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Immaculate Reception and Franco Harris

The Game Before the Money Radio Show saluted the Pittsburgh Steelers Immaculate Reception and Franco Harris on December 24, 2022.

What was the Immaculate Reception?

The Immaculate Reception game was played on December 23rd, 1972 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. It was the first playoff game ever won by the Steelers in franchise history, going back all the way to when they were founded in 1933. The famous play from that game was Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris catching a deflected pass and scoring the game-winning touchdown with just seconds left in the game. That catch is called the “Immaculate Reception”.

Why is it called the Immaculate Reception?

Because the play won a game that seemed all but lost, in addition to the play being so unlikely, plus the fact that it happened just two days before Christmas. The name came about on Steeler broadcaster Myron Cope’s show. A listener called in and suggested that the play be remembered as the Immaculate Reception. The 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the Raiders and Steelers is often called the Immaculate Reception Game, named after Harris’ famous catch.

Franco Harris Bio and Rookie Stats

Franco Harris was a rookie in 1972, the year of the Immaculate Reception. He had an outstanding rookie season.

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Franco Harris was drafted by the Steelers in the first round of the 1972 NFL draft. He gained over 1000 yards rushing his rookie year, making him only the fifth player in pro football history to gain 1000 yards rushing as a rookie. And that made him only the second Pittsburgh Steeler ever to have 1000 yards rushing in a season. The first was Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson. Franco’s rookie year was incredible. He had six straight 100 yard games and that tied him with Jim Brown for the NFL record at the time. Also in his rookie season, he said the Steelers single season touchdown rushing record scoring ten rushing touchdowns that year. He was the only rookie on the AFC Pro Bowl team and he made the Pro Bowl each of his first nine seasons.

Franco Harris grew up in New Jersey. He was a high school all-American there. He went to Penn State with college teammates, with running back Lydell Mitchell, who was also an outstanding NFL running back. Harris was also college teammates with Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham at Penn State.

Harris was the MVP of Super Bowl 9. He played almost his entire NFL career for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played his final NFL season with the Seattle Seahawks.

Ken Stabler Nearly Won the Game for the Raiders

Right before the Immaculate Reception, the Raiders had a great play and that would have been the major highlight. Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who had come into the game to relieve their starting quarterback Daryle Lamonica, ran for a long touchdown late in the game to give the Raiders a 7-6 lead.

Who Called the Immaculate Reception Play?

Steelers assistant coach Lionel Taylor, once a star receiver for the Denver Broncos, called the play. The Steelers faced a fourth down with less than thirty seconds left in the game. Taylor told The Game Before the Money, “I called the play and it didn’t work. I called a hook to Barry Pearson.”

Taylor added that the Steelers were simply trying to make a first down. A field goal would have won the game, but the Steelers were out of field goal range and needed to make a first down.

The play Taylor called might have worked to get a first down if the Oakland Raiders pass rush didn’t get to Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw so quickly. Bradshaw tried to extend the play by running around.

When Franco Harris saw Bradshaw in trouble, he decided to run downfield in the hopes of giving Bradshaw an extra receiving target. Bradshaw threw the ball to John “Frenchy” Fuqua, but it bounced into the hands of Harris who caught the ball and ran it in for an improbable touchdown.

Why is the Immaculate Reception Controversial?

The Immaculate Reception is controversial for two reasons. Some wonder if Harris really caught the ball or if it hit the ground first. The Raiders also questioned whether any catch Harris might have made was legal under the rules of the time. In 1972, a ball could not bounce off one offensive player and be caught by another.

The network broadcast didn’t fully show whether Franco Harris actually caught the ball or it hit the ground. Perhaps the full-field shot provides the best angle and you can decide for yourself.

Secondly, it was also difficult to tell whether the ball hit Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum or Frenchy Fuqua.

Over the years, more mystery surrounded the game. Referee Fred Swearingen called the NFL’s leading official Art McNally on the phone shortly after the play happened. Rumors begin to surface among the Raiders that the call might have had something to do with Swearingen fearing for the officiating crew’s safety if they didn’t rule the play a touchdown. Steeler fans had already swarmed the field proclaiming victory, even though a few seconds still remained on the clock.

None of these has been fully proven true or false, making the Immaculate Reception one of the most controversial plays in NFL history. Other plays have also caused controversy, including the famous Hail Mary play.

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Steelers Owner Art Rooney Missed the Play

Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney missed the Immaculate Reception entirely. He was on an elevator headed to the locker room as the play unfolded.

What Happened After the Immaculate Reception?

The Steelers advanced to the 1972 AFC Championship Game. The Miami Dolphins defeated the Steelers, on their way to a completely undefeated season. The Steelers later won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, aided by an incredible draft class in 1974. After 1972, the Raiders played in the AFC Championship Game for five consecutive seasons, and won Super Bowl 11.

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