By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review Associate Editor
When you step off the plane at Pittsburgh International Airport, there are two statues that enthusiastically greet you. Any idea which figures in the annals of American history those might be? If you think the two most famous icons of Pittsburgh are Jeff Goldblum and Gene Kelly, think again. If you guessed George Washington and Franco Harris, then you win the big door prize. That's correct: the father of our country, and the man who brought us the Immaculate Reception. The term Immaculate Reception came from a bar toast following the game, with a fan calling it in to sportscaster Myron Cope before the 11 pm news. The name may live for all eternity, and many consider this the greatest National Football League play of all time.
The date was Dec. 23, 1972, and the Oakland Raiders led Pittsburgh 7-6 in a divisional playoff game. Facing fourth and 10 at their own 40-yard line, the Steeler fans were filing toward the exits, with just 22 seconds remaining. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw faded back to pass, and, flushed from the pocket as it collapsed, he threw toward halfback Frenchy Fuqua at the Raiders' 35-yard line.
Bradshaw was flattened by the rush, but as he lay on the ground looking up, he heard the crowd begin to roar. Oakland safety Jack Tatum hit Fuqua with a bone-jarring tackle as the ball arrived, and it flew backward end-over-end toward Harris near midfield. Harris scooped up the ball just before it hit the ground, running past one defender, picking up a block and stiff-arming a defender before galloping in for a touchdown and Pittsburgh's first playoff victory.
Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler had just driven his team the length of the field for what looked like the winning touchdown. So Harris’s mother—a deeply religious woman—lit a candle at her home, knowing it would take a miracle. And you know the rest of the story.
The play is controversial to this day, with Oakland fans claiming they were robbed, while Pittsburgh faithful say divine intervention from God. Oakland coach John Madden refuses to discuss the play even to this day, even though four decades have passed.
Although the Steelers lost in the next playoff round to the Miami Dolphins, they reversed 40 years of futility and forged a dynasty. Bradshaw, Harris, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann and the Steel Curtain defense would dominate the league for a decade. Harris and a chunk of those Steelers would eventually be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Also, the Steelers recently unveiled another statue where Three Rivers Stadium stood before it was razed. Pittsburgh now plays its home games at Heinz Field.
Many football fans remember where they were when that play happened. I can close my eyes today, and see it like it was yesterday. I was a youngster in California, living in a single-wide trailer with a 1950s black-and-white television mounted in the wall. It was an old tube-style job and we picked up all of four stations—sometimes. My dad wanted to buy some tools from Sears that day, so he drove us down there and left me in the TV area. There were dozens of full-color televisions with big screens, and I just stood there basking in the glory. And then came the play, and they just kept playing it over and over. And over.