Pittsburgh Steelers 13 Oakland Raiders 7
December 23, 1972
Three Rivers Stadium Pittsburgh, PA
I would never actually see this game but would read about it not too long afterwards. At the age of four, I was wandering around the local shopping mall helping my older brother and my mom get last minute Christmas gifts while my dad, suffering a case of the flu, tuned into the game. He would relate to me years later that he couldn’t figure out what happened, so I went to YouTube and reviewed the play myself hundreds of times to find the truth of who touched the ball.
One of the most famous games in the history of professional football has given football fans its biggest mystery. Just say the words “Immaculate Reception” to anyone who has followed the game and listen to them try to explain it. The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the playoffs at Three Rivers Stadium. The two teams had met in the first game of the season, with the Steelers winning 34-28. The Steelers won the American Football Conference Central Division with an 11-3 record while the Raiders won 10, lost 3 and tied one.
As I would learn through reading NFL Prolog, an annual review of each year’s football season, this game marked the first appearance in the playoffs for Pittsburgh in twenty-five years. A crowd of 50,327 showed up to see them play the Raiders in person, but the game was “blacked out” locally
The teams played to a scoreless tie in the first half. Roy Gerela kicked two field goals in the second half to give the Steelers a 6-0 lead. But with 1:13 left in the game, Raider quarterback Ken Stabler avoided several Steeler defenders and ran with two bad knees down the left sideline for a very unlikely touchdown of thirty yards. George Blanda’s extra point gave the Raiders the lead.
Quarterback Terry Bradshaw moved his team from their 20-yard line to their 40-yard line with passes to his running backs, Franco Harris and John “Frenchy” Fuqua. But Bradshaw misfired on his next three passes, two of which were knocked down by Raider safety Jack Tatum. Tatum reached over the shoulder of a Steeler receiver to bat one of the balls to the turf.
On fourth down and with 22 seconds left in the game, Bradshaw went back to pass and eluded a fierce Raider rush. Realizing that his initial pass target Barry Pearson was not open, he threw the ball in the direction of Fuqua near the Raider 35-yard line. The ball, Tatum and Fuqua all appeared to arrive at the same time. Tatum came running toward the ball, while Fuqua arrived from the side.
Because of the collision, the ball rebounded about seven yards to the other Steeler running back, Franco Harris, who caught it and ran all the way into the end zone. Some have disputed that he caught the ball before it hit the ground, but no camera angle answers this question conclusively.
Where is the controversy?
Back then, NFL rules (the Official Rules for Professional Football 1971), stated that once an offensive player touches a pass, he is the only offensive player eligible to catch the pass. There was an exception: 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.[i]
The legality of the play comes down to who touched the ball. If Tatum touched the ball, the play was legal, and the referees would have done the right thing by upholding the touchdown. If Tatum did not touch the ball and Fuqua did touch it, the play would not have been legal. The referees should have ruled the pass incomplete and returned the ball to the Raiders to run out the clock. The two angles on the play available on film do not conclusively show the answer to the question of who touched the ball.
So, I will try a different tack to get the answer: First, I will identify the facts not in dispute:
Tatum and Fuqua collided right when the ball arrived.
The ball traveled backwards about seven yards to Harris, who caught it right at ground level.
Then, I will make several guesses as to what happened and choose the hypothesis that fits the facts best.
Hypothesis #1: Tatum alone touched the ball. It makes sense for Tatum to knock the ball down for an incomplete pass as the game would effectively be over and the Raiders would win. The problem with this hypothesis is that Fuqua was between Tatum and the ball. Fuqua has stated, “I knew he [Bradshaw] was going to throw to me. I could see Tatum was heading toward the middle of the field, and that the location of the pass would bring me on a collision course with him. I'm thinking that I just want to get my body between him and the ball.”[ii]
And how did Fuqua, who HAD to catch the ball for his team to have a chance to win, somehow miss it completely? How did Tatum hit the ball and not Fuqua if all three arrived at the same time?
Hypothesis #2: Tatum touched the ball first, and then Fuqua touched it. The same guess as above except that the ball also nicked Fuqua. The ball could have only made slight contact with Fuqua because had the ball bounced off Tatum and struck Fuqua with any kind of force, it would have slowed down and would not likely have flown seven yards back. While Tatum could have hit the ball right before hitting Fuqua, the other question from Hypothesis #1, how Fuqua could miss the ball completely, remains valid.
Hypothesis #3: Fuqua touched the ball first, and then Tatum touched it.
This hypothesis could explain the distance of the ball’s flight to Harris. Fuqua could have touched the ball on the ball’s path to Tatum. Tatum could then have knocked the ball to Harris. But how did Tatum contact Fuqua AND knock the ball seven yards AT THE SAME TIME?
