Franco Harris will gather with some of his former teammates today, including Frenchy Fuqua. Normally they just talk on the phone each year on Dec. 23. But this year the conversation on this special day will be over dinner as it's the anniversary of not just one of the greatest moments in their football lives, but one of the greatest plays in the history of the NFL.
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Today is the 45th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, a play that changed the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Let's just set the stage for that day back in 1972. Three Rivers Stadium, AFC Divisional Playoff Game vs. the Oakland Raiders. Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler had run 30 yards for a touchdown that gave his team a 7-6 lead with just 1:17 to play. Soon afterward, quarterback Terry Bradshaw and the rest of the Steelers offense were looking at a fourth-and-10 from the 40-yard line with just 22 seconds remaining. Desperately searching for the team's first ever playoff, it didn't look promising. But they never gave up. While under pressure Bradshaw through the ball in the direction of Fuqua and as it arrived he collided with Raiders safety Jack Tatum, and 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.
"I don't think the fans knew what happened," said Fuqua, who was knocked to the ground after the collision. "Everyone I spoke to after I got up off the ground said what happened, what happened. Someone said it's a miracle. Then we had to go through that long, long wait when the referees went in there to look at replay and it seemed like an eternity."
Through the passage of time the excitement of the play has remained, for former Steelers, coaches, staff and fans, from those who witnessed it to those that weren't even born yet. But the excitement is something special for Fuqua and Harris.
"It seems like it was just yesterday," said Fuqua. "To this day the excitement was unbelievable, it was hard to believe and I think what made it more so is that even until today you find it hard to believe a play like that could take place and be the birth of our championship teams. It was exciting, bewildering not knowing what happened, what the call was, why it took so long. There are still so many questions even until today. Franco and I talk about it all of the time."
Harris has seen the play more times than he can remember, but it never gets old for him.
"I have to admit I have not gotten tired of it yet," said Harris. "It's still as exciting. If you look at the season we had in 1972, after the first 40 years of the franchise, and then to have the incredible season, the team's first playoff win and to win that first one in dramatic fashion really started to change a lot of things. What really made it special and big was the decade that was to come and the importance of the play, setting the tone for winning. We proved that no matter how dire the situation that we can win. All of the things that followed made that play so big and important to Steelers' history."
FRENCHY AND FRANCO
The Immaculate Reception has been recognized as the greatest play in NFL history, and part of the allure is the mystery many say still surrounds it. Did the ball last touch Fuqua before it caromed to Harris? If so – based on the rules at the time – it was an incomplete pass. Did the ball graze the turf as Harris caught it? If so, it was an incomplete pass.
"It gave everyone the chance to ask the question that hasn't even been answered today…what happened?" said Fuqua. "By the time they said touchdown everyone was still wondering what happened. Everyone had their own explanation as to what happened. What happened on that play was truly immaculate. And it was."You can't forget something like that. When I look at it now, I look at the play and I say wow, I see why they don't know what happened."
For Harris, the greatness of the play is tied the many memories of it.
"This play touched so many lives in so many different ways," said Harris. "There were so many things tied to it. Steelers' fans had a rally the night before the game and they were so fired up the day of the game.
"During the game you went from the exuberance of us leading, and then Kenny Stabler scored that touchdown and you had the fans with their heads in their hands thinking we lost another one, and then to go ahead and win it … it will always be a very special play."
FRANCO'S POSITION COACH
Dick Hoak spent 45 years as a player and running backs coach for the Steelers. He has seen it all, has five Super Bowl rings, been a part of the good and the bad that is Steelers' history. Through it all he managed to remain even-keeled, rarely showing emotions but instead keeping a matter-of-fact approach to everything.
Except for the Immaculate Reception.
When Hoak, whose vantage point was the coaches' box along with then defensive backs coach Bud Carson and quarterbacks coach Babe Parelli, saw Harris make that shoe-string catch he couldn't contact his emotions.
"I was up in the booth and we saw Terry starting to run around and we didn't know what would happen," said Hoak. "I jumped up on the table. I went crazy up in the box and yelled, 'Run Franco, run.' It was quite a thrill. Bud didn't have the same reaction. It took a lot for him to have any kind of reaction. "I thought it was a touchdown right away. It was before instant replay, and they called it a touchdown, but why did they call up to see what the official upstairs saw? They called it a touchdown, and it should have been a touchdown."
Hoak said the only other time he had that kind of reaction was on Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL, and he remembers looking back on the play a few days after it happened and not being surprised that Harris made the play.
"Something happened earlier in the year when we were in Dallas and there was a fumble, and Franco was there to pick it up," remembered Hoak. "There was another game and someone else fumbled, and Franco picked it up. Franco had the knack that if the ball came loose he was always going to be around it, and he was going to come up with it.
December 23, 1972 the Steelers win their first playoff game in dramatic fashion with a 13-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception."
