For Oakland Raiders fans, the events of Dec. 23, 1972 are just a bad memory, one of many instances (likes Tom Brady’s “Tuck Rule”) when they feel they were horrifically hosed. But for Pittsburgh Steelers fans, the Immaculate Reception is imprinted into the mythology of the city and the team (and let’s face it, those two are often one and the same).
One of the most controversial plays in NFL history, the Immaculate Reception became legendary in part because of its improbability, but also because to this day it’s not clear exactly what happened. During a divisional playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers trailed the Raiders 7-6 late in the 4th quarter. Facing a 4th and 10 on their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds to play and no timeouts, Bradshaw launched a throw under pressure toward halfback John “Frenchy” Fuqua. Right as the ball reached Fuqua, he collided with Raiders safety Jack Tatum and the ball ricocheted backwards.
Just before the ball scraped the turf, however, Steelers fullback Franco Harris scooped up the pigskin and ran it in for the game-winning touchdown. But that was only the beginning of the excitement. In those days, NFL rules stated that two offensive players could not touch the ball in succession. The Raiders argued that Bradshaw’s pass hit Frenchy Fuqua’s helmet, and was therefore an incomplete pass. The Steelers maintained that the pass had smacked Tatum, keeping the play alive. Even though the play was covered from several angles, it’s still not clear whom the ball hit.
To this day, a conspiracy theory exists that the referees asked the stadium security if they would be protected were they to rule against the Steelers. When that answer was “No” they signaled a touchdown. That little bit may be entirely plausible, but the play itself stands as one of the most argued over in sports history. What really happened? You be the judge.
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