Being a storied franchise means that you have a lot of highlights, as well as lowlights, all recorded in the annals of NFL. The Raiders own more than their share and probably one of the most memorable and impactful was the Immaculate Reception.
Who hasn’t heard of this game that changed the course of the season and essentially started a dynasty?
The 1970s blessed NFL fans with one of the greatest rivalries of all time: the Oakland Raiders vs the Pittsburgh Steelers. The contests between these two teams were the epitome of hard knocks football. You’d be hard-pressed to find a game where at least one of those guys didn’t come out of it with a concussion.
The rivalry began with a meeting between the two in the 1972 AFC Divisional playoff game. Neither team scored in the first half. Not surprising for the two defensive powerhouses. The Raiders held Pittsburgh to just 6 points in the second half, when a relatively unknown backup quarterback stepped in for the Silver & Black. Ken Stabler took over when Daryle Lamonica had to exit the game, sick with the flu. Stabler started out by adding 6 points to the board by scrambling 30 yards to the end zone, followed by a successful extra point kick by George Blanda. The Steelers were finally trailing. The clock ran down to the last 22 seconds of the game and, with the Steelers behind and out of timeouts, it looked like a foregone conclusion that the Raiders were headed to another conference championship when tragedy struck.
On 4th and 10, the ball was snapped and Raiders’ defensive linemen Horace Jones and Tony Cline were after blood, chasing Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw down like he was dinner. Running for his life, Bradshaw took a quick shot before he was brought down, hoping to hit John Fuqua. Fuqua was being manhandled by Raiders safety Jack Tatum, as he had been all day. As the ball arrived, Fuqua was dispatched by Tatum, knocking him and the ball down to the ground – seemingly.
After the hit, Steelers fullback and Pittsburgh folk hero Franco Harris was Johnny on the Spot. He scooped and ran and made it to the end zone through a sea of Raider defenders, thanks to some assistance from his teammates that came in the form of massive blocks. The Steelers won the game 13-7 and went on to AFC Championship game. It was small solace to the Raiders that Pittsburgh would lose in the conference game to the Miami Dolphins.
There’s a very good reason to address Harris’ folk hero status. Pittsburgh’s first playoff game was played on their home field. Franco Harris was a popular rookie with a huge following, known as Franco’s Italian Army. It seems too strange a coincidence that he would become the eventual hero of the game, with no clear answer from the referees about whether the ball hit Tatum or Fuqua, or even the ground. If there ever was an argument for instant replay, this game was it.
The question was…who touched the ball? There was no clear camera angle that you can point to that showed whether the ball bounced off of Jack Tatum before heading toward the ground, or if it had only glanced off of John Fuqua on its way down. The rules of the game at that time stated that if Tatum touched the ball before it was caught, then it was a legal reception. If not, dead ball, game over.
As if that wasn’t enough controversy, another question arose after the game. Did the ball hit the ground before Franco Harris grabbed it? That’s a rule that has never changed. If the ball hits the ground, it’s a dead ball. That wasn’t in question at that moment on the field, but it lends to the mystique of this game. Only Franco Harris knows for sure if it did, and he’s not talking.
The circumstances were so unclear to the referees on the field that they took a quick tally and found that only two of the five officials in position to see the play would rule it a touchdown. The other three were not certain and would not rule in favor of the score. Since they couldn’t decide on the field, head ref Fred Swearingen had to go for backup. He went to the Steelers sideline and was escorted by Pittsburgh’s sideline official to a phone. That phone was used to place a call to the league’s head of officials, Art McNally. After the call, Swearingen returned to the field and declared Pittsburgh the winner.
For perspective, this play can be likened to the Jesse James catch in Pittsburgh’s 2017 game against the eventual AFC champion New England Patriots. (Those Steelers seem to have their own fair share of controversies.)
And remember the Tuck Rule game? Waiting for a good 15 minutes or so to get an actual call. The Harris “reception” was so questionable and unclear that there is still no definitive answer. There probably never will be.
Unofficially, this was the first known use of a replay to determine a call. Officially, the NFL continues to deny that the review made the decision. After watching every possible clip and camera angle, it’s just not clear enough to be a definitive yes or no. But of course with Raider Nation, even back then, theories abounded about the real discussion that was had. Possibly something like this.
“Hello, police chief? This is Fred Swearingen. How many cops do you have standing by? We’re about to make a call on the field that is going to piss off an entire nation and I want to live to make it home to my family.”
With these major questions hanging over that play, it’s no wonder Raiders and Steelers fans carry bad blood to this day. But Steelers fans, thank a Raider next time you see one because, without that call, your dynasty may never have been.
Up Next: The Sea of Highlights