It was December 23, 1972. Two days before Christmas. Little did we know that Pittsburgh would be getting their biggest Christmas gift since Bill Mazeroski sent the New York Yankees from Schenley Park back to the Bronx sans Championship in 1960. Little did we know that we were also witnessing the birth of a Nation.
The Steelers were in their 40th year of existence with one playoff appearance (a 21-7 loss to the Eagles in 1947) in their history. Pittsburgh was a Pirates baseball town. There was no “Steeler Nation” yet. But the city was electric in 1972. The Steelers came into their own that year led by a rookie running back from Penn State named Franco Harris and a ferocious defense led by 4th year pro Mean Joe Greene. The first playoff game that anyone under the age of 25 could remember was an exciting first time event. The game was blacked out in Pittsburgh as NFL rules prohibited a televising a home game. An Italian Army and 50,000 other people crammed into the friendly confines at Three Rivers Stadium on the confluence. Many drove outside city limits to catch the game on TV. I huddled around a transistor radio with my basketball team after our Sunday scrimmages at the Y in Oakland about quarter mile from the spot Mazeroski’s homerun cleared the leftfield fence at Forbes Field.
It was a defensive struggle all day. The score was 0-0 at the half. The Steelers managed a field goal in the 3rd and another in the fourth to surge to a 6-0 lead. The Raiders coach John Madden pulled the ineffective QB Darryl Lamonica from the game and switched to a young QB named Kenny Stabler. The Snake promptly scampered 42 yards for a 4th quarter TD with only 1:13 left on the clock. The air left the building and the city. SOS. “Same old Steelers” the cagey old Pittsburgh fan base would say especially after 3 Bradshaw incomplete passes brought up 4th and 10. As we huddled around the radio at the Y listening to Jack Flemming on WTAE we knew we were down to one final play as the clock showed: 22. The Steelers broke the huddle. What happened next was the birth of a nation. Flemming said
“Twenty-two seconds remaining, and Bradshaw is back and looking again, Bradshaw running out of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to, fires it downfield, and there's a collision, and it's caught out of the air, the ball is pulled in by Franco Harris.”
Next was complete bedlam. Franco hustled down the sideline as the Raiders celebrated. A couple Raiders gave chase but to no avail. LC Greenwood said, "I didn't see the play. I was talking to the man upstairs. I didn't want to interrupt what I was doing. Next thing I know, the guys are jumping around and there goes Franco and I'm saying, 'Lord, I hope he has the ball." Franco did have the ball. He raced down the sideline past Raider DB Neal Colzie and into the end zone for a Steelers TD. The crowd surged onto the field. The referees huddled. “Touchdown” was the call from head linesman Fred Swearingen. “I went from the depths of despair to the apex of ecstasy” said Steelers C Ray Mansfield. So did the city of Pittsburgh. We had burst on to the national football scene. A Steeler Nation was born.