If you're a Steelers fan, you obviously know about the Immaculate Reception, a seemingly miraculous play that occurred during a playoff game between the Steelers and Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium some 40 seasons ago on December 23rd, 1972.
However, in case you don't know about the play, the Steelers were trailing, 7-6, with only seconds remaining. It was 4th down and 10 from Pittsburgh's 40 yard line. Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw took the snap, dodged a couple of Raiders defenders and let fly with one of his famous bullet passes. His target was former Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua, who was ready to receive the football at about Oakland's 35. Only problem was Jack Tatum, the Raiders legendary safety nicknamed "The Assassin," arrived to meet Frenchy right as the ball did. Tatum let loose with one of his patented vicious hits, and the ball went spiraling backwards. Franco Harris, who was trailing the play after initially staying in the backfield to try and pick off any Raiders pass rushers, caught the football just before it hit the ground and galloped the remaining 42 yards for the improbable touchdown.
The Steelers won the game, 13-7, and the seeds of a future dynasty were sewn. It is a play that will always be revered by Steeler Nation because it is universally credited with changing the fortunes of the franchise.
Of course, that's how the Steelers and their fans see the play. If you ask Raiders supporters, they'll probably have a different opinion about that play.
"I thought we were 'taken.' The word is stronger within our organization. It was a mistake, but I guess it was an honest mistake. We should have had that playoff game, but we didn't get it."
That is a quote from Al Davis, the Raiders late owner who died a season ago, and who probably went to his grave truly believing that his team was robbed of a victory on that fateful play that we Steelers fans cherish so much.
Most of the Raiders players who battled the Steelers on the turf of Three Rivers that day believe they were robbed, as do the fans, and as euphoric as many Steelers fans still are when discussing that play all these years later, that's how bitter the Raiders fans still are when the subject comes up. Don't believe me? Here's your proof: An anti-Immaculate Reception post from Silver & Black Pride, published just two months ago. It's actually a pretty good read, but their theories seem a little far-fetched.
The reason so many Raiders supporters believe the Immaculate Reception never should have counted is because, back in '72, the NFL had a rule in place that prohibited two offensive receivers from touching the football consecutively. The dispute over the play is whether or not Fuqua touched the football before it spiraled into Franco's mitts. If you're a Raiders fan or former player, you will say without a shadow of a doubt that Fuqua did indeed touch that football. Why? Well, because you love the Raiders. However, where is your proof? Good luck finding any.
I'm not here to try and clarify whether or not Frenchy Fuqua touched that football, because, quite frankly, I think it's kind of cool that there is so much mystery surrounding the play. When you get right down to it, it was such a bang-bang play, I don't know how any Raiders supporter can definitively say that the call should have gone in their favor.
I don't know why the NFL had such a rule in place back then, but I can only assume that it was so receivers couldn't play volleyball with the football and intentionally tip it to their teammate. If that was the case then Pittsburgh didn't violate the spirit of the rule. Even if the football did deflect off of Fuqua right to Harris, it was a random act that Fuqua didn't intentionally participate in.
Frenchy has spent the better part of the last four decades saying that he knows exactly what happened on the play and that he'll take the secret to his grave. Fuqua, a pretty eccentric character, is obviously having some fun at the Raiders expense and antagonizing them at the same time. You gotta love Frenchy.
The Raiders organization is one that has had its share of axes to grind over the years because of perceived postseason screw-jobs, but why the Immaculate Reception, a play that could not be more inconclusive, is number one on their all-time hit-list is beyond me.
I can think of at least two other plays that went against the Raiders that were way more controversial than the Immaculate Reception:
Rob Lytle's "Fumble that Wasn't" in the 1977 AFC Championship Game Against the Denver Broncos
Denver had the football 1st and goal in the 3rd quarter when Broncos running back Rob Lytle appeared to fumble after being smacked by Tatum. The Raiders picked the football up and looked to have an easy touchdown the other way. Only problem was, the play was blown dead. Denver eventually scored a touchdown on the drive and went on to win the game. Oakland was prevented from defending its Super Bowl title from a season earlier. You can see the controversial play at the 4:20 mark of this video clip. If you ask me, this play trumps the Immaculate Reception in a big way. Yet, it's not mentioned nearly as often.
The Overturned Fumble in the 2001 Divisional Playoff Game against the Patriots
And then there was the "Tuck Rule" game. Most fans know about the controversial ending to the Divisional Playoff game between the Raiders and Patriots following the 2001 season. In case you don't, here's a refresher: The Raiders were winning, 13-10, with less than two-minutes remaining. The Patriots were desperately trying to get in position to at least tie the game when Raiders corner Charles Woodson stripped Patriots quarterback Tom Brady of the football and Oakland recovered to seal the victory. However, since there were less than two-minutes left, the referee reviewed the play and decided that Brady was still in the process of tucking the football back towards his body after moving his arm forward in attempt to pass--the "tuck rule." Yeah, I know, screwy rule. New England won the game in overtime and would go on to capture its first Super Bowl Championship. The Raiders and their fans have been whining about this call for a decade because, technically, Brady's arm may have been moving forward, but his intent wasn't to throw, so it should have been a fumble. Raider Nation sure likes to have it both ways. They've spent the last 40 years being all technical about the Immaculate Reception because of a rule that doesn't even exist anymore, but they're claiming that they were screwed out of that playoff game against the Patriots because of a rule that was too technical and obscure. At any rate, I can see where the Raiders would be angry about this game. Yet, in terms of overall angst, it still ranks below the Immaculate Reception on their hate scale.
Why so much hatred over the Immaculate Reception? Jealousy over the Steelers success in the 70's?
It's not like Oakland didn't have any success after the '72 season. The Raiders avenged that playoff loss to the Steelers, as well as two straight defeats in the AFC Championship game in '74 and '75, by defeating Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game in '76--without Franco and Rocky, btw--and went on to capture their first championship with a victory in Super Bowl XI. The Raiders also won Super Bowl XV following the 1980 season and blew out Pittsburgh in the playoffs on the way to winning Super Bowl XVIII following the 1983 season.
You would think that time and all the success that the team had in the 70's and 80's would have allowed the bitterness to subside. However, these are the Raiders we're talking about.
So when will the Raiders and their fans stop complaining about the Immaculate Reception? Probably when the Steelers and their fans stop celebrating it. In other words, never!