Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23, 1972: The Immaculate Reception

PITTSBURGH - The Steelers were facing fourth and 10 from their own 40, only 22 seconds left. Trailing 7-6, they had to find some way to get into field goal range, some way to pull off a miracle and avoid another heart-wrenching loss. The Steelers had led most of the way in this game, up until Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler scored on a 30-yard run with 1:17 left to give Oakland the lead. The Steelers had gone from being a minute away from the first postseason win in franchise history to looking defeat in the face.

The play was 66 Circle Option. Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass and immediately faced heavy pressure from two Raiders defenders. He threw a ball deep over the middle, intended for running back Frenchy Fuqua. The ball, Fuqua, and Raiders safety Jack Tatum all converged at the Oakland 35 yard line, resulting in a bone-crushing collision. The ball caromed straight back from that collision, and it looked like it was over.

But then, Steelers running back Franco Harris reached down, grabbed the ball off his shoetops, and took off down the sideline. Stunned, the Raiders tried to shift direction to chase him down. Harris stiff-armed Oakland cornerback Jimmy Warren at the 12 yard line and ran in for an improbable touchdown.

It was bedlam at Three Rivers Stadium. Fans were going crazy in the stands, even running onto the field to celebrate. Meanwhile, the officials ran off the field and huddled. They had a lot to talk about.

The first thing was the catch itself. Did Harris catch the deflected ball before it hit the ground? The officials who were watching the ball said he did. Television replays were inconclusive, and remain so to this day. There are two angles that show Harris grabbing the point of the ball seemingly just before it hit the ground, but neither shows a view of the ground, so nobody except Harris can say for sure whether he caught it. For his part, Harris has never said one way or the other. This question of the play has never been conclusively resolved.

The second thing was the deflection. Which player did the ball hit before caroming back toward Harris? According to the rules at the time, if an offensive player touched a forward pass, no other player on the offensive team was eligible to catch the pass, but if a defensive player touched the ball, anybody could catch it. The collision between Fuqua and Tatum happened so fast that it's impossible to see which player touched the ball; in fact, a couple of the cameras covering the game didn't even get the collision on frame. The people watching the game live thought the ball hit Tatum's shoulder pads, making it a legal catch, but Tatum and the Raiders insisted it caromed off Fuqua instead. Again, this portion of the play has never been conclusively resolved.

Armed with that data, and with the fact that the original ruling on the field was a touchdown, referee Fred Swearingen called up to the head of the NFL officials. Many people say Swearingen was using instant replay to determine the right call, but this was not the case; he was merely calling up to confirm that the on-field officials were interpreting the deflection rule properly. Receiving confirmation, he ran onto the middle of the field, putting his arms up and starting the celebration all over again.

The Immaculate Reception, as it has become known, instantly earned a place in pro football history. It gave the Steelers their first postseason victory in franchise history and it helped kick-start the Steelers-Raiders rivalry that would dominate the 1970s. With their first playoff victory finally behind them, the Steelers began their climb to the top of the NFL, becoming one of the model franchises in the league.

The play has time and again been voted the most famous in NFL history, and it is often voted the most controversial, as well. Nobody who saw the play ever forgot it, and those involved still cannot fully explain what happened. Most notably among the affected was Raiders coach John Madden, who has said he never got over what happened that day. Later in his life, he wrote the ultimate testament to the play: "No matter how many times I watch the films of the 'immaculate reception' play, I never know for sure what happened."

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