The lasting memory for me is the noise. That, and the oft-forgotten confusion over an obscure NFL rule that nearly negated the “Immaculate Reception.”
News of Franco Harris’s death on Wednesday, just two days before the unforgettable play’s 50th anniversary, brings back a whirlwind of memories, some because I was in the stands at the game, some because I had been in the Pittsburgh universe at the time. .
At the time, the Steelers’ historic incompetence was a notable backdrop to that 1972 playoff game. The team had previously reached the playoffs just once in its 40-year history – and that was in 1947. The Steelers were the Houston Texans of their day.
Luckily for me, my dad saw the promise in this version of the team and bought season tickets, which meant we’d be among the lucky 50,000 people in Pittsburgh who could watch the game in real time.
Back when the NFL’s popularity wasn’t booming, the league thought live broadcasts in the home team’s city would discourage ticket sales — and the rule strangely applied even to a sold-out playoff game.
The game was a brutal defensive battle in the December cold, with a scoreless first half. The Steelers took a 6-0 lead on two field goals, but what seemed inevitable finally happened: the favorite Raiders scored a touchdown with just over a minute to play.
Remembering Franco Harris
The Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame running back who took part in the “immaculate reception” died Dec. 21. He was 72 years old.
Things looked bleak. The friends who came with us left to beat the crowd. (Regrets? They have a few.)
Fortunately, my father strongly believes in staying until the end. You never know what’s going to happen, he says – a lesson he learned after once missing an unlikely finish at a basketball game.
So there we were, standing in our seats in the end zone behind the play and, like every other Steelers fan, holding out only dim hope as this desperate fourth down play unfolded.
Our hopes were dashed when Terry Bradshaw’s long pass bounced away from John “Frenchy” Fuqua and into the air. In my memory, there was a shared groan throughout the stadium.
Ruckus. Harris ran, the crowd roared, the referees huddled. Had the ball hit a Raider after bouncing off Fuqua, or had it bounced from a Steeler to another? The rules at the time did not allow a player to deflect a pass to his own teammate, even inadvertently.
It would have taken a bold official to declare the game illegal with a cheering crowd pouring into the end zone around him, and sure enough the game held.
Hours later, broadcaster Myron Cope, himself a beloved Pittsburgh character, received a call from a listener whose friend had christened the play “The Immaculate Reception.” The legend had the necessary brilliance.
In the blink of an eye, Harris had become the Prince of Pittsburgh. His fans, playing on his mother’s legacy, labeled themselves “Franco’s Italian army” and even Frank Sinatra joined their ranks.
The Steelers lost to the Dolphins in the next round, but won four Super Bowls over the next eight years. Harris became the second best runner in league history, was inducted into the Hall of Fame and had his statue placed next to that of George Washington at Pittsburgh International Airport.
He remained humble, even at 22 in the delirious moment of his most famous touchdown. This grace and goodwill made him all the more beloved. His army of fans remains, if in unexpected mourning as we prepare to honor the anniversary of the take that still evokes the thought of divine intervention.