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A mistake that turned out to be 'Immaculate'

If it weren't for Craig Hanneman, there is a good chance the Immaculate Reception never would have happened.

And before you Google who is Craig Hanneman, just keep on reading.

Hanneman was a rookie defensive lineman for the Steelers in 1972, a backup on a line that was loaded with names like Joe Greene, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes.

On Dec. 23, 1972, in the AFC Divisional Playoff game against the then-Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium, he was given an assignment.

With the Steelers defense playing stingy, holding the Raiders scoreless for over 58 minutes of football and hanging on to a 6-0 lead, Hanneman was sent into the game with one job and one job only.

Get pressure on the quarterback.

"George Perles, who was the defensive line coach at the time, he called me to stand beside him," recalled Hanneman. "He sent me in for Dwight White with the simple instruction…we got to get pressure on the quarterback."

But once he got on the field, and linebacker Andy Russell called a stunt, things changed.

Oh, did they ever change.

Instead of getting pressure, Hanneman got beat.

"When I got to the line of scrimmage, Andy Russell, who was the right outside linebacker called a stunt, which my first obligation on that was to engage the tackle to create a gap for Andy to go between the tackle and the guard," said Hanneman. "Art Shell, who later became their head coach, was the offensive tackle. He was the second biggest offensive lineman in the league at the time. And I think I was the second smallest defensive player. Art Shell took a deep step back to the inside, which for me to try and engage him brought me in deeper and more inside than I should have been to fulfill my ultimate responsibility, which was to contain. Because Andy was inside, I had to replace his outside responsibilities.

"And the rest as they say is history.

"I lost containment which is my third and final obligation and most important one, and quarterback Kenny Stabler ran around for 30 yards and a touchdown. So, all of a sudden, the score is 7-6 in favor of Oakland."


The play-by-play read as follows:

"Stabler, almost caught in the backfield, circled left end and ran untouched into the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown run."

It was then that many thought all was lost, even Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. headed for the locker room to greet the team and console them.

But it wasn't over.

The Steelers got the ball with 1:13 to play at their own 20-yard line. Terry Bradshaw completed a nine-yard pass to Franco Harris, and then hit Frenchy Fuqua for 11-yards and a first down. Three straight incompletions would put the Steelers in a major hole, facing a fourth-and-10 at their own 40-yard line with just 22 seconds remaining.

And like Hanneman said, the rest is history.

While under pressure, Bradshaw threw the ball in the direction of Fuqua and as it arrived, he collided with Raiders' safety Jack Tatum, the ball ricocheted back, and Harris miraculously scooped it out of the air and took off running for a 60-yard touchdown reception that gave the Steelers the 13-7 win and a wild celebration ensued.

And the Immaculate Reception was born.

"As it's most commonly reported, after I screwed up, we needed to score," said Hanneman. "The Immaculate Reception play was necessitated by the deficit that had been created. We were up 6-0. And Oakland drove the length of the field, and then scored after I was in there."

While everyone in Pittsburgh celebrated, Hanneman breathed a sigh of relief.

"Franco was not only a hero to everybody in Pittsburgh, he was a hero to me too," said Hanneman. "I imagine life would be quite different today if that hadn't happened. There's one sportswriter about 10 years ago wrote I would have been a Bill Buckner like figure forever.

"It was a terrible feeling. It's not about you. It's about the team and I let the team down. I let George Perles down. He sent me in with a job to do and the assignment changed when Andy called the stunt, but nonetheless I had a new responsibility, and I didn't fulfill it.

"I had a decent rookie year. I felt really good about everything, but that was something you never get over. Obviously, it necessitated the heroics that followed. All's well that ends well as they say, but still it lingers."

But what also lingers, is that if Stabler never scored on that play, there is a really good chance the Steelers aren't in the situation they found themselves in for the Immaculate Reception to happen.

"One event leads to another and there's no question there would not have been an Immaculate Reception," said Hanneman. "Just the time that was left, if they hadn't scored right then, or not at all, there's all kinds of hypotheticals you can look at. But one thing, there wouldn't be exactly that same play. Who knows what outcome there would have been, or how much time there would have been left for us to score if they had scored later. There's so many what ifs.

"I guess there is perversely some small satisfaction that with all the joy and celebrations that took place, somebody had to screw up. So, I guess I did my job to necessitate what was voted to be the greatest play of all time."

To learn more about the Immaculate Reception and how the Steelers are honoring the 50th Anniversary of it, visit: Immaculate Reception Anniversary.