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An oral history of The Immaculate Reception told by a first-hand witness

Mike Silverstein was a young radio reporter on Dec. 23, 1972, and he recounts the biggest play in Steelers history with granular detail.

Steelers fullback Franco Harris scores the most famous touchdown in NFL history
Steelers fullback Franco Harris scores the most famous touchdown in NFL history

This article originally ran May 17, 2010, as well as the MSP Steelers Annual editor emeritus Michael Bean used to publish, but we're dusting it off due to the timeless nature of the story and the obvious value it has with the Steelers celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception this weekend. Mr. Silvertein, a.k.a. Homer J., will be on-hand for the festivities - nc

This story begins in the summer of 1972, in the green hills of Westmoreland County. Not at the Steelers training camp in Latrobe, but down the road in Ligonier, at the exclusive Laurel Valley Country Club.

I was a 24-year old kid working my first real radio job as summer relief fill-in at WJAS Radio, an NBC owned and operated station in Pittsburgh that featured a news and talk format. I was a 24-year old kid working my first real radio job as summer relief fill-in at WJAS Radio, an NBC owned and operated station in Pittsburgh that featured a news and talk format.

(Editor's note: Here's the link to the exclusive audio taken from that day)

Laurel Valley was hosting a PGA event, and had bought time on our station. We were not only running commercials, we were also covering the devil out of the event and promoting it any way we could.

It was the long-forgotten PGA National Team Championship, an even t in which golfers competed in teams of two. Of course, the event was held in Arnold Palmer's backyard of western Pennsylvania, and Arnie was teamed with Jack Nicklaus. Skeptics - and there were many - called it The Arnie and Jack Open, and said it was simply a way to guarantee Arnie another victory in front of the hometown folks. After all, Arnie and Jack had won three of the last four years the event had been played.

Two things happened on the tournament's first day: one, Jack's aching back acted up and he had to cancel, leaving Palmer scrambling to find a partner. He ended up picking a young fellow from Wake Forest, his alma mater, who was a fine lad but not the caliber of partner The Golden Bear would have been. And two, there was a call in the press tent for someone to provide on-air updates for ABC Radio Sports.

One of my bosses, also hanging around the press tent, suggested I step up and offer to help. I was just a part-timer and WJAS was in the middle of being sold to new owners. Even though it meant helping out a competing network, I might as well take advantage of any opportunities that come my way, he advised.

I told the tournament's media relations director that I'd be willing to do updates for ABC, and he put me on the phone with John Chanin at ABC Radio Sports in New York. Chanin told me I'd be on the ‘World of Sports' show with Lou Boda, which ran six minutes past the hour. I'd simply have to do 25 second reports, consisting of a quick preview of the leader board, and I'd get paid $25 bucks a pop. And $25 bucks for any usable tape of the winner, the runner-up, or whatever. Easy money.

The tournament was less than a rousing success. Palmer and his partner Jack Lewis finished far back from the winners, the immortal team of Kermit Zarley and Babe Hiskey. Crowds were disappointing and the event was scrubbed from the PGA calendar, never to be played again. But the folks at ABC were apparently satisfied with my work and they asked me if I would be available to cover the Pirates and maybe even the Steelers on occasion. I eagerly accepted their offer.

The Steelers began the 1972 season with the smart money considering them the ‘same old Steelers.' They had gone 6-8 the year before, and 5-9 the year before that. This was a franchise with a solid tradition of losing.

The season began with a home opener at Three Rivers against the Oakland Raiders. My producer, John Chanin, was a big Raiders fan. He asked me to cover the game.

Chanin was a former high school offensive lineman who was slightly overweight, wore rumpled short sleeved white shirts, with the shirttails often hanging out from his pants. He had a crew cut when everyone else was sporting big hair and polyester clothes. He looked and acted like Lou Grant. He was a proud graduate of Passaic High School in New Jersey, where he had played alongside his lifelong friend, Raiders defensive coach Ray Malavsi. Both were big fans of another Passaic grad, Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum.

