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It all started with the Immaculate Reception

Posted Mar 21, 2011

1972 AFC Divisional Playoff

Miracle touchdown beats Raiders, 13-7

(First in a series of stories chronicling the 52 playoff games in Steelers history.)

Through their first 40 seasons of existence, the Pittsburgh Steelers won nothing. No NFL Championships, and then starting in 1967 when the league first realigned to have two four-team divisions in each conference, the Steelers didn’t even win enough games to get themselves into the playoffs to have a chance to compete for an NFL Championship.

The official team history lists a 1947 Eastern Division Playoff game between the Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, but that was more of a tiebreaker than it was a postseason game, and the Steelers lost it, 21-0, anyway.

But once the Super Bowl was created and the NFL and AFL merged for the 1970 season, the Steelers began a run that now has them among the most successful franchises in NFL history. The Steelers have won an NFL-best six Super Bowl titles – Green Bay is the league’s all-time leader with 13 NFL titles, with four Super Bowls among those. The Steelers’ 20 division titles since the merger are the most in the league in that time period, and their 25 playoff appearances is second only to Dallas’ 26.

The Steelers have a long, rich playoff history, and Steelers.com now begins a series of stories re-living those moments. As of Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers are 33-19 in the playoffs, and these stories will look back at each one of those games.

*                    *                    *
The verbal exchange had taken place on the January 1969 day when the Pittsburgh Steelers presented Chuck Noll as their new head coach to the few people who actually were interested. Most in the city greeted the announcement with an appropriate degree of skepticism, because the team making it had managed only eight winning seasons in its 36 years in the league. Noll, fresh from Super Bowl III where he was an assistant coach for the Baltimore Colts team that had been upset by the New York Jets, was asked why he thought he was the guy who could win in Pittsburgh.

“Losing has nothing to do with geography.”

Following his declaration, Noll had spent three calendar years assembling the team that would prove his point, and the 1972 season was the beginning of the payoff. It would start with a split of the first four games, but the losses were by a combined nine points and had been played in Cincinnati and in Dallas. Clearly, these weren’t the Same Old Steelers.

They were indicating they weren’t the Same Old Steelers by going on a five-game winning streak, and if that generated them some national attention, a 26-24 loss in Cleveland seemed to restore the natural order. But again, these definitely were not the Same Old Steelers, and they proved it the following Sunday with a decisive, 23-10 win over a Minnesota Vikings team that had posted a 35-7 record plus a Super Bowl appearance in its three previous seasons.

Dave Anderson of The New York Times wrote this from the Three Rivers Stadium press box that day: “The weather never seems to change much here this time of year. It’s usually cloudy and gloomy … Art Rooney never seems to change much, either … But his Pittsburgh Steelers have changed. They used to find a way to lose. But today, they found a way to win a big game from the Minnesota Vikings, and if they find a way to a win over the Cleveland Browns here next Sunday, they may go on to win the first division title in the 40-year history of the franchise. In other National Football League cities, a division title is a stepping-stone to the playoffs. Here, it’s a milestone.”

By the way, the Steelers did beat the Browns the Sunday after they handled the Vikings, and the drumbeat of that 30-0 TKO reverberated all over the NFL. By the time they had clinched the AFC Central Division with a 24-2 win over San Diego in the regular season finale to finish 11-3, Raiders coach John Madden was telling everyone who would listen that it was time to take the Steelers seriously.

The first playoff game of the Chuck Noll era was scheduled for Dec. 23, 1972, and the Steelers’ first playoff opponent was the Oakland Raiders. This would be a rematch of the opener, also won by the Steelers and also played at Three Rivers Stadium. There was no doubt that the game would be a sellout, but the NFL still had its blackout rule, which meant the game would not be televised within a 75-mile radius of the city.

That meant places like Erie, Pa., and Meadville, Pa., and Zanesville, Ohio, suddenly became destinations of choice for Steelers fans. Motels in those towns were jammed with Steelers fans; buses were chartered to go to Erie to watch the game, and enterprising residents of Erie were selling seats on the couches in their own homes to Steelers fans who wanted to watch the game and were willing to pay for the privilege.

The game itself was the competitive opposite of the meeting between the teams during the first weekend of the regular season. That game was played on Sept. 17, and it was won by the Steelers, 34-28, following a back-and-forth series of big plays.

For Pittsburgh in the opener, linebacker Henry Davis blocked a punt, recovered the ball and ran 5 yards for the game’s first touchdown; Terry Bradshaw scored on quarterback sneaks of 20 and 2 yards; and then he threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to Ron Shanklin in the fourth quarter.

