LOS ANGELES, December 23, 2012 — Forty years ago this very day, the most controversial play in National Football League history occurred. The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Oakland Raiders due to the “Immaculate Reception.”
Yet while history is made every Sunday, today is all about the Immaculate Reception.
The Raiders trailed 6-0 in a brutal game when Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler scrambled for a 30 yard touchdown with only 1:13 to play in the game. With 22 seconds left, the Steelers trailed 7-6 and faced 4th and 10 at their own 40. Two days before Christmas came their miracle.
Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw scrambled and threw over the middle before getting blasted to the ground and without seeing how the play ended. The ball was thrown toward Pittsburgh receiver John “Frenchy” Fuqua just as Oakland defensive back Jack “Assassin” Tatum closed in. Fuqua, Tatum and the ball all arrived simultaneously in a violent collision.
The ball went backward midair about 20 yards, and by sheer luck went right to Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris. Harris made a fingertip shoestring catch, got past Oakland defender Phil Villapiano and reached the end zone for the winning touchdown with five seconds left.
Officials Couldn’t Figure It Out for Several Minutes
Officials needed several minutes to declare the touchdown because Harris’s catch may have been illegal due to an obscure (eventually removed) NFL rule.
The rulebook stated any ball touched by an offensive player and caught by another offensive player would be illegal unless a defender touched it inbetween. A ball bouncing off Tatum to Harris meant a touchdown. Touching only Fuqua and Harris but not Tatum meant no touchdown.
Three controversies existed. The first is whether Harris caught the ball cleanly off the ricochet. Video is inconclusive. Harris will not say. Any part of the ball touching the ground would have meant an incompletion, nullifying the touchdown.
The second controversy was whether Villapiano was illegal blocked just before attempting to tackle Harris. The catch would stand, but Pittsburgh would have had only about 10 seconds left to score with plenty more yardage needed. Blocking Villipiano’s side would have been legal. A block in the back means “clipping,” and touchdown nullified. What body part was blocked? The video is inconclusive.
The true controversy involves whether the ball bounced off Fuqua or Tatum. Tatum insists he never touched it. Fuqua has spent four decades speaking about it without saying what happened. FBI agents, nuclear physicists, and football analysts have reviewed the video frame by frame without consensus.
This game made the Steelers franchise: that one play replaced decades of losing with soon winning four Super Bowls. Raiders fans tasted bitter defeat. Diehard Raiders (including me) for years sought the truth. After watching the outstanding “A Football Life” Immaculate Reception documentary, maybe the truth should stay buried.
The game eventually benefited the Raiders. Owner Al Davis convinced Raiders worldwide of a conspiracy. It was the Raiders against the world. This “Immaculate Deception” was personal and fueled the Raiders. For five years, the Raiders and Steelers beat each other senseless. One year later in the 1973 playoffs came the rematch in Oakland. They blasted Pittsburgh 33-14, but the score was hardly settled for either side.
A Long Rivalry Rooted in the Past
The rivalry began in 1972 and 1973, but neither were champions. They both lost to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Title Game, one game short of the Super Bowl. In 1974 after Oakland ended Miami’s reign in the “Sea of Hands” thriller, the Raiders and Steelers met in the AFC Title Game. At home, Oakland led 10-3 after three quarters but suffered a stunning fourth quarter collapse. Pittsburgh won 24-13 en route to their first Super Bowl championship.
Then 1975 brought another AFC Title Game showdown in Pittsburgh. Al Davis was convinced the Steelers deliberately failed to remove snow, since frozen terrain benefited Pittsburgh. The league denied the conspiracy. Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll never did. After three brutal quarters Pittsburgh only led 3-0. Oakland trailed 16-10 on the final play of the game. A completed pass fell five yards short on the block of ice. Pittsburgh again won on the way to Super Bowl glory.
And 1976 brought the fifth straight playoff meeting and third straight AFC Title Game contest, this time in Oakland. The Raiders smashed Pittsburgh 24-7, capping 1976 with their first Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh ruled the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers the 1980s. Yet taking midpoints of both decades, from 1975-1984 the Raiders were the best football team with three Super Bowls. The Steelers would also win Super Bowls in 1978 and 1979 while the Raiders won two more in 1980 and 1983. Both franchises have the same number of Hall of Fame enshrinees.
To his death Al Davis believed the Raiders “Got taken. The word is actually stronger.” Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney never saw the play. Already in the elevator, he thought Pittsburgh lost. Oakland Raiders Head Coach John Madden says the play will bother him until death. His version involves a subsequent phone call. The league insists the referee called another official.
Madden insists the referee called Pittsburgh police wanting to know how many officers could be deployed if the touchdown was nullified in front of the Pittsburgh fans, where riots would surely break out. The referee was told “six.” When asked if that meant 600 or 6,000, he was again told “six.” The referee then supposedly said, “In that case, six for Pittsburgh,” and signaled touchdown.
Truth would not change the outcome. Steelers live off victory’s glory while Raiders stay motivated as hated villains that robbed themselves. This image heightened in 2001 during the “Tuck Rule” game in a snowstorm where the Raiders had another win stolen. That game video is clear, but Immaculate Reception controversies remain murky.
Revealing who touched the ball would be similar to revealing which religion is the one true faith. The search for truth may live forever, but as Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan R. Jessup loudly reminds us, maybe we can’t handle the truth.
Whether religion or sports worship, tales of yore become stories of lore that survive forever. For the Raider Nation, the Terrible Towel Steelers and football fans everywhere, it would be best if Frenchy Fuqua took the secret to his grave. Let the Immaculate Reception stay Immaculate, so that the debate lasts forever in Oakland, Pittsburgh, and anywhere anybody loves football.
NFL 2012 Week 15 is now in the books.
Brooklyn born, Long Island raised, and now living in Los Angeles, Eric Golub is a columnist, blogger, author, public speaker, satirist and comedian who is obsessed with the National Football League. There is no offseason. Every February he pretends to care about other sports while sobbing uncontrollably each Sunday until September. Eric is the author of the book trilogy “Ideological Bigotry, “Ideological Violence,” and “Ideological Idiocy.” When not watching football, his only other hobby is Republican, Jewish women. Republican, Jewish women, you may contact Eric above.
Follow Eric on Twitter @TYGRRRREXPRESS Eric Golub is an independent writer for the Communities. Read more from Eric at his TYGRRRR EXPRESS blog.
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