The Oakland Raiders at the Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC Divisional Playoff Game December 23, 1972
The Pittsburgh Steelers were known as perennial losers until they hired Chuck Noll as their head coach in 1969. Coach Noll started to build his team through the draft and slowly the pieces began to come together.
The Oakland Raiders were part of the rival American Football League when they merged with the National Football League in 1970 to form the NFL as we now know it. They were coached by John Madden who operated in the shadow of Oakland’s arrogant owner Al Davis.
Since the franchise joined the league in1933, the Steelers had tasted post season football only once. In 1947 they tied the Eastern Division with the Eagles but lost to their rivals in a playoff game to confirm who would face the Western division champions.
In 1972, the (11-3) Steelers won their first division title when they advanced to the playoffs where they would host the (10-3-1) Raiders. Oakland had won their division title for the fourth time in five years.
From the opening kick-off, two good defensive teams stamped their authority on the way the game would play out. A scoreless first two quarters set the tone. Roy Gerela’s attempt at a 52-yard field goal was the only scoring opportunity offered to either team. Gerela’s kick fell short, matching the offenses on both sides.
With a 4th and 2 on Oakland’s 31, coach Noll decided to bypass the field goal attempt and put the ball into Frenchy Fuqua’s hands to extend the series. Oakland safety Jack Tatum came over the top and stopped Fuqua in his tracks. Fuqua had hit the proverbial brick wall and Oakland took over on downs.
Gerela finally edged the Steelers ahead five minutes into the second half with an 18-yard field goal. Both defenses were stifling any play making. With a scoring opportunity as rare as an oasis in the desert, Gerela added a 29-yard field goal with less than four minutes remaining. ‘Gerela’s Gorillas’ were confident their kicker had given Pittsburgh their first ever playoff victory.
To inject a spark into his offense, Oakland’s Coach Madden replaced Daryle Lamonica with Ken Stabler at quarterback. Stabler continued to struggle until he found one moment of magic. With the Raiders stalled on the Steelers’ 30, Stabler saw the blitzing linebackers preparing for a pass. Stabler moved to his left to evade the blitz and saw an open field.
Stabler ran 30 yards down the sideline for the touchdown to tie the game. The successful point after kick put Oakland a point in front with 1:13 remaining.
At this low point, Steeler fans must have thought that the knack of winning was once again going to elude their team. Art Rooney accepted their fate and began to make his way to the locker room to be there to console his players.
The once buoyant home fans were now silent as they accepted their fate. Coach Noll had to prepare his offense to recover from ecstasy to realism. With little time remaining, the primary aim was to get the team within Gerela’s field goal range.
Franco Harris and Fuqua were again the target men as the Steelers advanced the ball to their own 40-yard line for a first down. Bradshaw’s next two passes were well defended. On third down Bradshaw attempted to hit tight end John McMakin, but it was Tatum again who came to the Raiders’ rescue and prevented the completion.
The Steelers had one last chance with 0:22 left in the game.
On the Steelers’ sideline, rookie wide receiver Barry Pearson, who had not played a down all season, remained dutifully near Lionel Taylor, his position coach. “Lionel told me to go in for Shanklin,” Pearson later said.
“Someone gave me the play to take into Bradshaw. The plan was to just get a first down.” Asked if he was nervous, Pearson chuckled, stuck his tongue in his cheek, and asked back, “Why would I be nervous?”
The play – 66 circle option – had wide receiver Al Young run an out to the left, Fuqua, a curl over the middle and McMakin, a deep post. Pearson, the primary receiver, was to run underneath McMakin, about 12 yards deep and just past the big Steelers logo at midfield. Harris was in to block.
Fourth-and-10… Bradshaw takes the snap. Under pressure, as the pocket collapses, Bradshaw avoids tackles. He desperately searches for an open receiver knowing the Steelers season had come down to this one last play. Seeing Fuqua running forward, Bradshaw launched a quick pass, but Tatum in the backfield accelerated forward and slapped the ball away.
The ball was falling incomplete. Harris came from nowhere, scooped the ball up from his shoe laces and continued to run into the end zone for the score and into Pittsburgh legend and a permanent spot at Pittsburgh International Airport.