"After the play and thinking about all of that, you didn't know that was going to happen, but if anybody was going to do it, it was going to be Franco. That ball popped back and he made a great catch."
Hoak said the play of the team during the entire 1972 season helped change the future of the franchise, but it was the Immaculate Reception that always be looked upon as what catapulted them to glory.
"It wasn't just the play, it was the year," said Hoak. "It was Franco's first year. A lot of the guys, Joe (Greene), Terry (Bradshaw), Mel (Blount), L.C. (Greenwood), we had been building them for a few years. It was a culmination of the whole year. We beat some good teams that year. The whole year jump-started it."
Hoak said there are a lot of plays in the history of the Steelers that he might not remember in detail, but the Immaculate Reception is one that will always burn brightly in his mind.
"I will never forget," said Hoak. "Getting my age, I start forgetting a lot of things, but I will never forget that. It was a great moment. A lot of people you talk to now say they saw it on television, but it wasn't on television in Pittsburgh. Everybody saw that play. Maybe there were 150,000 in the stadium that day.
"The more you thought about it, it changed the city, the way people thought about the Pittsburgh Steelers. We turned the corner. We were going to become winners. It changed a lot of people's minds about the Steelers."
SWANN AND STALLWORTH
While Steelers' fans were celebrating, Raiders' fans were angry, frustrated.
John Stallworth, a college student at Alabama A&M at the time, was one of those feeling the pain.
"Prior to coming to Pittsburgh I was the biggest Oakland Raiders fan you could imagine," said Stallworth. "When Franco caught that pass and went down and scored, I was as upset as any young man could be. I wasn't a Steelers fan."
Stallworth sat in disbelief as he watched the play unfold. And he definitely didn't agree with the officials when they signaled touchdown.
"I thought it was a bad call, the ball had to have touched the ground, it touched two offensive players so they should have called it back," said Stallworth. "I was upset sitting in my living room watching the game at that time."
Almost two years later, Stallworth was drafted by the Steelers and his perspective changed.
"I know it was a touchdown," said Stallworth. "No question in my mind it was a touchdown." Another college student watching the game on television was Lynn Swann, a receiver at USC who would become Stallworth's teammate when both were drafted by the Steelers in 1974.
"I did see it. I'm not one of the one million who claimed to be at Three Rivers Stadium that day," said Swann, "but I did see it."
In college, Swann wasn't a diehard fan of either the Steelers or the Raiders, and so his reaction to the play was more detached. He viewed it purely from a football standpoint. But today, he recognizes the significance.
"It was one of those great plays in Steelers history that got the Steelers to the next level," said Swann. "That year it got them to one more game, but it eventually got it to the next level.
"It's a play that drives a lot of people crazy. John Madden and the Raiders still hate that play and always will, and we will always love it."
FRANCO, AND THE BUS
Jerome Bettis was still in diapers in 1972, only 10 months old and while he may have had a football in his crib, he had no idea what was happening that December afternoon. But he has heard the stories about the play.
"The first thing I learned about the Immaculate Reception is that it was a legal play," said Bettis. "That was the one issue everyone asked about because back then the ball would have had to hit off a defensive player. I didn't know what the rules were. But what I know is it was a legal play, Franco scored a touchdown and it propelled them on to win championships.
"It took them from the place where they were to being champions in a few years. It was history."
But there is something more Bettis knows about the play. For a man who treasured his time with the Steelers and embraces NFL history, he understands what the Immaculate Reception meant to the franchise and the city. He knows what it meant to every player who has worn a Steelers jersey since that day.
"What that play did was help them at that time develop and grow," said Bettis. "It helped us because it created a standard of expectations that we follow.
"We believe once we wear the jersey that standard has to continue. What it is about is the legacy it created. You are proud to wear this jersey and be a part of the black and gold family."
That mind-set, one that Bettis and many who have played since the 1970s have carried on, is a source of pride to Harris and those who helped set that standard. Harris treasures the fact that he was part of starting what has become one of the most successful franchises in the NFL.
"What I hold most dear is that this reflects on the great teams, coaches and players, and it reflects on what happened during the 1970s," said Harris. "To me that is important because that was quite a special decade with very special guys, and when you think of the play it makes me reflect on all of that. It's not about just one play at one moment. It's about all of the guys who came through and the caliber of football they played during the 1970s. It was a very special time.
"That is what set the foundation for what you see today."
A FINAL WORD FROM FRENCHY
Fuqua said he has been asked thousands of times if he touched the ball, if it hit him. Don't expect an answer.
Fuqua has a T-shirt that has Dec. 23, 1972 on the front. On the back, it reads, "I'll never tell." And that is a promise Frenchy Fuqua never will break.
"Not knowing is what is special for everyone," said Fuqua. "If the Frenchman can make it this long I will never tell. I will definitely keep it immaculate.
"But from the bottom of my heart, what happened on that play was truly immaculate. If you knew what happened, you would say the same thing I'm saying. It was truly immaculate."