This Sunday, October 27th, the Steelers play the Raiders in Oakland, rekindling a rivalry that during the 1970s amounted to a blood war that brought suffering to both sides. In the crucible, Mean Joe Greene and Double-O, Jim Otto, went helmet-to-helmet, two Hall of Fame ironclads, like football’s Monitor and Merrimack. These two teams met in playoff elimination games, beginning in 1972, for five consecutive seasons; Pittsburgh won three times, Oakland twice.
Forty-one years later, the opposing sides still don’t agree on what transpired during the Immaculate Reception.
It happened in1972, the same year that Richard Nixon was re-elected president, and the two teams’ current head coaches, Dennis Allen and Mike Tomlin, were born. In a divisional playoff game, Pittsburgh trailed the Raiders 7-6 with 22 seconds left at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers faced fourth-and-10 from their 40, needing only a field goal to win. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw, escaping the rush, lasered a pass downfield to running back John (Frenchy) Fuqua. Safety Jack Tatum slammed into Fuqua’s back just as the ball arrived.
The ball ricocheted seven yards, back to Franco Harris near the Raiders 42. Harris made a shin-high catch, and galloped down the left side and into the end zone with five seconds left for a game-winning touchdown. Or was it?
Tatum swore that he hadn’t touched the ball, which would have nullified the play. Fuqua swore that Tatum did touch the ball. The referees conferred: two officials said they saw Tatum touch the ball. Five minutes became ten, and more. Raiders Coach John Madden blew a gasket. Privately, his players called him Pinky because of moments such as this when he turned pink with rage.
Referee Fred Sweringen finally signaled touchdown. Pinky Madden roared. The Steelers won 13-7. In Pittsburgh, all heaven broke loose.
NFL Films later called it the most controversial play in league history.
The play lives in lore now, and also in the memories of those who experienced it firsthand.
The Steelers’ Jack Ham and Rocky Bleier told me they couldn’t bear to watch the play, and didn’t. Ham turned his back to the field as he cut tape from his wrist, figuring the season was over. Same with Bleier, who reached for a Gatorade that he didn’t want. Joe Greene wasn’t ready to give up. “This season has been too good,” he told a teammate on the sideline before the play. “It ain’t gonna end this way.”
On the Oakland sideline, two rookie linemen, Dave Dalby and John Vella, discussed how much money this victory was about to bring them: $7,500. “And even if we lose the next game,” Dalby said, “we’ll get $15,000.” That would nearly double their first-year salaries.
To hear Fuqua talk about the play in the four decades since, you’d think he scored the touchdown, or at least threw the pass. He took the hit, and if you count up all his retellings through the years onstage, at dinners, charity events, gatherings of Steeler fan clubs, and in impromptu conversations in bars, Tatum has rammed into his back about a thousand times, and Tatum might hit him a thousand times more.
Fuqua, now 67 and living in Detroit, always was a grand storyteller. In his best story, he said he was a French count who fell asleep while sunning on the French Riviera, and when he awoke he had turned black. Steeler broadcaster Myron Cope took to calling him Count Frenchy Fuqua. He dressed colorfully, winning locker room Dress-Offs against teammates with his lavender capes, Musketeer hats and mod shoes with goldfish swimming inside glass heels.
His telling of the Immaculate Reception typically suggests to listeners that, at long last, he will finally tell them what really happened. But then in his well-rehearsed payoff, he says only, “What happened on that play was truly immaculate.”
GARY M. POMERANTZ is a nonfiction author and journalist, and has served the past six years as a visiting lecturer in the Department of Communication at Stanford University. Pomerantz spent 17 years as a daily journalist (1982-1999), first as a sportswriter for The Washington Post where he covered Georgetown University basketball, the Washington Redskins and the National Football League, and later at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and Pomerantz has appeared on The CBS Early Show, CNN Sunday Morning, the BBC World Service’s “Outlook” and NPR. He has written four books, including The New York Times‘ Notable Book of the Year, When Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn (1996). For more information, please visit GaryMPomerantz.com.
His most recent book, Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now will be published on October 29th, by Simon & Schuster, a CBS Company.