For The Tribune-Democrat
Imagine, if you will, a 40-year-old professional football franchise, a laughingstock organization celebrated for its ineptitude, owned by a colorful yet saintly cigar-smoking Irishman. Originally called the Pirates and later the Steelers, the team was dubbed by the media and long-frustrated fans as “Rooney U,” whose proficiency was of college level, reflecting the team’s lack of success in the NFL.
But in their 40th year, on a cold December afternoon, in a matter of 22 seconds, the city and the team’s fortunes, mindset and image went from loser to winner in that Cinderella moment - forever known as the “Feast of the Immaculate Reception.”
Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of not only the greatest moment in Steelers history, but of the NFL’s history as well. Those of a certain age remember where they were when they heard the news that the Steelers won that game.
I was in our living room listening to the game on the radio (the old blackout rule was in effect, preventing fans from watching the game on TV in the Pittsburgh market) and my brothers were upstairs in their bedroom listening to the game on their radio. Mom and Dad were at the store doing shopping for Christmas dinner, as it was Christmas Eve eve.
The game/event was the launching point of the bitter rivalry between the two combatants in that game: The Steelers and the hated Oakland Raiders, who were in essence the Steelers’ “evil twin” in the NFL. A playoff game of tremendous importance, the winners would face the unbeaten Miami Dolphins to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
It was a close game for much of the time, with the Steelers leading 6-0 on two field goals. With little over a minute left to play, Raider quarterback Ken
Stabler scored a touchdown from the
30 yard line on a busted play, and the Raiders took the lead, 7-6. After three failed attempts, the Steelers remained at their 40 yard line, facing a loss with one chance left, on fourth down and with 22 seconds remaining on the game clock. Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw took the ball, scrambled to avoid being sacked and heaved the ball to an open man, his running back ‘Frenchy’ Fuqua. However, Raider defensive back Jack Tatum (known as the “Assassin”) slammed into Fuqua to prevent him from catching the ball.
What happened next was the source of great controversy. But history records that the ball hit Tatum on the back and ricocheted 15 yards backward to the waiting hands of Steelers rookie running back Franco Harris. Harris made a shoestring catch of the ball and lumbered into the end zone, giving the Steelers the lead again, with only seconds left on the clock.
So who do we credit for the Immaculate Reception? We credit Steeler fan Michael Ord for coining the phrase and Myron Cope for immortalizing said phrase. We credit Bradshaw for his scrambling ability, quick thinking and great arm. We credit rookie Harris for following through on the play (his duty was originally to throw a block) to give Bradshaw an extra receiver to throw to (as well as credit his former college coach Joe Paterno, who told Harris to always go after the ball). We credit tight end John McMakin for keeping any Raiders away from Harris as he headed to the end zone. And finally we credit referee Fred Swearingen and his officiating crew for making the right decision (touchdown) on the play.
The play has gained mythic proportions over the years, so a few facts need to be stated, which are even more interesting than the legends:
• There were 50,350 fans who actually watched the game at Three Rivers Stadium, less the hundreds who had left or were leaving the stadium after the Raiders scored the go-ahead touchdown, thus missing the historic reception.
• Venerable Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. actually missed the Immaculate Reception. He was waiting to enter the third floor press box elevator, to go greet his team when they returned to the locker room and console them for what he thought would be losing the game.
• And Steelers’ announcer Jack Fleming got to call the play alone, as Myron Cope left the broadcast booth at the two-minute warning so that he could interview the players as they entered the locker room. While Cope missed calling the play, he was able to witness it, standing just beyond the end zone that Harris galloped into.
The next week the Steelers almost beat Miami, but lost on a fake punt by the Dolphins. But the Steelers were still a “few bricks shy of a load.” However, two seasons later they would win the first of their four Super Bowl championships in six years, and thus the legendary Steeler Dynasty, led by the great “Emperor Chaz,” coach Chuck Noll, would begin.
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