Immaculate Reception at 50: How it modified the Steelers endlessly

Moments earlier than Franco Harris made essentially the most inconceivable play in NFL historical past, possibly in professional sports activities historical past, his mother sensed one thing was incorrect, even from practically 300 miles away.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1972 season was on the brink, and Harris, their star rookie working again, knew he was most likely lining up for his remaining play that 12 months. In an AFC divisional playoff recreation Dec. 23 — solely the franchise’s second postseason recreation — the Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-6 with 22 seconds left and confronted fourth and 10 at Pittsburgh’s 40-yard line.

“At home in Jersey, my brothers and sisters and my dad are watching the game,” Harris — whose loss of life at age 72 was introduced by his son Wednesday — mentioned in an interview with The Instances final month. “My mom, being from Italy, didn’t know much about football, so she’s in the kitchen drinking coffee. She could feel that something wasn’t right, though, so she went and got her Italian album out and put it on.

“My brothers and sisters swear that when the Immaculate Reception happened, ‘Ave Maria’ was playing.”

The play the Steelers ran 50 years in the past Friday , 66 Circle Choice, turned out to be a “Hail Mary” certainly.

Their third-year quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, confronted heavy stress from the Raiders’ protection. He was capable of fireplace the ball to Oakland’s 35-yard line — he has mentioned that he noticed a black Steelers jersey and easily threw to it — and a violent collision occurred between fearsome Oakland security Jack Tatum and Pittsburgh working again John “Frenchy” Fuqua.

As Fuqua crashed to the Three Rivers Stadium synthetic turf and a few Raiders celebrated, believing the cross was incomplete, the ball ricocheted again towards midfield. Harris was being coated by second-year linebacker Phil Villapiano, a future four-time Professional Bowl choice and a mainstay of the Raiders’ protection within the ’70s. Seeing the ball within the air, Villapiano instinctively headed towards it.

Nonetheless debated at the moment, this diagram reveals how the ball deflected off both Oakland’s Jack Tatum (31) or Pittsburgh’s “Frenchy” Fuqua (33) earlier than Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception.” The Raiders’ Phil Villapiano (41) and Harris might be seen to the suitable trailing the motion.

(Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame by way of Related Press)

“It blows my mind that I have no visual recollection of catching the ball.”

— Franco Harris, on his “Immaculate Reception”

“What I should have done was grab Franco and pull him in tight, so it looked to the ref like he was blocking me,” Villapiano mentioned. “But instead I see the ball bounce up in the air and then the next thing I know, Franco is running down the field. I thought to myself, ‘What the hell is he doing that for?’ ”

Harris additionally had run towards the ball, which he grabbed simply earlier than it hit the turf. With out breaking stride, he headed for the Steelers’ sideline, the left facet of the sphere.

“When Bradshaw threw the ball, my first thought was to go toward the ball, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Harris mentioned. “So I started to go to the ball and the next thing I remember was stiff-arming Jimmy Warren along the sideline.

Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris poses in his famous "Immaculate Reception" catch position.

Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris poses in his famous “Immaculate Reception” catch place throughout a ceremony commemorating the play.

(Keith Srakocic / Related Press)

“It blows my mind that I have no visual recollection of catching the ball. That wasn’t an easy ball to catch. It just doesn’t make any sense. How did I track it? How did I keep in stride? You normally don’t catch a ball in that way. If I had dived for it, I would have been ruled down because the rules were different back then.”

Within the stadium’s higher deck, 16-year-old Mike Bodura was watching the sport together with his father, a steelworker. The Steelers had been transferring away from them, which meant that the soccer had rocketed again of their path after Tatum’s punishing hit on Fuqua.

“You saw that collision in the middle of the field, and people around us slumped in their seats because we all figured the pass was incomplete,” mentioned Bodura, a lifelong Pittsburgher. “And then some guy near us yelled, ‘Hey, Franco’s got the ball!’ and we saw him running down the left sideline.”

Harris encountered Warren, the Raiders’ veteran cornerback, across the 10-yard line however managed to fend him off and run into the top zone, setting off pandemonium. Harris’ teammates mobbed him, and followers poured out of the stands. 5 seconds remained on the sport clock.

Artwork Rooney II, now proprietor and president of the Steelers, was 20 on the time and labored as an assistant gear supervisor for the crew that season. The play had unfolded proper in entrance of him.

“There were a lot of people on the field, and one of the things I remember most,” Rooney mentioned, “is that one of our former players from the ’60s, Brady Keys, ran onto the field and gave me a bear hug so hard that I almost passed out.”

