For some it’s probably hard to believe, but it has now been exactly 42 years since possibly the most famous play in the history of the National Football League too place.
It was the first playoff game for the PIttsburgh Steelers, and they were hosting the Oakland Raiders. In their first 39 seasons (1933-71), the Steelers qualified for the playoffs the same number of times I’ve had sex. ZERO. Nada. Zilch.
The team’s fortunes began to turn in 1969, when owner Art Rooney hired Chuck Noll as coach. Noll hit the jackpot in his first draft, selecting Mean Joe Greene out of North Texas and L.C. Greenwood out of East Texas State to anchor his defensive line. Pittsburgh was only 1-13 in ’69, but it had the number one pick for 1979, and Noll added another key piece to the puzzle by drafting Louisiana Tech quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
By 1972, Noll added Jack Ham, Gerry Mullins, Mike Wagner, Mel Blount, Ernie Holmes, Jon Kolb and Franco Harris, among others, and that year, the Steelers went 10-3-1.
The 1972 Raiders were 9-4-1. John Madden’s fourth edition of the Silver and Black featured a mix of players who were on the roster when Oakland lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl II and newer faces. The quarterback situation was unsettled, with Daryle Lamonica starting, but Madden had a quick hook, often shutting in a young Ken Stabler and the ancient George Blanda, who was mostly reduced to kicking, but still could sling the ball when needed, as evidenced by his 1970 season, when he finished as runner-up for NFL MVP at 43.
THe ’72 Raiders had a new weapon in rookie receiver Cliff Branch from Colorado. Oakland also had another new receiver, Villanova’s MIke Siani, to compliment Fred Blietnikoff, who was forced to go it alone for the most part in ’71 after former deep threat Warren Wells was imprisoned.
The Raider defense was solid, although this unit didn’t have any household names beyond Willie Brown and Jack Tatum in the secondary.
The first half of the Raiders-Steelers game was scoreless. PIttsburgh kicked two field goals in the second half, and it appeared that 6-0 score would hold up.
Madden replaced Lamonica with Stabler in the fourth quarter, and with less than two minutes left, Stabler scampered 30 yards around left end to the game’s first touchdown. Blanda’s extra point made it 7-6 in Oakland’s favor.
Pittsburgh appeared to be out of miracles. It soon faced fourth-and-10 with 22 seconds to go.
Bradshaw launched a pass over the middle for John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who was circling out of the backfield. However, the ball, Fuqua and Tatum all arrived at the same time near the Oakland 45-yard line.
Just as the ball was about to strike the TartanTurf of Three Rivers Stadium, rookie Franco Harris scooped the ball off of his shoelaces and galloped down the left sideline all the way to the end zone with 13 seconds to go.
The Raiders thought the play was illegal. At that time, two offensive players could not touch the ball consecutively. That was a point of contention during Super Bowl V two years earlier on Baltimore’s 75-yard touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas to John Mackey. The Cowboys claimed the ball went off the hands of receiver Eddie Hinton straight to Mackey, but the officials ruled Dallas safety Mel Refro’s fingers grazed the laces in between. NFL Films replays proved the officials correct in that case.
Referee Fred Swearingen went to the Pirates’ dugout near the end zone where Harris scored and called NFL Director of Officiating Art McNally. McNally told Swearingen he could not help, and the decision was up to the officials on the field.
(The urban legend is Swearingen called up to the director of security and asked how many cops he could provide if the officials ruled the touchdown didn’t count. When the response was six, Swearingen then said okay, “Six for Pittsburgh”, meaning the play would stand.)
Instant replay would not come into existence until 1986, and even if there instant replay in 1972, it would have done no good. There were not as many cameras covering the game, the video quality was not anywhere near where it is now, and it would have taken way too long to run the film to the truck, rack the film and re-rack it time and again to determine the call.
Pittsburgh won 13-7, and two years later, the Steelers won their first of four Super Bowls in six seasons under coach Chuck Noll.
Oakland would have to wait until 1976 to win its title. To this day, Madden and all of the Raiders refuse to acknowledge the Steelers won.
How iconic is the Immaculate Reception? Travelers to Pittsburgh International Airport are greeted by a life-sized statue of Franco Harris in the exact uniform he wore in 1972, catching the ball like he did vs. the Raiders.
The Immaculate Reception is so cemented in NFL lore that in a poll earlier this year, it was named the greatest play of all-time. ESPN had a poll of the greatest play of each of the 32 teams. and then a tournament was held to determine the best play of all-time. The Immaculate Reception defeated Bart Starr’s game-winning quarterback sneak in the Ice Bowl by a wide margin.