The Miracle of Miracles The Immaculate Reception

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Although Steelers’ fans might not like hearing this particular statistic, there are many across the sports world who believe that before the Immaculate Reception occurred in 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers were football’s ‘Bad News Bears.’

These truly loveable losers had season after season of mistakes, pain and aggravation, just waiting for THEIR time to come.  Their wishes were finally granted when the angels smiled down upon them in the final seconds of a playoff game against the mighty and brutal Oakland Raiders.  It was then that the heavens parted and the man who would become a true icon in football, Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw, threw a desperation pass that was tipped by another player and headed straight to the ground.  However, out of nowhere came a rookie running-back named Franco Harris, who must’ve been placed on the field by the Lord, Himself.  Why do Steelers fans feel that way?  Because Harris flew in, scooped up what was about to be a dead pass, and ran to the end zone to win the game. After that the team did lose the next week and called it a season – but they would arrive back on the scene the next year and would go on to win four Super Bowls in the next six seasons.

The Immaculate Reception went down in history.  The scene at Three Rivers Stadium on December 23, 1972 – right before Christmas came to town – was where the play that is STILL looked at with pride,  controversy and speculation went down.  Whether there were nonbelievers or not, it was NFL Films that chose The Immaculate Reception as the greatest play of all time – the play that reversed four decades of pointlessness, giving the Steelers their first playoff win ever.

 

By the end of the decade, the Steelers would become the ‘best’ team in football, wracking up Super Bowl after Super Bowl.  The phrase, The Immaculate Reception was coined by a sportscaster who was reporting the Steelers’ victory on the radio, and went down in history as the perfect definition.

 

It was after Raiders’ quarterback, Ken Stabler, scored a touchdown with only 1:17 left on the clock that the Steelers trailed them 7-6 and faced a fourth-and-ten on their own 40-yard line.  There was only twenty-two seconds remaining in the game and absolutely no time-outs left when Chuck Noll, the head coach, called a pass play that would send the ball into the hands of a rookie who was playing in his first ever NFL game.  Everyone’s favorite, Bradshaw, was pressured beyond belief by the Raiders’ linemen, and threw the ball towards his halfback. He and the Raiders safety collided right as the ball arrived and sent it sailing backwards into the air – end over end. Franco Harris had been a blocker on the play but had run downfield on the off-chance that Bradshaw would need another receiver.  Without even thinking or breaking stride, he caught the out-of-control ball just before it hit the ground, running past the linebackers without a thought.  Using a stiff-arm on the last defensive back in his way, Harris went straight in for the touchdown, giving the Steelers a 12-7 lead and the eventual win.

 

So where did the controversy come from?  The question that will always remain is who exactly did the ball touch during the collision of the halfback and the Raiders’ safety.  Depending on who it touched, was whether or not the touchdown was legal.  At this particular time, the rule had stated that once an offensive player touched a pass, he is the ONLY offensive player who is eligible to catch the pass. However, if a defensive player touches the pass “first, or simultaneously with the offensive player, then all of the offense become eligible” to catch the pass.

 

One official signaled that the play was a touchdown, but the other officials didn’t make any signal at all. When the officials came together in their huddle, the Referee and Steelers’ sideline official asked to be taken to a telephone. From the dugout telephone a call was placed to the press box to ask the supervisor of officials his opinion.  Apparently it has been said that the phone was answered by either the son of the Steelers’ owner, or by the Steelers’ PR man. This is where the report is odd – some say the PR man simply turned and said ‘we’ve got a touchdown’ while the press box says that they never called or confirmed the play…and there was no instant replay at that time.  But once the ‘word’ went out, thrilled fans rushed the field, making it impossible to clear the gridiron so that the point-after conversion could be kicked for over fifteen minutes.

 

No matter who you speak with, even now, the play is still disputed by everyone involved – especially by the Raiders and their fans who insist the Raiders should have won. Even if there was a mistake made, it simply didn’t matter, because the angels sang and the skies wept, and the Steelers rode that high to become the team that simply couldn’t lose a Super Bowl.

 

Once technology caught up with the world, it was in 1998, during halftime at the AFC Championship Game, that NBC showed a replay from its original broadcast in 1972. The replay presented a different angle than the NFL Films clip, and according to the New York Daily News, NBC’s replay showed the ball clearly hitting one and only one man – Oakland DB Jack Tatum, proving that The Immaculate Reception was absolutely real!

 

Even scientific experiments were done on this play, with physicists doing ‘tests’ of the trajectory and speed to see how on earth the ball could’ve hit Bradshaw’s receiver and bounced backwards.  They concluded that it would’ve been highly impossible.  However, the only other known NBC video was an end zone shot from above and behind the goalposts and, in keeping with the mystery of the play, one of the posts was exactly in the line of sight of Harris’ hands and the ball – keeping the controversy alive.

 

Yes, the week after this playoff victory the Steelers lost the AFC Championship Game to the Dolphins, who ended their landmark undefeated season with a Super Bowl victory.  The Steelers, however, reversed a four-decade-long curse and gained stars in the football realm like Lynn Swann, “Mean Joe” Greene, Bradshaw, Harris and, of course, built that mighty Steel Curtain defense. The Immaculate Reception also spawned a massive rivalry between the Steelers and Raiders that was at it’s hottest point during the 1970s when both teams were the best in the league – not to mention the meanest.

 

As Curt Gowdy said when calling the play for NBC television: “You talk about Christmas miracles. Here’s the miracle of all miracles. Watch this one now. Bradshaw is lucky to even get rid of the ball! He shoots it out. Jack Tatum deflects it right into the hands of Harris, and he sets off. And the big 230-pound rookie slipped away from Warren and scored!”

 

THAT was the biggest and best Christmas present that the city of Pittsburgh would ever receive!

 

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