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Madden’s done talking about the Immaculate Reception

Madden AP

On Sunday, as the Steelers host the Bengals in a game that has Pittsburgh’s postseason chances hanging in the balance, the home team will be commemorating the 40th anniversary of the most famous — and notorious — play in NFL history.

On December 23, 1972, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a ball that was (or wasn’t) touched first by Raiders safety Jack Tatum and not by Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua, that didn’t (or did) hit the turf just as Steelers running back Franco Harris caught it in full stride before running toward the end zone as Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano wasn’t (or was) clipped by a blocker who prevented Villapiano from making the tackle.

The Steelers won the game after referee Fred Swearingen called the press box to speak to NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally, who didn’t (or did) look at a replay of the what-just-happened moment before consulting with Swearingen, who wasn’t (or was) fearful of his own safety amid a mob of Pittsburghers who would not have reacted well to the news that a now-defunct rule regarding the initial touching of a pass by an offensive player had wiped out the playoff victory.

Those and other questions permeate the latest installment from NFL Films’ A Football Life series, which focuses on the play that gradually and, from the perspective of the Steelers’ organization, reluctantly came to be known as the Immaculate Reception.

The conflict still resonates four decades later, with former Raiders coach John Madden refusing to be interviewed for the documentary.  In past comments on the topic, Madden has suggested that the outcome was determined via the unauthorized use of replay review.  “That’s a helluva goddamn game that has to go down to someone up in the press box,” Madden is shown telling reporters immediately after the game.

Though it appears that the ball hit Tatum before Fuqua and that Franco would have sped by Villapiano if he hadn’t been clipped (and it looks like he wasn’t clipped), the biggest lingering question is whether the tip of the ball struck the ground just as Harris secured it.

Harris says, “I can’t say.  From the time Bradshaw threw the ball, it was like I lost all sense of consciousness.  Before I knew it, I’m up and running.  Before that, everything is just a blur.”

Raiders safety George Atkinson insists the tip of the ball touched the ground.  Bradshaw believes that, because Harris won’t clearly say he didn’t trap the ball against the ground, he probably did.

If the ball hit the ground, the contact came just as Harris caught it, because the NFL Films footage shows no bouncing or other movement of the ball, which ended up after the mandatory PAT in the possession of a fan who built a bank vault to keep it safe and secure.

The value of the ball pales in comparison to the value of the play to the mythology of pro football.  Even though the Steelers would lose the following week to the undefeated Dolphins in the AFC title game, the play is widely regarded as the moment at which the fortunes of a long-suffering franchise forever changed.

It also made an indelible impression on a generation of fans.  Growing up 60 miles from Pittsburgh in the days when even the sold out games were blacked out, the antenna attached to our chimney somehow picked up an NBC affiliate that was just beyond the reach of the 75-mile no-broadcast zone.  Though there were maybe only 10 neighbors at most in the room when Harris made it to the end zone, to a seven-year-old the noise made it feel like 10,000.

And at that moment I first realized there’s something about NFL football that was and still is different than anything else I’d ever experienced.

Tune in to NFL Network at 8:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday to experience one of the most comprehensive looks that ever has been compiled of one of the most important moments in the history of pro football.

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56 Responses to “Madden’s done talking about the Immaculate Reception”
  1. joetoronto says: Dec 19, 2012 5:45 AM

    “from the perspective of the Steelers’ organization, reluctantly became to be known as the Immaculate Reception.”

    Outside of Pittsburgh, it’s known as “The Immaculate Deception.”

  2. nogoodell says: Dec 19, 2012 6:08 AM

    No Catch

  3. mitchitized says: Dec 19, 2012 6:10 AM

    The comical part about this play is that there simply are not enough camera angles to know for sure if any rules were broken.

    Folks just assume that there’s conclusive proof either way; but even in 2012 I see at least one challenged play per game that cannot be overturned due to lack of clear evidence.

    It is amazing (and I admit, a bit embarrassing as a fellow human) to think that 80,000 people cannot all agree on what they saw, while all of them were watching the exact same thing.

  4. steelers1981 says: Dec 19, 2012 6:17 AM

    I can’t believe Madden wouldn’t comment. I love his telling of the story and I’m a Steeler fan who was 9 years old when I watched this play on TV with my recently deceased father. Great memory!

  5. crippled4life says: Dec 19, 2012 6:28 AM

    As a 49 year old Raiders fan it still stings 40 years later,

  6. jaypell says: Dec 19, 2012 6:28 AM

    And there u have it…..steelernation was born….Here we go Steelers here we go…..

