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.