This story, by correspondent Pat Livingston, first appeared in the Jan. 6, 1973, issue of The Sporting News under the headline, “Steelers Strut With Angels in Their Backfield”, recounting what came to be known as “the Immaculate Reception.”
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Hustling Franco Harris, snatching a ricocheting ball off his shoelaces, raced 42 yards down the sideline for the game-winning touchdown as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ miracle finish edged the Oakland Raiders, 13-7, at Three Rivers Stadium December 23.
The sensational touchdown by the 230-pound rookie from Penn State turned what appeared to be certain defeat for the Steelers into a triumph that plummeted them into the American Conference championship against the Miami Dolphins.
Only a minute earlier, the Raiders, thoroughly dominated for 57 minutes by the aggressive Pittsburgh defense, had gone into the lead, 7-6, when Ken Stabler, a back-up quarterback, took them 80 yards in a 12-play sequence. Stabler culminated the drive himself, sprinting away from his pocket at the Steeler 30 and racing untouched into the end zone.
Stabler’s run, which burned a safety blitz by the Steelers, should have been enough to demoralize the young Steelers, and a year ago perhaps it would have. But the 1972 Steelers have been fighting adversity all season, and the Oakland game was scarcely an exception.
ALTHOUGH REQUIRING a miracle play to win, the Steelers didn’t think so much was expected of them.
“I thought we could win with a field goal,” said quarterback Terry Bradshaw, explaining what he had thought as he led the Pittsburgh offensive unit onto the field for the race against the clock. “I knew if we could connect with three or four passes, we’d get within range.”
Only 1:13 was left as the Steelers put the ball in play at the 20 after Jerry DePoyster’s kickoff had hit the goal posts. Bradshaw passed for nine yards to Frenchy Fuqua, and he followed that up with an 11-yard pass to Harris which brought the ball to the Pittsburgh 40.
But three successive passes fell incomplete, two of them batted down by Jack Tatum, who had been making big plays for the Raiders all afternoon. Tatum’s biggest play earlier came when he filled a hole on fourth-and-one at the Raiders’ 30, stopping Fuqua cold and foiling a first-down bid by the Steelers.
That play was to figure later in the post-game second-guessing.
All year, Chuck Noel, coach of the Steelers, regularly has gone for the points when faced with similar alternatives.
“We had only a yard to go,” explained the Steeler coach. “I though we could make it.”
“I DON’T THINK you’ll see me decide that way again,” he conceded. There were 22 seconds on the clock when Bradshaw squatted behind the center, fourth down and 10 yards to go, and defeat staring the Steelers squarely in the face. At that time, Noll’s first-quarter decision loomed bigger and bigger in the questioning minds of the 50,350 who had filled every available seat in Three Rivers Stadium.
The Raiders got a penetrating rush as Bradshaw dropped back, and as the pressure mounted to his left, the Steeler quarterback sprinted right. Just before he was decked, Bradshaw spied Fuqua breaking his curl pattern and streaking downfield. Bradshaw rifled the ball to the running back.
The ball and Tatum reached Fuqua at precisely the same instant, but Tatum got a fist in front of the throw and knocked the ball backward.
Just before the ricocheting pigskin hit the ground, the speeding Harris pulled it in and headed for the sideline.
As a couple of Raiders congratulated Tatum, patting him on the back, Harris sailed by and encountered no opposition until Jimmy Warren, another Oakland safety man, angled him toward the sideline at the 10. Warren shoved the flying fullback, but didn’t even slow Franco’s charge. Franco went into the end zone standing up with the clock showing five seconds left in the game.
THE RAIDERS argued furiously that the ball had bounced off Fuqua’s shoulder pads, but referee Fred Swearingen, after consulting with Art McNally, supervisor of officials for the American Conference, ruled Tatum also had touched it. Unless Tatum got a hand on the ball, it would have been an incomplete pass for two offensive men cannot touch a pass until a defensive player touches it, too.
Swearingen left the field and went to the baseball dugout where he used a press phone to talk with McNally. After returning to the field, Swearingen lifted his arms, signaling a touchdown.
