The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

January 6, 2013

JIM SIEHL | Slo-mo solves miracle’s mystery

— There is no doubt! The evidence is indisputable.

A 40-year-old argument associated with the NFL’s greatest play – the Immaculate Reception – is no longer a mystery. Not in my eyes. I know absolutely for certain that Franco Harris’s last-play dash into football immortality came on a legal play.

Terry Bradshaw’s ricocheting pass that Harris scooped just off the Three Rivers Stadium turf and broke downfield for a game-deciding, winning touchdown came off the Oakland Raiders defender and not the Pittsburgh receiver.

The importance of the source of the ricochet is vital because in 1972, NFL rules did not permit advancing a fumble or, in this case, a deflection, from teammate to teammate.

Responding to opportunity, there I was watching with considerable excitement a frame-by-frame, slow-motion descent of the famous forward pass seen on television screens millions of times worldwide.

For several weeks leading up to the four-decade-old anniversary (Dec. 23), Franco was being featured in a commercial that included his storybook catch resulting from a collision between Oakland’s fierce-hitting Jack Tatum and the Steelers’ colorful, flashy-dressing halfback Frenchy Fuqua.

As the commercial started playing once more, I seized the moment to stop the DVR recording, roll it back and press the advance button, hoping for slow-motion action. And there it was happening before my grateful eyes:

Bradshaw fades to pass, eludes two rushers, cocks his powerful arm and unleashes a high arching throw that frame-by-frame slowly is inching down the middle of the field. I watched as Fuqua and Tatum came into view and quickly realized – what the blur of live action could not – that the football was heading directly towards the chest of Tatum. I stopped the flight of the ball just before the contact point, assured there was no way, no time for the ball to escape Tatum. Why I did not permit the ball to strike Tatum had everything to do with extending the highly exhilarating sense of satisfaction. I wanted to savor the obvious. Or unknowingly, perhaps, did I want to leave a little room for doubt for those, like the late Steelers owner Art Rooney, who prefer the allure uncertainty provides to football’s unmatched play?

Arnold Gabelli of Nanty Glo, a lifetime Pittsburgh sports fan, is not surprised at my findings. He said he long ago theorized that the distance the ricochet traveled had to come off the momentum supplied by the charging Tatum and not Fuqua, who was running away from the ball.

When Bradshaw threw the ball, the Steelers were facing a fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds left in the first-round playoff game. The collision between Tatum and Fuqua occurred at the Raider 40-yard line. How Harris, who had been blocking for Bradshaw, got into a position to catch the deflection is a testimony to the Hall of Famer’s football instincts and perhaps the coaching he received under coach Joe Paterno at Penn State.

Harris himself has tried, but he has no recollection as to how he found himself “at the right place at the right time,” his explanation for being in a position to make history possible. He remembers only running down the sidelines realizing that unless he scored his heroics were for naught, according to a published article by Alan Robinson, former Associated Press reporter now on the staff of Trib Total Media of Greensburg.

Robinson also wrote:

“Physics tests performed at Carnegie Mellon University more than a decade ago and an unearthed video of the game, which shows the deflection more clearly than the much-viewed NBC Films version, point clearly to Tatum as the man who created the ricochet.”

Although I controlled four and later five season Steelers tickets from the time Three Rivers opened until it was closed (31 years), I missed the explosive excitement and jubilation that erupted as Franco stiff-armed his way past the last Raider at the 10-yard line. But I did see all the drama unfold on live television.

The playoff battle with the Raiders was blacked out in Greater Johnstown as were all areas within a 60-mile-radius or so of Pittsburgh, a routine television practice in the early ’70s to induce sellout crowds. My son Dan and I watched the game in the Bedford home of my mother-in-law, Anna Cuppett.

I still recall the sinking feeling that all was lost as Bradshaw’s pass caromed away from the target – an obvious incompletion. A split second later, there’s Franco coming into the picture racing down the field with the ball. Despair that quick turned to joy. It was a miracle to be sure. Unbelievable!!  

Spectacular plays occur every week in the National Football League, some bringing reversal outcomes only originating in the minds of fiction writers. Why the Immaculate Reception (the name suggested by a fan to broadcaster Myron Cope) still is so revered has a lot to do with the circumstances. It was fourth down. Bradshaw’s pass was broken up. Game over. Then came Franco to the rescue.

Robinson writes that the talented Steelers still would have gone on to dominate the ’70s and win four Super Bowls in six years; but it was Franco who jump-started the dynasty and provided the confidence that the Black and Gold could compete at a high level and win the big games.

Those were the days!

Jim Siehl of Schellsburg, formerly of Richland Township, retired in 1991 after 44 years as a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat.

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