Hypothesis #4: Fuqua alone touched the ball. Tatum was a hard-hitting safety who had a knack for hitting a player just as the ball arrived. He would have to hit Fuqua in such a manner that the hit would carry the ball hitting Fuqua back with enough force to propel it seven yards. But how did the hit Tatum applied to Fuqua cause the ball the project seven yards?
Selecting a Hypothesis
The hypothesis that appears to answer the facts best is number 4. Tatum’s ability to hit Fuqua with enough force to cause the ball to go seven yards can be answered sufficiently. Tatum hit players with intensity, paralyzing New England Patriot wide receiver Darryl Stingley with a (legal) hit. He hit Minnesota Viking wide receiver Sammy White so hard in Super Bowl XI that White’s helmet came off. (Interestingly, White held on to the ball!)
And he dislodged the football from Denver Bronco running back Rob Lytle in the 1977 AFC Championship game with a precise strike on the ball. If anyone could hit another player hard enough to make a football fly back seven yards, it would be Jack Tatum.
Another test to apply is to note the reactions of the players around him, some of whom likely had an idea as to who touched the ball. Three of the closest players to the action were Raider defense back Jimmy Warren, defensive tackle Art Thoms and linebacker Gerald Irons. Warren and Thoms, behind Tatum, can be seen starting to clap after Tatum made the hit. Irons ran in front of Tatum and slowed down after the hit. Tatum himself appears to come to almost a complete stop after the hit.
His reaction is not consistent with a player who could see the ball on its way to Harris UNLESS he was convinced that he (Tatum) had not touched the ball. All the Raiders gave chase to Harris. Some would say that this reaction is consistent with a belief that the play was legal. However, with no referees having given any indication that the play was illegal (i.e. a flag or a whistle), the Raiders had no choice but to play on and contest the call later.
Fuqua’s reaction is telling. After hitting the ground in response to the contact with Tatum, he appears to look into the ground. He only looks up after Harris has caught the ball and the crowd has responded. Tatum, who passed away in 2010, said that he did not touch the ball. He told author John Lombardo, “I’ve watched films and still have never seen a film that showed I actually touched the ball.”[iii]
But Fuqua will not publicly say what happened. If he knew he did not touch the ball or if he knew that Tatum did, it would make sense for him to come out and say it to lift the cloud that hangs over the integrity of this game. I learned the power of proximity. It helps to hold the big game on your home turf where the fans’ approval or disapproval of a call is certainly enough to make referees feel uncomfortable.
Though I did not see this game personally, I have seen replays of this play hundreds of times thanks to YouTube and replays sometimes shown on football games. I have also seen still pictures, read about this play and debated it with other football fans on the Internet. From all of this, I got a sense of what really happened.
After Harris ran in for the touchdown, fans started to pour onto the field. It took fifteen minutes for order to be restored so that Roy Gerela could kick the extra point. What would these fans have done had the call been made the other way?
A person’s first instincts are for self-preservation. With the thought of angry fans on their hands, the referees, no more aware of who touched the ball then than we are forty years later, took the safe option of calling a touchdown for the home team.
Look at the official story: The head official, Fred Swearingen, went to the baseball dugout and phoned the head of NFL referees, Art McNally. According to McNally, Swearingen "never asked me about the rule, and never asked what I saw. All he said was, 'Two of my men say that opposing players touched the ball.' And I said, 'everything's fine then, go ahead.'"[iv]
At face value, McNally’s recollection of Swearingen’s comment makes little sense. If Swearingen knew the rule on players touching the ball and he knew opposing players touched the ball, then he already knew what call needed to be made. If he already had the call in mind, then why bother getting on the phone with the head of referees? If he was not certain of the rule, there was no need for Swearingen to talk to McNally. Swearingen could simply have consulted the rule book to confirm he had the rule correctly. That would have taken away the appearance of impropriety that he made by contacting McNally.
If he was not certain of what happened on the play, then again Swearingen should have had no use for McNally. His fellow referees had already reported that “opposing players touched the ball.” The head of referees had no authority to rule as to the facts of the play. Reading about this game makes me read into statements that people make.
The facts are clear that Swearingen got on the phone with someone. Whether he talked to McNally or not, the conversation was not about the facts of the play or the applicable rule. Most likely, a serious question came over him as to what had really happened. He probably leaned toward the explanation that only Fuqua had touched the ball and did what many do when confronting an unpleasant truth: he looked for someone to talk him out of the truth or to at least give him a little encouragement.
The deepest truth of this game is that home field advantage covers a lot of ground.
[iii] Lombardo, John. Raiders Forever: Stars of the NFL’s Most Colorful Team Recall Their Glory Days; McGraw Hill, New York, 2001 (page 97)