Franco Harris’ ‘Immaculate Reception’ turns 50

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In the days before he died this week at 72Pittsburgh 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 dominating era for a franchise that spanned seven seasons. winners and no playoff wins in four. decades of existence.

reviving the play voted the greatest in NFL history Leading up to the league’s 100th season in 2019 it never seemed to get old for Harris.

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

On December 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 to go, and that seemed to be enough for a Pittsburgh defense that hadn’t allowed a touchdown in its last three games of the season. regular season. But backup quarterback Ken Stabler capped an 80-yard drive with a 30-yard touchdown run on a missed play on Oakland’s next possession, putting the Raiders up 7-6 with 1:13 left and setting up the game. stage for Harris’s heroism.

On fourth and 10 at the Pittsburgh 40-yard line with 22 seconds left, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back, rolled to his right and threw a pass to running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua up the middle. .

Jack Tatum, the Raiders’ hard-hitting safety, broke with the ball and collided with Fuqua just as he reached the Oakland 35-yard line. Tatum’s right forearm caught Fuqua in the head, knocking him to the grass. The ball bounced towards the center of the field and hung in the air long enough for Harris to catch it before it hit the ground. Harris made his way to the sideline, Raiders defensive back Jimmy Warren stiff-armed, at the 15-yard line and ran toward 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 bit of luck.

Harris’ task on the play, Option 66, was to block the outside linebacker. In interviews over the next few years, Harris, who was a rookie in 1972, mentioned a mantra that coach Joe Paterno had instilled in him during his college career at Penn State and that served him well: “Go to the ball.” Harris had started upfield a couple of seconds before Bradshaw’s throw.

“Don’t ask me what happened next,” Bradshaw told reporters afterward. “Someone covered me, but I heard the screams. When I got up, there was Franco, at 5, going to the flags. I was screaming and screaming the whole way to kiss him.”

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

Tatum maintained that he did not touch the ball.

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

As hundreds of fans poured out of the stands, referee Fred Swearingen conferred with his team, then used the phone in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dugout to call the press box. After speaking with Art McNally, the NFL’s supervisor of officiating, Swearingen came off the dugout and signaled for the 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 that the ball never hit Tatum and that Swearingen had called the press box for a ruling based on a television replay. (The league would not introduce instant replay until 1986.) NFL chief executive Jim Kensil denied Madden’s claim, saying Swearingen was “just clearing up a confusing situation.”

“There was no way they would call it anything else with all these people on the field,” Madden, still concerned about the outcome of the game, told reporters in Oakland two days later. “Someone would have been killed.”

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

“The God of all losers who ever smiled across a ghostly gray sky yesterday, and in the last desperate seconds of a cruel and bitterly contested football game did truly wonderful things,” wrote Phil Musick in the Pittsburgh Press. . “History would not have it any other way. And after 40 endless years of spilling salt, breaking mirrors and walking under stairs, the Steelers were surprised by a benevolent fate.

The Steelers lost to the Dolphins, 21-17, in the AFC Championship Game the following week, despite Harris’ 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 1970s.

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

In a 1997 column for the New York Times marking the 25th anniversary of Harris’ 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 climbed up on a chair in a downtown bar after the game, tapped his glass with a spoon, and declared, “This day will forever be known as the Holiday Party! Immaculate Reception!” Ord then convinced his friend, Sharon Levosky, to call the WTAE newsroom and shares the clever nickname with Cope.

“I listened to Sharon and I said, ‘That’s fantastic. Let me think about it for a bit,’” Cope wrote. “The Immaculate Reception? Tasteless? I pondered the matter for 15 seconds and yelled ‘Whoa!’ Having given Franco’s touchdown his name so that viewers of the 11 o’clock news would accept it, I accept neither credit nor, if you consider the moniker impious, blame.”

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

“There’s no question about it: Bradshaw’s pass hit Tatum square in his right shoulder,” Cope wrote. “I mean, I saw it.”

Harris could never say for sure if the ball bounced off Tatum or Fuqua because he didn’t remember much of the play before it hit the end zone. The joy that the “Immaculate Reception” brought to him, his teammates and a generation of Steelers fans never faded.

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

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