  7. goraidersgospurs says: Dec 19, 2012 6:35 AM

    Madden & George Foreman to men that made way more money outside of there sports, gotta respect them!!!

  8. pencilmonkeymagic says: Dec 19, 2012 6:50 AM

    But I thought the Steelers were beyond reproach? Will PFT be shut down now for such blasphemy? Or did Harris just cheat?

  9. FinFan68 says: Dec 19, 2012 7:02 AM

    It’s odd that the Raiders have been involved in so many infamous plays/games: immaculate reception, holy roller, sea of hands, tuck rule, heidi game

  10. tomthebombtracy says: Dec 19, 2012 7:04 AM

    I REALLY was one of the 60,000 or so at the game although that number seems to have added at least another zero over the years. I saw the pass and the hit…..but missed the deflection. Next thing I know Franco is crossing the goal line.

    NFL.Com has a great tease on their site for those unavailable get NFL Network or can’t watch tonight.

    Steelers dedicating a really cool monument Saturday on the exact spot…not far from the spot of home plate of Three Rivers. Just 8 days after the IC, we lost Roberto Clemente to a rescue mission plane crash. That same ’72 season he stroked his 3,000th, and last, hit. I was there, too. A double off of Jon Matlack.

  11. aldavisisthenfl says: Dec 19, 2012 7:22 AM

    I think as a Raider fan and I saw them both live……..the tuck rule (total bs) game was far worse…..

  12. araidersfan says: Dec 19, 2012 8:05 AM

    As a Raider fan I can live MUCH MORE with “immaculate reception” ruling than the Lytle Fumble in the January 1/1978 AFC Championship game against the Broncos (coming up on the 35th anniversay of that fiasco).

    With the “immaculate reception” at least there is legitimate dispute about whether the ball was deflected off of Tatum or Fuqua.

    However in the ’77 AFC Championship is no room for doubt that Jack Tatum’s hit forced Lytle to fumble near the Raiders goal line and that Mike McCoy recovered the fumble. The replay clearly showed that Lytle fumbled without hitting the ground and the play was not blown dead before McCoy’s recovery. Giving Denver the ball back resulted in a big point swing in what turned out to be a 20-17 game as the Broncos scored on the next play.

    Also the “immaculate reception” ruling was in the divisional round but the Lytle fumble ruling was in the AFC Championship game and prevented the Raiders from going back to the Super Bowl and possibly getting a 2nd consecutive Lombardi. Public opinion even forced Rozelle to issue an apology for the blown play to the Raiders org. and was probably a driving force for incorporating instant replay into the game-process.

  13. huffdaddyco says: Dec 19, 2012 8:06 AM

    Harris says, “I can’t say. From the time Bradshaw threw the ball, it was like I lost all sense of consciousness. Before I knew it, I’m up and running. Before that, everything is just a blur.”

    Translation – It hit the ground and I know it.

  14. tomthebombtracy says: Dec 19, 2012 8:08 AM

    Finfan68:

    One other rule the Raiders (and Steelers ) are responsible for. No hitting beyond 5 yards.
    The way Mel Blount and George Atkinson and the others used to mug receivers in that great rivalry changed the rules.

  15. ggreen7 says: Dec 19, 2012 8:13 AM

    Any Raiders fan that is crying about this or the tuck play only has to go back to the Ben Dreith call in 1976 to see that it goes both ways. The Raiders won a tainted Super Bowl from that call and watching the replay years later only validates it further. The tuck game was so fitting – the perfect revenge for the Patriots.

  16. jgava19 says: Dec 19, 2012 8:14 AM

    The tuck rule game was BS. But don’t forget, the correct call was made, only because of the stupid rule that was in place.

  17. philvil41 says: Dec 19, 2012 8:29 AM

    The Raiders were screwed that day, just as they were in 1977 vs Denver{the Lytle fumble},and in 2002 {the Tuck}.Three of the worst calls in the history of the N.F.L.That being said,the Raiders STILL have a great history of winning 3 Super Bowls.Although the last decade has been terrible,keep the faith Raidernation,they will turn it around and become a consistent winner again.

  18. kcsam76 says: Dec 19, 2012 8:41 AM

    I agree with Joetoronto. The Raiders matched up well with the Dolphins, too. Had they won this game, they possibly defeat the Dolphins and the undefeated season never happens.

  19. maddog111 says: Dec 19, 2012 8:43 AM

    That play was the best thing to ever happen sports-wise for all the key participants. None of them were making much money then, but they’re all still relevent 40 years later becuase of that play. They’ve made more money at card shows talking about that play then they ever made actually playing the game. And I really don’t believe any of them are sure what really happened.

