December 23rd, 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Oakland Raiders in an AFC Division round playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium. Trailing 7-6, Pittsburgh faced a fourth-and-10 at their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the game. It looked like the Steelers franchise would have to wait at least another season for their first playoff win.
But on the next play, Steelers Quarterback Terry Bradshaw scrambled for his life and basically threw the ball up for grabs. What happened next is history.
Raiders safety Jack Tatum, halfback John “Frenchy” Fuqua and the football all collided at the Raiders 35-yard line. Tatum knocked Fuqua down, and the ball went fluttering several yards backwards.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Steelers rookie fullback Franco Harris scoops the fluttering ball out of the air and runs down the sidelines for the game winning score. Steelers win their first ever playoff game, 13-7.
The Immaculate Reception, however, is not famous just for its place in history; several controversies surround the play. First, did Harris actually catch the ball? Some fans believe the ball scrapes against the ground as Harris make the catch. Second, the block that appears to be in the back as Harris scampers down the sidelines. Finally the most controversial part of the play, did the ball hit Jack Tatum or Frenchy Fuqua?
Until 1978, NFL rules stated “once an offensive player touches a pass, he is the only offensive player eligible to catch the pass”. So if the ball hits Fuqua, the pass would be deemed illegal, and the Steelers would turn the ball over on downs.
Physics would tell you that the ball hit off Tatum because he was moving directly towards the ball which would cause it to go backwards. Isaac Newton’s third law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Fuqua and the ball were both going left on the screen, so if he made contact with the ball, it is unlikely the ball would have bounced back as far as it did.
Without instant replay, the referees had to make the call on the field, and they went with the touchdown. Raider guard Gene Upshaw told NFL Films years later that the referees were afraid to rule the pass incomplete out of fear of making it out of Three Rivers Stadium safely.
To this day, Tatum claims the ball never hit him, and Fuqua says he knows exactly what happened but will never tell.
Regardless of whether the ball hits Tatum or Fuqua, the play launched what became the greatest rivalry in the NFL. The Steelers and Raiders would play each other the next four years in the playoffs, three of which were the AFC Championship. The winner of those AFC Championship Games won the Super Bowl each year. The two teams would combine to win six of the next eight Super Bowls.
The play also transformed a franchise, a perennial loser, into one of the greatest football dynasties of all-time. Pittsburgh had won its first playoff game and would return to the playoffs the next seven seasons, win six division titles and four Super Bowls in the 1970’s.
Today 40 years ago, one single NFL play changed a franchise and city forever.