For the Raiders, Ken Stabler started at quarterback, but after throwing three interceptions was replaced first by George Blanda and then by Daryle Lamonica, who threw touchdown passes of 24 and 70 yards to Mike Siani in the fourth quarter.

But the playoff game was a defensive battle. After a scoreless first half, the Steelers carved out a 6-0 lead on a pair of Roy Gerela field goals, while the Raiders simply were trying to carve out some first downs. While Lamonica rescued Stabler during the regular season, the roles were reversed in this playoff game. The Steelers sacked Lamonica four times and intercepted him twice before Madden went to Stabler.

Later in his career, Stabler would become known for his accuracy as a passer, but in this game it was his legs that changed the entire complexion of the afternoon. Getting outside rookie defensive end Craig Hanneman, Stabler raced 30 yards on a broken play for the touchdown that allowed the Raiders to take a 7-6 lead with 1:13 to play.

What happened three plays after the ensuing kickoff – on fourth-and-10 from the Steelers 40-yard line – has been anointed the greatest touchdown in league history by NFL Films, but to generations of Steelers fans it came to be a historical marker, as in, “Where were you during the Immaculate Reception?”

The primary receiver on the play called by Terry Bradshaw for this historic fourth-and-10 was Barry Pearson, but it soon became clear there was nothing about this that was going to go according to plan. Feeling pressure, Bradshaw ducked away from the rush and shrugged off an arm tackle as he found some open space on the Three Rivers Stadium carpet, and then when he caught sight of a black jersey he stepped into the throw.

Author Roy Blount Jr. later would spend an entire year writing about the phenomenon of the Steelers going from lovable losers to championship contenders in a book titled, “Three Bricks Shy of a Load,” but of the Immaculate Reception he watched on television he would write, “Frenchy Fuqua and Oakland defender Jack Tatum, famous for nearly breaking folks’ backs with his tackles, went up together, and the ball hit them, bounced off, and disappeared … maybe some franchises are born to lose …”

Franco Harris’ assignment on the play had been to stay in and block, but as things broke down and Harris saw Bradshaw cock his arm he began to hustle downfield. That was Harris’ instinct, and it turned out to be the instinct of a champion. The collision of Tatum and Fuqua sent the ball flying back toward the line of scrimmage, back toward the hustling Harris.

More from Blount Jr.: “The ball reappeared on the screen, borne by Harris, who had caught it, off camera, at his shoe tops on the rebound. Something surely would happen to frustrate the Steelers again.”

This time, nothing happened except Harris crossing the goal line with the most improbable game-winning touchdown in the history of the sport. And Steelers fans, who had been described by one writer as “western civilization’s experts at living with a loser,” reveled in the cosmic payback. After this, Christmas could be canceled because no present under any tree was going to top this.

Said Hanneman, “I came within five seconds of being the greatest goat ever.”

Coyly, Fuqua refused to divulge to reporters after the game what he knew, and because Fuqua had been the recipient of a thunderous hit by Tatum no one could be certain he actually knew anything pertinent anyway. None of the other players on the field were unbiased witnesses, and if any definitive film of the play ever existed it never was among the footage widely used to chronicle this game.

As the sun set on Pittsburgh on Dec. 23, 1972, there was much that was unknown about the touchdown that carries only this mundane description in the NFL record books to this day: Harris 60 pass from Bradshaw (Gerela kick).

What was known that night was this: the Pittsburgh Steelers had won a playoff game for the first time in franchise history and as a result were going to host the undefeated Miami Dolphins for a spot in Super Bowl VII.

Oakland

 

0

0

0

7

 

7

Steelers

 

0

0

3

10

 

13

 

TEAM

QTR

PLAY

PIT

3

Gerela 18 FG

PIT

4

Gerela 29 FG

OAK

4

Stabler 30 run

PIT

4

Harris 60 pass from Bradshaw (Gerela kick)

 

TEAM STATISTICS

 

OAK

PIT

First Downs

13

13

Third Downs

5-16 (31%)

6-18 (33%)

Total Net Yds

216

252

Plays-Avg

65-3.5

64-4.0

Rushing Yds

138

108

Att-Avg

31-4.5

36-3.0

Passing Yds

78

144

Att/Comp/Int

30-12-2

25-11-1

Punts-Avg

7-45.1

7-48.2

Penalties-Yds

2-15

1-5

Fumbles-Lost

3-2

0-0



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