Remembering the Immaculate Reception on the 40th Anniversary

NFL Steve O Speak
No one will forget the Franco Harris catch and run for touchdown.

On the 40th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, here is one fan’s perspective, who was at the 1972 game live, of the game, the catch and that “one moment in time”.

By Guest Blogger Willypops:

Nothing like it ever happened to me before and nothing has come close to it since!  And I hold out no hope that the future will provide anything comparable.  What am I talking about?  Just the most unbelievable, exciting and exhilarating fan experience that anyone could wish for.  The feeling was immaculate – and indeed the event came to be known as “The Immaculate Reception Game”.  It was December 23, 1972 – a Divisional Playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders.

To really appreciate the enormity of what transpired that day, you have to look at it from the standpoint of the diehard Steelers fan, which is what I was back in those days.  In it’s previous 39 years of existence, the Steelers franchise had only ever been involved in ONE playoff game!  That was in 1947 when they finished the regular season tied with the Philadelphia Eagles as the Eastern Conference leaders and a playoff was needed to determine who would represent the conference in the Championship Game against the Western Conference winners, the Chicago Cardinals.  The Steelers lost that playoff game with the Eagles.  So for Steelers fans back in 1972, especially for a whole generation like me that never even got a whiff of playoff excitement, the playoff game against the Raiders was a really big deal.

The game itself was not very remarkable as far as explosive, exciting plays (until the end of course).  It was a classic defensive struggle that was scoreless at halftime.  In the third quarter, the Steelers Roy Gerela (ahh, remember Gerela’s Gorillas?) kicked an 18 yard field goal for the first points of the game.  Later in the fourth quarter he added a 29 yarder and you could feel the excitement building.  But with the Steelers clinging to just a 6-0 lead, you could also feel a definite sense of uneasiness rippling through the crowd as the Raiders drove into Steelers territory late in the fourth quarter.  And then disaster struck when, with 1:13 left in the game, Oakland quarterback Kenny Stabler faded back to pass.  Scrambling to his left, he wasn’t able to find a receiver, so he took off and ran for a 30 yard touchdown.  And just like that, with the extra point conversion, the Raiders had the lead.

I still vividly remember how it seemed like all of the air got sucked out of Three Rivers Stadium.  The silence was eerie – we were stunned.  But as the Steelers took possession at their own 20 yard line after the ensuing kickoff the crowd started to stir and when Terry Bradshaw completed a short pass on first down, you started to wonder if they could move into range for a game winning field goal.  He then completed another pass for a first down at the Steelers 40 yard line.  But after three straight incompletions, it was fourth down with 22 seconds left.  And the rest of course, as they say, is history.

No one will forget the Franco Harris catch and run for touchdown.

No one will forget the Franco Harris catch and run for touchdown.

I just remember the extreme shift in emotions in a matter of seconds when Jack Tatum deflected (no question in my mind that he deflected it!)  Bradshaw’s pass intended for Frenchy Fuqua and then Franco Harris snagged the ball at his shoe tops and ran it in for the go ahead touchdown.  When you saw the ball deflected you had enough time for your brain to process that the Steelers lost but then there was Franco running down the sideline and just as quickly you realized that they were gonna win.

The stadium erupted – literally erupted.  There was bedlam in the stands.  A friend of mine who was sitting in one of the first few rows of the upper deck swears that when Franco caught the ball and was running for the touchdown, the guy sitting in front of him jumped up and threw his binoculars in the air and they fell down into the stands in the lower level.  Certainly if someone down there was hit by those binoculars they could have been seriously injured.  But then again, Steelers fans were so delirious, anyone who might have been hit by the binoculars likely wouldn’t have even felt it.

As Franco crossed the goal line, fans ran onto the field.  People were jumping and screaming.  I remember jumping up and down and pounding on the back of the guy sitting to my right.  And then I stopped with this frozen look on my face when I realized that this rather frail gentleman, wearing a trench coat and an old fedora, was probably 75 years old if he was a day.  I feared that I might have hurt him and I leaned over and began to apologize profusely.  He just looked at me with this huge smile and he began to pound on  my back with all the enthusiasm and energy of a kid.

Then there was the controversy over whether it was a legal pass.  Back then, it was illegal for a forward pass to be touched by two offensive players without there being an intervening touch of the ball by a defensive player.  The question was whether Tatum actually hit the ball or did it bounce off of Fuqua right to Harris.  Anyway, it took about 15 minutes for the officials to figure out what the call should be.  I remember seeing the referee go over to the baseball dugout near the endzone where Franco scored and he got on a phone.  He had called up to the press box and spoke with a supervisory official who was observing the game and I think he looked at instant replays. (the first ever use of instant replay by an official, notwithstanding the fact that there was nothing in the official rules that actually authorized such use!)   During that whole time while we were waiting for the officials to decide what they were going to do, the euphoria in the stands never faded.  On the field, the police and security were trying to restore some semblance of order.  Players were just milling about around the goal line.

I remember one Raider player just sitting on the ground back around the 50 yard line seemingly in utter disbelief.  And then the referee came out and signaled that it was indeed a touchdown.  I remember thinking he couldn’t call it any other way if he had any hope of his officiating crew making it off the field alive.  When he signaled touchdown, the place erupted again.  The teams lined up for the extra point.  I don’t think the Raiders even bothered to rush and I have this vague recollection that the Raider player sitting at the 50 yard line was still sitting there when Gerela booted it through.  But that just may be my fading memory wanting to embellish the story.  The last 15 seconds were played – the game ended – the Steelers won a playoff game!

The fans reaction after the game was memorable.  It seemed like no one wanted to leave.  All the way out to the parking lot strangers would come up to you and give you a hug, or shake your hand, or pat you on the back.

At that moment, everyone was your friend.  And the buzzing – I’ll always remember the buzzing.  People just had to let out their emotions – to share their joy. Before that day, even as just a 19-year old, I had seen a fair share of sporting events.  I even saw Mazeroski’s home run in the 1960 World Series (OK it was his homer in Game 1 not the much more dramatic Game 7 walk-off homer).  But until that day in December of 1972 I had never had a fan experience where I felt such an emotional attachment to each and every other fan in that stadium.  And since that day, I’ve not experienced anything close to that feeling at any of the hundreds of sporting events I have attended.  It may be called “The Immaculate Reception Game”, but from the fan standpoint, I think the Whitney Houston song describes it best as “One Moment in Time”.



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