    Also, people saying that started the Steeler dynasty of the 70’s are incorrect. They lost the following week and didn’t even make it to the Super Bowl that year.

  20. tdk24 says: Dec 19, 2012 9:03 AM

    “The comical part about this play is that there simply are not enough camera angles to know for sure if any rules were broken.”
    _______________________

    I believe there was a camera angle showing the tip of the ball hit the ground, but NFL films mysteriously cropped that shot to protect the officials.

  21. pgh15212 says: Dec 19, 2012 9:11 AM

    Yep, this play is what started the steelers dynasty of the seventies.

    It surely wasnt the draft classes with all of those hall of famers.

  22. cometkazie says: Dec 19, 2012 9:18 AM

    If that was the first using a replay to make a decision, it was interminable then, too. They didn’t set a very good example.

    Kinda like the Billy Cannon run. Tiger Stadium can’t hold all the people that “saw” it.

    I watched the IR on good old B&W TV. Still remember it.

  23. vicnocal says: Dec 19, 2012 9:20 AM

    There’s nothing BS about this play. No touching by Fuqua, no clipping, no ball hitting the ground crap.
    What happened was what you see at first glance. A pass is thrown, gets deflected, Franco Harris catches the deflection and races to the end zone. Only nerds and self-pitying Raider fans are arguing otherwise.
    No need to overthink this one.

  24. redtodd78 says: Dec 19, 2012 10:23 AM

    Roger Goodell just watched the film and fined Jack Tatum’s estate (he died in 2010) for a hit on a defenseless receiver.

  25. apwarrior250 says: Dec 19, 2012 10:41 AM

    No Catch.

  26. mostlombardisintheleague says: Dec 19, 2012 11:46 AM

    As the film replay shows, …”If the ball hit the ground, the contact came just as Harris caught it, because the NFL Films footage shows no bouncing or other movement of the ball”.

    Franco’s split-second reaction that clearly put his hands perfectly on the ball at the last possible microsecond is astonishing. Fantastic athelete making a fantastic play. At the most extreme, the tip of the ball may have grazed the tippy top of a few particles of turf. Not enough evidence to overturn and is entirely possible the ball never touched the turf.

  27. westcoastraider says: Dec 19, 2012 11:53 AM

    @ jaypell

    There is, and always will be One Nation… Raider Nation…

  28. tastybasslines says: Dec 19, 2012 11:56 AM

    Immaculate Reception, then, the Snow Game only 10 years ago. Who ever saw a QB make a forward pass with 2 hands? The league has screwed over the Raiders for as long as the NFL has been around. There has been tons of incidents like this.

  29. theageofquarrel says: Dec 19, 2012 12:37 PM

    westcoastraider says: Dec 19, 2012 11:53 AM

    @ jaypell

    There is, and always will be One Nation… Raider Nation…

    Yeah,that’s why all Raider home games are blacked out every week.
    Just look in the stands anywhere the Steelers play outside of Pittsburgh.

  30. starderup says: Dec 19, 2012 12:46 PM

    It was a bad call. Incomplete pass. I watched it live on tv and could see it without even having to watch the replay.
    Immaculate Deception.

  31. latrobe21 says: Dec 19, 2012 1:02 PM

    @ tastybasslines,

    I think the league has only tried to screw the Raiders since incidents like the Dave Casper “rolly fumble,” deflated footballs, stickum, etc. You usually get what you deserve.

  32. footballfan says: Dec 19, 2012 1:18 PM

    starderup says: Dec 19, 2012 12:46 PM

    It was a bad call. Incomplete pass. I watched it live on tv and could see it without even having to watch the replay.
    Immaculate Deception.

    *******

    40 years and they still whine

  33. jdhein22 says: Dec 19, 2012 1:21 PM

    This is well-written. It made me want to watch something I feel has already been beaten to a bloody pulp.

  34. westcoastraider says: Dec 19, 2012 1:30 PM

    theageofquarrel says:
    Dec 19, 2012 12:37 PM

    Yeah,that’s why all Raider home games are blacked out every week.
    Just look in the stands anywhere the Steelers play outside of Pittsburgh.
    —————————————————

    Yea bro don’t know what nfl your watching, but in the last two seasons, we’ve only been lacked out once, as terrible as we’ve been we’re still filling the stands..

