball would have veered to the right if it had hit him. Bradshaw opined that the ball must have bounced off the upfield-moving Tatum – if that had happened then "Tatum's momentum carries the ball backward."
The ball came very close to hitting the ground before Harris scooped it up. In the sideline views of both film and video, Harris had caught the ball out of frame, and came running into frame from the right side on his path to the end zone. The only other known NBC video was an end zone shot from above and behind the goalposts depicting Harris scooping the ball before it touched the ground. The best NFL Films shot of the play, from ground level, is a tight shot from the end zone of Harris snaring the ball, with his feet and the ground just out of frame below.
Villapiano has also stated that he was illegally blocked by Steelers tight end John McMakin as he was pursuing Harris following the reception, and he would have tackled Harris without it. Raiders coach Madden echoed this complaint; McMakin, who calls his contribution the "Magnificent Obstruction", insists the block was perfectly legal, and is "puzzled" that the Raiders would think otherwise.
The week after this playoff victory, the Steelers lost the AFC championship game to the Miami Dolphins 21–17, who won Super Bowl VII in their landmark undefeated season. The Steelers, however, reversed four decades of futility and went on to become a dominant force in the NFL for the rest of the 1970s, winning four Super Bowls in six years with such stars as Bradshaw, Harris, John Stallworth, and Lynn Swann along with the Steel Curtain defense led by Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, "Mean Joe" Greene, Mel Blount, and Dwight White.
1972 was the year before the team's 40th year in the league, during which they had finished above .500 only nine times, and until then had never won a playoff game. In fact, before this game, the only playoff game the team had ever played was a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947 after the two teams finished tied for the Eastern Division championship. The Immaculate Reception was actually the first touchdown the Steelers ever scored in the postseason (They were shut out against the Eagles in the 1947 playoff game). (The Steelers also lost to the Detroit Lions in the 1962 Playoff Bowl, though this was considered an exhibition game between the two second place teams in league record books and not an actual playoff game.) They had long been regarded as one of the league's doormats (as the 1944 Card-Pitt merger was 0–10 and was ridiculed as the "Carpitts," a play on the word "carpet"). As recently as 1969 the team had posted a 1–13 record, thus securing the first draft choice in the subsequent NFL draft (in which the Steelers chose Terry Bradshaw) and seeding their remarkable turnaround. Since the AFL-NFL Merger, the Steelers have the NFL's best record (surpassing Miami in 2007 because of the Dolphins' recent struggles), have had a league-low three head coaches, and have had only nine losing seasons, none worse than 5–11. Only twice since the Immaculate Reception has the team had losing seasons two years in a row and none three years in a row.
The Immaculate Reception spawned a heated rivalry between the Steelers and Raiders, a rivalry that was at its peak during the 1970s, when both teams were among the best in the league and both were known for their hard-hitting, physical play. The teams met in the playoffs in each of the next four seasons, starting with the Raiders' 33–14 victory in the 1973 divisional playoffs. Pittsburgh used the AFC championship game victories over Oakland (24–13 at Oakland in 1974 and 16–10 at Pittsburgh in 1975) as a springboard to victories in Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X, before the Raiders notched a 24–7 victory at home in 1976 on their way to winning Super Bowl XI. To date, the two last met in the playoffs in 1983 when the eventual Super Bowl champion Raiders, playing in Los Angeles at the time, crushed the Steelers 38–10. The rivalry has somewhat died off in the years since, mainly due to the Raiders on-field struggles since appearing in Super Bowl XXXVII.
The play itself started another rivalry between the Raiders and the rest of the league, as Oakland fans have long thought that the league has wanted to shortchange the Raiders and specifically Al Davis. In 2007, NFL Network ranked the "Raiders versus the World" as the biggest feud in NFL history.
For the 1978 NFL season, the rule in question regarding the forward pass was repealed. There are no longer any restrictions on any deflections of passes, and a future play that mirrored the Immaculate Reception would simply be an extraordinary but legal reception. Whether a future Franco Harris would have been ruled as catching such a deflected football before it struck the turf is a different matter, thanks to myriad cameras and use of instant replay that is part of the present-day NFL.
As 1972 was the last year that the NFL forbade any local telecasts of home games, the game itself wasn't shown live on Pittsburgh NBC affiliate WIIC-TV, nor was it shown on nearby NBC affiliates in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Youngstown, Ohio, Clarksburg, West Virginia, and then-NBC affiliate WTRF-TV in Wheeling, West Virginia, all of which are secondary markets to the Steelers--WICU-TV in Erie, Pennsylvania and then-NBC O&O WKYC-TV in Cleveland were the closest stations to air the game (although WIIC-TV showed the game on tape delay the following day). Starting the next year, any home games that sold out 72 hours before kick-off could be televised locally. As the Steelers began their home sell-out streak in 1972, blackouts have never been needed in the Pittsburgh area.
The Steelers organization still consider the Immaculate Reception the greatest moment in team history. On December 23, 2011, the 39th anniversary of the play, the team's official Facebook page posted a black and white photo of Harris running in for the touchdown to commemorate the anniversary. The Immaculate Reception was documented by NFL Network's A Football Life in 2012.
On December 23, 2012, on the 40th anniversary of the play just hours before the Steelers hosted the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers unveiled a monument at the exact spot where Harris made the reception at a parking lot just outside Heinz Field, where Three Rivers Stadium used to be. This is the third such monument that commemorates the play in the city with the other two located at the Pittsburgh International Airport and the Heinz History Center. The Steelers lost the game to the rival Bengals 13–10 and were officially eliminated from the playoffs that year.
Last chance for the Steelers. Bradshaw trying to get away. And his pass is...broken up by Tatum. Picked off! Franco Harris has it! And he's over! Franco Harris grabbed the ball, a deflection! Five seconds to go! He grabbed it with five seconds to go and scored!
You talk about Christmas miracles. Here's the miracle of all miracles. Watch this one now. Bradshaw is lucky to even get rid of the ball! He shoots it out. Jack Tatum deflects it right into the hands of Harris. And he sets off. And the big 230-pound rookie slipped away from Warren and scored.—Gowdy, describing an instant replay of the play on NBC
Hang onto your hats, here come the Steelers out of the huddle. Twenty-two seconds remaining. It's down to one big play, fourth down and 10 yards to go. Terry Bradshaw at the controls. And Bradshaw... back and looking again. Bradshaw, running out of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to, fires it downfield, and there's a collision! [volume increases] And it's caught out of the air! The ball is pulled in by Franco Harris! Harris is going for a touchdown for Pittsburgh! Harris is going...5 seconds left on the clock. Franco Harris pulled in the football, I don't even know where he came from!—Jack Fleming, on the Steelers radio broadcast
We wanted to hit Barry Pearson with the post. The pass protection broke down so all of the timing was off. Bradshaw rolls out to his right and I thought he was going to get tackled, but he ducked and he came up and he fired the ball. Now, from the angle I'm coming from, the outside in, Jack Tatum's coming from an angle straight ahead. What I was going to do, if nothing else, is beat him to the point. We got there about the same time. Now, if the ball hit me, it bounced a hell of a ways. If the ball hit him, he wasn't aiming at it, he was going at my head. I can tell you this: I did not take my eyes off the ball, as you can tell from the way that my body was. What happens from that point on was truly Immaculate.
The play that changed a city.
- Referee: (21) Fred Swearingen
- Umpire: (88) Pat Harder
- Head Linesman: (10) Al Sabato
- Line Judge: (16) Royal Cathcart
- Back Judge: (63) Adrian Burk
- Field Judge: (55) Charley Musser
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