Pittsburgh Steelers owner-president Art Rooney II.

Artwork Rooney II, now proprietor and president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was 20 years outdated when he witnessed the “Immaculate Reception” at Three Rivers Stadium.

(Gene J. Puskar / Related Press)

However ought to Harris’ landing rely? On the time, NFL guidelines said that an offensive participant was ineligible to catch the ball if it had caromed off certainly one of his teammates and not using a defensive participant additionally touching it. Had the ball bounced off Tatum, or had it struck Fuqua? Or had each touched it?

“I don’t think that any of us players knew the rule about two offensive players touching the ball, but the one guy who did was John Madden,” Villapiano mentioned, referring to the Corridor of Fame coach of the Raiders. “He was storming onto the field and trying to tell the officials about it.”

The officers huddled to attempt to kind out what had occurred, as your entire stadium waited for a verdict. “There were no replays on the scoreboard in those days, so you couldn’t see the play again,” Bodura factors out.

Finally somebody known as the press field and Steelers public relations director Joe Gordon answered.

“There was a phone in the dugout … and our stadium operations manager called me directly and said, ‘[Referee Fred] Swearingen wants to talk to [Art] McNally.’ He was the NFL supervisor of officials, who happened to be at the game,” mentioned Gordon, who dealt with PR for the Steelers from 1969 to 1998.

“So I handed the phone to McNally and I heard him say, ‘What did you see?’ He listened for a bit and then said, ‘Well, call it then.’ The whole conversation lasted 10 to 15 seconds.”

NFL officials confer on the validity of the "Immaculate Reception" as Raiders and Steelers huddle around them.

NFL officers confer on the validity of the “Immaculate Reception” as Raiders and Steelers gamers huddle round them. Oakland coach John Madden can be current (middle, again).

(Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame by way of Related Press)

“It was getting scary on the field. All it would have taken was for one person to throw a punch and things could have gotten really bad. Those Steelers fans were crazy.”

— Phil Villapiano, Raiders linebacker, on subject situations after “Immaculate Reception”

When the landing was confirmed, bedlam resumed. The Steelers kicked the additional level to make the ultimate rating 13-7, then fought their means by way of ecstatic followers to their locker room. The Raiders had been left offended, confused and bitterly disillusioned.

Villapiano, who stays agency in his perception that the soccer struck solely Fuqua and that Harris’ landing shouldn’t have counted, chalks up the officers’ ruling to home-field benefit.

“That’s just the way it is,” Villapiano mentioned. “It was getting scary on the field. All it would have taken was for one person to throw a punch and things could have gotten really bad. Those Steelers fans were crazy. I think they were just as bad as the fans in Philadelphia.”

Former Oakland Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano (left) and with former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris.

Former Oakland Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, left, doesn’t agree with the “Immaculate Reception” ruling in 1972 however has come to peace with the catch by Franco Harris, proper.

(D. Ross Cameron / Related Press)

In one other odd twist that day, Rooney’s grandfather, Artwork Sr., the Steelers’ founder and then-owner, didn’t get to see the play that gave his crew its first playoff victory after 40 years of futility.

Artwork Rooney Sr. made it a behavior to greet the gamers within the locker room once they got here off the sphere, win or lose, so he was on an elevator when Harris scored. When he stepped off the elevator, he heard the roar of the group and requested a safety guard what occurred, Gordon mentioned. The person replied, “You won!”

After celebrating together with his teammates within the locker room, Harris didn’t exit in town to bask within the victory. The 22-year-old had plans to go to his household for Christmas.

“I actually went to the airport right from the stadium,” Harris mentioned. “I went to grab a sandwich before my flight, and I walked in and the whole Raiders team was sitting there. It was a little awkward.

“I guess they were waiting for their charter, but I felt a chill go through the air. I was the last person they wanted to see. Only one of the players, Mike Siani, who I knew from a college all-star game, came up to say hello. Nobody else said anything to me.”

That night, Michael Ord, a reveler at a Pittsburgh bar, stood up and supplied a toast to what he known as the “Feast of the Immaculate Reception.”

His girlfriend on the time, Sharon Levosky, favored the title a lot that she known as one of many native TV stations and requested to talk to colourful sportscaster Myron Cope, a Pittsburgh establishment.