    Nice try though,

  35. Deb says: Dec 19, 2012 1:37 PM

    The one irrefutable fact in all this is that the immediate naked-eye ruling on the field was TD. And if we’re still debating the particulars 40 years later, then there wasn’t enough video evidence to overturn that ruling. Not in 1972. Not in 2012. So the TD would stand. There’s nothing deceptive about it.

  36. jeffshana says: Dec 19, 2012 2:20 PM

    Madden refusing to talk about something that makes him bitter?

    That’s what separates him from a Packers fan; class.

  37. mrstpaul says: Dec 19, 2012 2:24 PM

    Really looking forward to watching this tonight. Atkinson and Villipiano are really entertaining whenever they pop up on NFL Network.

  38. Mr. Wright 212 says: Dec 19, 2012 2:29 PM

    araidersfan says: Dec 19, 2012 8:05 AM

    As a Raider fan I can live MUCH MORE with “immaculate reception” ruling than the Lytle Fumble in the January 1/1978 AFC Championship game against the Broncos (coming up on the 35th anniversay of that fiasco).

    With the “immaculate reception” at least there is legitimate dispute about whether the ball was deflected off of Tatum or Fuqua.

    However in the ’77 AFC Championship is no room for doubt that Jack Tatum’s hit forced Lytle to fumble near the Raiders goal line and that Mike McCoy recovered the fumble. The replay clearly showed that Lytle fumbled without hitting the ground and the play was not blown dead before McCoy’s recovery. Giving Denver the ball back resulted in a big point swing in what turned out to be a 20-17 game as the Broncos scored on the next play.

    Also the “immaculate reception” ruling was in the divisional round but the Lytle fumble ruling was in the AFC Championship game and prevented the Raiders from going back to the Super Bowl and possibly getting a 2nd consecutive Lombardi. Public opinion even forced Rozelle to issue an apology for the blown play to the Raiders org. and was probably a driving force for incorporating instant replay into the game-process.
    —————

    I think that play also helped push Madden to retire. He was tired of the agony of losing, albeit with one of the best records of all time, but he said that losing heartbreaking games like that became too much for him.

  39. ron05342 says: Dec 19, 2012 2:31 PM

    I remember watching the game on TV…I was 14 years old at the time.

    The camera angle was the same as it was now: directed parallel to the yard lines. Bradshaw is scrambling, scrambling, scrambling…finally fires a bullet and it seemed to bounce off both Fuqua and Tatum at the same time.

    The ball bounced so far back that the camera did not show Harris catching the ball. So that angle was lost…next thing I see is Harris running into the camera angle down the sidelines.

    One hell of a play for ages.

  40. maddogwhite says: Dec 19, 2012 3:04 PM

    The Lytle fumble and the Tuck Rule were shams — Raiders got screwed in both games. Also Ray Guy and Snake Stabler should be in the Hall of Fame.

    The Raiders also helped the Jets, Chiefs, Colts, Dolphins and Steelers by providing such stiff challenges in the Conference/AFL title games, that they were battle tested by the Super Bowls. The Raiders are due a lot of credit for the early title success of the AFL/AFC teams.

    That said, the Sugar Bear Hamilton 1976 call was TOTALLY bogus and the Holy Roller was blatant cheating — or at least a forward lateral.

    Oh and Harris did catch that ball…

  41. bobzilla1001 says: Dec 19, 2012 3:48 PM

    Greatest single play in NFL history!!!

  42. Deb says: Dec 19, 2012 5:09 PM

    @Mr. Wright …

    John Madden retired following the 1978 season–six years after the Immaculate Reception. The Raiders won the Super Bowl the year before but failed to make the playoffs in 1978. He’d been struggling with ulcers and gave that as the reason for his retirement. Please … don’t overly mythologize this thing. If the Immaculate Reception pushed Madden to retire, he sure took a long time to topple.

  43. Mr. Wright 212 says: Dec 19, 2012 5:55 PM

    Deb says: Dec 19, 2012 5:09 PM

    @Mr. Wright …

    John Madden retired following the 1978 season–six years after the Immaculate Reception. The Raiders won the Super Bowl the year before but failed to make the playoffs in 1978. He’d been struggling with ulcers and gave that as the reason for his retirement. Please … don’t overly mythologize this thing. If the Immaculate Reception pushed Madden to retire, he sure took a long time to topple.
    ————–

    Please… don’t mention my name unless you know what you’re talking about. I was responding to the Lytle “fumble” in January 1978. I know what I am talking about.