While the Bradshaw-to-Harris play was a heartbreaker for Oakland, it would have been equally heartbreaking had the Raiders won on Stabler’s run. Until that time, the Steelers had played a near-perfect defensive game.
Until he was replaced by Stabler in the fourth quarter, Daryle Lamonica, the Oakland quarterback, was harassed mercilessly by the Steeler line of L.C. Greenwood, Joe Green, Ernie Holmes, Ben McGee and Dwight White, who played practically the entire game on a pair of frightfully banged-up knees. Under extreme pressure all day — four of his passes were batted down by linemen — Lamonica connected on only six of 18 attempts for a paltry 45 yards. Meanwhile, Marv Hubbard, the Raiders’ 1,000-yard runner, faced similar pressure.
HUBBARD, WHO gained 23 yards in a game-opening drive that carried to the Steeler 48, was practically blanked the rest of the day. The former Colgate star finished up with 44 yards in 14 attempts. And with Lamonica and Hubbard blanketed, the Raiders didn’t see Steeler territory again until Stabler led them on the late-game TD drive.
Of course, the Steelers weren’t faring much better against Oakland’s lightning-quick line. They did get close enough for a pair of field goals by Roy Gerela — the first from the 18 in the third period and the second from the 29 in the fourth.
The Steelers felt they should have won, 6-0.
“It was a cheap touchdown,” said quarterback Terry Hanratty of the late-game pyrotechnics. “I’m glad we got the last one.”
Bradshaw admitted later that he hadn’t seen the pass completion. Sacked as he released the ball, Bradshaw got back to his feet in time to see Harris darting across the goal line.
“I saw Frenchy all alone down there,” said Bradshaw, “and I threw the ball. The next thing I saw was Franco running with it. Man, I thought I had hit him right on the numbers.”
THE FIRST HALF ended scoreless, marking the 12th time in 15 games that the Steelers’ defense had blanked an opponent before intermission. Stabler’s touchdown ended a Steeler string of 17 quarters without yielding a touchdown.
Tatum, of course, insisted he never touched the ball, that it had bounced off Fuqua.
“I didn’t hit the ball,” he said. “I was covering the tight end on the play, but I pulled back when I saw their guy cutting across the middle.
“He cut in front of me,” continued the Oakland safety man. “I thought I might have a chance for the ball until he got in front of me. Then I just went for the man.”
John Madden, the Raider coach, was stunned both by the outcome and Swearingen’s ruling.
“It seems unfair,” said Madden, shaking his head. “This is one of those things you have to cope with. You can’t make excuses.
“If the officials really knew what happened, they’d have called it right away. But first they went into a huddle. This has to mean they didn’t know,” reasoned Madden.
The story of the game, though, was the Steelers’ defense. Knowing White, the Steelers’ sophomore defensive end, was hurt, the Raiders tested him early and vigorously. “We knew White was hurt,” said Madden, “and we wanted to see how he was feeling.”
WHITE WASN’T feeling too bad, considering the pressure he exerted on Lamonica. Fred Biletnikoff and Mike Siani, Oakland’s wide receivers, caught four passes between them for 35 yards.
“Their safeties were playing so far back,” said Siani, “that we couldn’t get behind them. Their backfield has improved since the beginning of the year. They really shut us off.”
Chuck Noll, coach of the Steelers, was characteristically uncommunicative. “Our coverage was just fine and we pressured them,” said Noll, pointing out that the Raiders had passed for only 78 yards.
As to Franco Harris’ big play in the clutch, Noll grinned broadly. “Franco had been blocking on the play and then went out,” he said. “He was hustling — and good things happen to people who hustle.”
Franco himself was more communicative.
“I thought I’d sneak out and be a safety valve,” he said, explaining what he had done when he saw the pressure building up around Bradshaw. Franco saw the pass as it headed toward Fuqua and then he saw it bounce into the air.
“I said, “Oh, no,'” said Harris. “But then I saw the ball coming toward me, and I figured we’re not out of this yet.”