Bishop David Zubik, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Bishop David Zubik, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

(Keith Srakocic / Related Press)

“As a lifelong Steelers fan, I have always found spiritual meaning in the term ‘Immaculate Reception.’ ”

— Bishop David Zubik, on nickname for well-known catch by Franco Harris in 1972

Cope, who later created the Steelers’ ubiquitous Horrible Towel, was nonetheless at Three Rivers Stadium, Gordon mentioned, and Levosky’s name was patched by way of to him within the Steelers’ gear room.

Cope beloved the title Ord had provide you with however questioned whether or not it’d offend spiritual viewers, Gordon mentioned. He needn’t have frightened, apparently.

“As a lifelong Steelers fan, I have always found spiritual meaning in the term ‘Immaculate Reception,’ ” mentioned Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, who was a seminarian visiting his mother and father for Christmas that day. “The play especially made people aware of a spiritual dimension that exceeded a football game.”

Cope did the truth is use “Immaculate Reception” on his newscast, and the remainder is historical past. Soccer followers have now seen the play numerous occasions, and the NFL Community ranked it No. 1 on its record of the 100 best performs in league historical past. A statue depicting Harris catching the soccer greets vacationers at Pittsburgh Worldwide Airport (together with figures of George Washington and pioneering journalist Nellie Bly).

And the play sparks debates to today about who touched the soccer, Fuqua or Tatum.

Statues of the Steelers' Franco Harris and George Washington, the first U.S. president, at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Statues of the Steelers’ Franco Harris making his well-known 1972 “Immaculate Reception” and George Washington, the primary president of the USA, at Pittsburgh Worldwide Airport.

(Paul Spinelli / Related Press)

Fuqua, a flashy dresser who wore platform sneakers with see-through heels that had tropical fish swimming in them, at all times has refused to say who touched the ball. Tatum, who died in 2010 and was notorious for his crushing hits on receivers, at all times maintained that the ball ricocheted off Fuqua and will have been dominated useless when Harris caught it.

“I talked with Jack Tatum about the play a number of times, and his passion about it never dimmed,” mentioned Amy Trask, who was the Raiders’ chief govt from 1997 to 2013. “He was unequivocal in his view of what happened.”

Villapiano says it’s solely logical that the soccer struck Fuqua, not Tatum.

“I saw ‘Tates’ drill Fuqua in the back, so how could the ball have bounced off Jack?” he mentioned.

Though the Steelers misplaced the AFC championship recreation the week after the Immaculate Reception to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, 21-17, the victory over the Raiders marked a turning level.

Pittsburgh would go on to win 4 Tremendous Bowls in six seasons and declare the unofficial title of the NFL crew of the ’70s. That gave the town a much-needed elevate, Artwork Rooney II mentioned.

“That game and the success we had after that was something the city could really take pride in,” he mentioned. “It was a tough time here in the ’70s with the steel industry dying, but the Steelers gave people something to hang on to during those tough times.”

The Raiders, for his or her half, continued to dominate the AFC West and finally gained Tremendous Bowl titles within the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons. They confronted the Steelers within the postseason 5 seasons in a row, from 1972 to 1976; within the remaining three seasons, the winner of their matchup went on to win the Tremendous Bowl.

“For a concentrated period of time, I think that was the most intense rivalry that pro football and sports in general has ever seen,” mentioned creator Ed Gruver, who co-wrote a guide concerning the groups’ rivalry, “Hell with the Lid Off.”

 Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris stands on the spot of the "Immaculate Reception"

Former Steelers star working again Franco Harris stands subsequent to the marked spot of the “Immaculate Reception.”

(Gene J. Puskar / Related Press)

The fiftieth anniversary of the Immaculate Reception will likely be a giant deal in Pittsburgh. Among the many scheduled occasions is a ceremony Friday on the actual spot the place Harris caught the ball in long-demolished Three Rivers Stadium (a marker there commemorates the play). On Christmas Eve, the Steelers will host the Raiders, who now play in Las Vegas, with Harris’ jersey No. 32 being retired at halftime.

Harris, who was inducted into the Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame in 1990 and rushed for greater than 12,000 yards throughout his profession, would chuckle typically when watching himself catch the soccer in replays from that day in 1972.

“I wasn’t running very fast,” he mentioned, “but I guess it was the right speed at the right time. And in the right place.”

Though Villapiano’s crew misplaced the sport and he believes the officers made the incorrect choice, he doesn’t tire of speaking concerning the play.

“It’s one of the craziest things, and nobody knows the answers,” he mentioned. “That’s why people are still so interested in it and why it keeps getting more and more immaculate.”