That one play, that one bounce of the ball, that one spectacular retrieval by Harris took the ‘Same Old Steelers’ and put them on the road to success.
No playoff wins, and no answered prayers until December 23rd, 1972.
After that date, no longer chumps.
As Franco Harris crossed the goal line, mayhem descended onto the field. The stadium exploded as the fans came to terms with the result. Finally, the Steelers had won a playoff game.
The stadium burst into a standing, screaming, flag and banner waving frenzied mass. Thousands of fans leapt from their seats onto the field surrounding their heroes as men in another age might have paid tribute to their victorious gladiators.
THE DEBATE BEGINS
Amidst all this pandemonium, the officials had to decide whether the play was legal because of the rule at the time.
The rule stated that once an offensive player touches a pass, he is the only offensive player eligible to catch the pass. However, if a defensive player touches the pass “first, or simultaneously with or subsequent to its having been touched by only one offensive player, then all offensive players become and remain eligible” to catch the pass. The rule was rescinded in 1978.
Dan Rooney describes what happened in stadium after the touchdown in his book, “My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL.”
“Just then the press box phone rings. It’s on the wall right where I’m standing, so I answer it. It’s Jim Boston, our man on the field, calling from the baseball dugout. He tells me he’s got Fred Swearingen (the referee) standing right next to him. Boston says Swearingen wants to talk to Art McNally, the supervisor of officials.
Dan Rooney calls McNally over to the phone and in answer to a question from the referee replies, ‘Well, you have to call what you saw. You have to make the call. Talk to your people and make the call.’
The officials are huddled on the 30-yard line. I know the rule: If the ball bounced off Tatum before Harris caught it, then the play stands and it’s a touchdown. If the ball bounced off Frenchy, then it’s incomplete.
Finally, Swearingen steps away from the other officials and raise his arms to signal a touchdown. The press box goes wild, papers fly, reporters yell at each other and I run for the elevator to the locker room.”
SANTA AND STEELER FANS
“Santa Finds Steeler Fans Early,” read the front-page headline in the next day’s (Christmas day) edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The newspaper suggested that Steeler fans would forever believe in Santa Claus and went on to describe the mayhem that was Three Rivers Stadium.
It was a wild scene as men with infants in arms, young girls, and thousands of boys and young men of all ages ran over the field, jumping and hugging each other.
“It seems unfair,” John Madden said, not just once, but he repeats it seven times. “How can you lose like that? We know it’s fourth down, their last play and that freak thing happens. What do you say about a thing like that?”
Jack Tatum, who had gloriously batted two passes away in the last series only to knock the big one into Franco Harris’ low scoop, sits in a pitiful corner with George Atkinson and Willie Brown. “I didn’t touch the ball,” Tatum says. “And if it touches him (Fuqua), it’s an illegal pass.”
Atkinson, tearful, still in full uniform long after his teammates had showered, “We fight for four ****ing quarters and this happens.“
Oakland’s Coach Madden never got over the call that went against him.
“In the history of football, when a guy crosses the goal line, it’s either a touchdown or it’s not,” Madden said when asked about the play during a 1980s interview. “They didn’t know if it was a touchdown.
I went out, they said, ‘Get away, we don’t know what happened.’ So now, the referee leaves the huddle and he goes over to the dugout, on the Pittsburgh Steelers side, and gets on the phone, and he makes a call to someone. Then he hangs up, and then he walks out the middle of the field and signals touchdown, some five or ten minutes later.
They said that they didn’t look at replay, they didn’t do anything. I still don’t know who they made the phone call to because they won’t admit it…that question has never been answered to this day.”
While the Raiders had suffered several painful playoff losses prior to that game, John Madden’s son Joe, said that this one loss in Pittsburgh was on an entirely different level.
THE IMMACULATE RECEPTION CONCEPTION
That evening, while Myron Cope was typing his television commentary, he was interrupted by a caller who suggested the catch should be called “the Immaculate Reception.” Later, Cope acknowledged, “If it didn’t have such a great name, do you think people would still remember it as the greatest play of all time?”
Fifty years later, this Saturday the Steelers will celebrate the play that changed chumps into champs.