Franco Harris was a superb running back who gained 12,120 yards rushing in 13 seasons, went 4-for-4 in Super Bowls with his Pittsburgh Steelers and fully deserves his niche in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Yet one play is what most fans outside Western Pennsylvania remember him for.
The “Immaculate Reception.”
You’ve seen it dozens of times because it turns up on TV every season, particularly during the playoffs. In the NFL’s 83 years, very few single plays have been as mesmerizing. But the circumstances surrounding it have been largely forgotten, as in most cases involving the spectacular. All we usually remember is the moment, not what preceded or followed, and perhaps that’s as it should be.
Old-timers remember Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that won the 1951 National League pennant playoff for the New York Giants but what was the final score? (Answer: Giants 5, Brooklyn Dodgers 4.)
Redskin devotees recall John Riggins wrestling away from Don McNeal’s attempted tackle and sprinting for the winning touchdown in Washington’s Super Bowl XVII victory over the Miami Dolphins but how far did he run? (Answer: 43 yards.)
Soccer fans exulted and Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt to celebrate the U.S. victory in the 1998 Women’s World Cup final but who was the American goalie who pitched a shutout in regulation play and two 15-minute overtime periods? (Answer: Briana Scurry.)
Franco Harris’ career moment, on Dec.23,1972, was important not only because it won a playoff game but because of what followed. His big play established once and for all that the Steelers were genuine NFL title contenders after going nearly 40 years without a championship and sinking to a 1-13 record in 1969 under new coach Chuck Noll.
The following week, the Steelers lost the AFC Championship to the unbeaten Dolphins, who went on to defeat the Redskins in Super Bowl VII. But all the key pieces were in place now: Franco, Terry Bradshaw, the “Steel Curtain” defense headed by Mean Joe Greene. Four Super Bowl victories followed as Pittsburgh became easily the dominant team of the ‘70s.
And one freak play started it all.
The Steelers’ opponents were the Oakland Raiders, coached by John Madden in the days before he became a national Teddy bear. During the regular season, Pittsburgh went 11-3, its first winning record in nine years. Harris, a rookie from Penn State, was a major contributor with 1,055 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. Now, two days before Christmas, 50,207 spectators in Three Rivers Stadium saw Oakland and Pittsburgh wage a fierce defensive struggle in their AFC semifinal.
The first half was scoreless before two field goals by Roy Gerela gave the Steelers a 6-0 lead in the fourth quarter. But Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler chilled the crowd when he read a Pittsburgh blitz, circled left end and lumbered 30 yards untouched for a score that put Oakland ahead 7-6 with just 1:13 remaining.
The Steelers, fighting the clock, stalled after the kickoff and found themselves facing a fourth-and-10, last-gasp situation with 22 seconds left as Bradshaw tried to move his team into position for a field goal. Then Dame Fortune smiled on the Steelers heck, she broke into an ear-to-ear grin.
Bradshaw called a pass play with receiver Barry Pearson as his first option and back Frenchy Fuqua as his second, but it appeared to go awry when the Raiders’ swarming defense forced Bradshaw out of the pocket. Seeing his quarterback in trouble, Harris abandoned his blocking duties and positioned himself as a potential receiver.
Spotting Fuqua at the Oakland 35, Bradshaw fired a bullet, but defensive back Jack “Assassin” Tatum arrived at the same time as the ball and flattened Fuqua. The ball ricocheted about 7 yards backward and was snatched by Harris at his shoetops. Off he went on an official 60-yard touchdown gallop destined to be preserved forever by NFL Films.
As fans stormed the field although 15 seconds remained, the Raiders argued that according to the rules at that time the touchdown should not count because the ball had touched two offensive players. But referee Fred Swearingen, after consulting television tapes in the first unofficial use of instant replay, ruled that Tatum had touched the ball in between, making it a legal play.
Of course, bedlam ensued. The “Immaculate Reception” became part of Steelers legend and NFL history.
“I saw the ball and thought I could catch it, but I felt someone hit me from behind,” Fuqua told reporters after the game. “Next thing I knew, Franco went roaring past me, and I wondered what was going on.”
So, undoubtedly, did the stunned Raiders.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be out there [as a receiver],” Harris said. “But I saw Terry in trouble, and I figured I better get out there if he had to throw it to me. But he threw it deep.”
For a guy who basically was a taciturn sort, Harris found himself embroiled in controversy more than once. Twelve years later, as he finished his career with a forgettable mini-season in Seattle, NFL career rushing leader Jim Brown criticized Harris for frequently running out of bounds to avoid tackles. And Brown, who was 48, added, “I could beat that guy in a race right now.”
Persuaded by TV money and prizes, Harris agreed to compete against Brown in four sports over two days: racquetball, football, one-on-one basketball and 40-yard dash. Although some 140 stations televised the “Challenge” won narrowly by Harris, if anyone cares this ultimate battle in Trash Sports soon was forgotten.
The “Immaculate Reception” won’t be. It might not have been divinely inspired, but don’t try to sell that idea in Pittsburgh. Or, for that matter, in Oakland.