  44. cometkazie says: Dec 19, 2012 6:03 PM

    Deb is right – here as well as on the college board.
    :)

  45. Deb says: Dec 19, 2012 6:31 PM

    @Mr. Wright …

    Oh my … so sorry to interrupt your discussion of the Lytle fumble … on the Immaculate Reception thread. My apologies for mentioning your name.

    @cometkazie …

    Thank you ;)

  46. radrntn says: Dec 19, 2012 6:39 PM

    that was the greatest raiders team ever that lost that game…iI find it ironic that this started the steelers dynasty, the same way the tuck started the patriots.

  47. raiderapologist says: Dec 19, 2012 6:51 PM

    ggreen7 says: Dec 19, 2012 8:13 AM

    Any Raiders fan that is crying about this or the tuck play only has to go back to the Ben Dreith call in 1976 to see that it goes both ways. The Raiders won a tainted Super Bowl from that call and watching the replay years later only validates it further. The tuck game was so fitting – the perfect revenge for the Patriots.
    ————
    Hamilton wasn’t giving Stabler the business, but that doesn’t make the Super Bowl a tainted win for Oakland.

  48. geezohman says: Dec 19, 2012 9:46 PM

    how long its been? 40 years… you’re worse than a spurned woman…

    Lord lets move on from it already !

  49. jackericsson says: Dec 19, 2012 10:16 PM

    You mean all it takes to get Madden to shut up is mention the Immaculate Reception! BOOM! Immaculate Reception! Immaculate Reception! Immaculate Reception!

  50. mazblast says: Dec 19, 2012 11:36 PM

    Do Madden and the other members of that overrated Raiders “dynasty” (which won all of one Super Bowl) want some 40-year-old cheese to go with their 40-year-old whine?

    Good catch (ironically, the only significant reception of Franco’s career), TD, Steelers win, Raiders lose yet another playoff game under the colorful but also severely overrated Madden.

  51. platinumraider32 says: Dec 20, 2012 2:59 PM

    FinFan68 says:
    Dec 19, 2012 7:02 AM
    It’s odd that the Raiders have been involved in so many infamous plays/games: immaculate reception, holy roller, sea of hands, tuck rule, heidi game

    —————————————————–

    You forgot the “Ghost to the Post”.

  52. griblets says: Dec 21, 2012 10:18 PM

    22 seconds left on their own 40 yard line, needing at least a FG attempt…

    Anybody else find it amusing that the Steelers’ personnel package included 2 RB’s and a TE? The only skill position players not involved in the play were the WR’s. Didn’t anybody in the 70’s think it might be a good idea to put more than 2 WR’s on the field in that situation? The game has certainly evolved.

  53. bubbahotepp says: Dec 22, 2012 1:14 AM

    That play stuck in Al Davis’ craw till the end. Beautiful.

  54. fsf7 says: Dec 22, 2012 4:34 PM

    The Raiders still complain about this call in which:
    They claim that “everyone knew” it was not a legal play – but in 40 years, studies done by physics professors and frame by frame replay they still don’t know for sure.
    They claim that if not for that play, it would have been the Raiders as the team of the 70s not the Steelers – as if that game impacted the 74, 75, or 76 AFC Championship Games.
    They NEVER complain about the Bogus even by 2012 Standards Roughing the Passer call in 1976 vs. the Patriots saved them from being one and done in the playoffs.
    They proudly boast of the Raider Rules: Rule #1 – Cheat, Rule #2 – First learn rule #1.

    Get over it. The 1970s Steelers were a better team.

  55. fsf7 says: Dec 22, 2012 4:50 PM

    maddog111 says: Dec 19, 2012 8:43 AM

    That play was the best thing to ever happen sports-wise for all the key participants. None of them were making much money then, but they’re all still relevent 40 years later becuase of that play. They’ve made more money at card shows talking about that play then they ever made actually playing the game. And I really don’t believe any of them are sure what really happened.

    Also, people saying that started the Steeler dynasty of the 70′s are incorrect. They lost the following week and didn’t even make it to the Super Bowl that year.
    ————————————————–

    This is that mindless simple thinking approach that the only success is in winning the Super Bowl and nothing else matters.

    It was the first playoff win for a franchise that never had one and the beginning of the culture change that led to the success of winning Super Bowls.

    Success – in any endeavor – does not “begin” with the moment of glory, but in the days of preparation before it.

  56. bobzilla1001 says: Dec 22, 2012 11:28 PM

    Raiders fans should be made aware that tonight (Dec. 22, 2012) a delighted Phil Villapiano was inducted into “Franco’s Italian Army” during a locally-produced televised 40th Anniversary celebration show of the Immaculate Reception…
    A good time was had by all.

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