The Steelers got out to a big lead in the season opener, leading 27-7 after three quarters. But mad bomber Daryle Lamonica came off the Oakland bench to lead a furious fourth quarter comeback before the Steelers eventually held on for the victory, 34-28. I didn't do any live reports during the game, but I did manage to get some taped interviews afterwards. It was my first time in an NFL press box. There were free hot dogs, soda and beer in the press lounge at halftime. I could get used to this pretty easily, I thought to myself.

The next three games of the 1972 season were away from Three Rivers Stadium before the Steelers returned home for an October 15th contest against the Houston Oilers. Once again, Chanin asked me to get some post-game interviews. During the game, Pittsburgh's starting running back Preston Pearson was injured and replaced by a still untested, first round draft choice named Franco Harris. Franco rose to the occasion, carrying the ball 19 times for 115 yards. The Steelers steamrolled the Oilers, 24-7.

By this time, I was no longer working as a summer vacation replacement at WJAS. I had, in fact, been given a three hour evening talk show on the network to compliment my game day duties for ABC. It was a big promotion, though only temporary, while everyone nervously waited for the sale of the station to be completed. At the same time, I was also preparing to move out of my parents' home and into my own apartment. Franco Harris, remarkably, was living in a second floor walkup apartment on Graham Street, in Pittsburgh's Garfield or Friendship neighborhood. It was maybe two blocks out of my drive to work. I had heard he was taking the 71 Negley Bus to practice because he did not own a car. After the Oilers game, I asked him what time he usually left for practice. Turned out that on either Mondays or Tuesdays, we went in at the same time. He gave me his phone number and over the course of the next few months, I picked him up and gave him a ride into town on several occasions.

Two more wins against New England and Buffalo had set up a midseason showdown against Kenny Anderson and the Cincinnati Bengals. Both teams were 5-2, meaning this one was for the division lead. On Monday of that week, I got a call from Chanin:

"Mike," he said, "We're gonna have a phone installed in the press box for you, and you'll do live hourly updates - starting with a set-up at 12:06. We'll use you every hour, for our featured game of the day."

The Steelers crushed the Bengals, 40-17, in a game that confirmed to the world that these were not the same old Steelers.

For the remainder of the season, there was a phone in the press box for me, and ABC Radio ‘World of Sports' was covering the Steelers every week.

At about that point in the season, somebody in the Steelers ‘family' put Franco in contact with a Chrysler or Dodge dealer. They hooked the rookie up with a car. That meant I did not drive him into town any more, but since I had his phone number, I called him on occasion to be on my Sunday night show - which began at 11:05 PM. He would graciously talk on the air for a few minutes about each week's game. One Sunday, obviously aching, Franco said, "Mike, you know, I'm really tired."

It was at that moment that I realized that Franco Harris, the most recognized and celebrated young athlete in Pittsburgh, had better things to do than talk on the radio at 11:05 on a Sunday night. I never called again, realizing that what he needed and wanted most at that hour was sleep.

The Steelers finished the regular season 11-3 and were set for a rematch of their early season shootout against the Oakland Raiders. The game would be at Three Rivers Stadium, and Steelers media relations director Joe Gordon informed me that because of the overflow of national media descending on Pittsburgh, I would be working out of the baseball press box. I had no idea of it at the time, but Gordon had just done me an enormous favor.

December 23, 1972 was an unseasonably warm day in Pittsburgh. I arrived to the stadium early to find my seat in the press box. The football press box was on the 50-yard line, but the one for baseball where I would be working from was closer to the end zone. It was also right next to the elevator. (Hold that thought). In the second row was a seat with my name on the ledge in front of it. There was a game program, a few pages of statistics and other information for each team, as well as a large cardboard roster and depth chart. There was also a telephone installed at my seat.

I unscrewed the mouthpiece and attached a small device with two alligator clips to the prongs inside the phone. Then I took the mini-plug from the device and plugged it into my Sony tape recorder. I pushed play and was pleased to hear clearly through the receiver a recent interview I had conducted. The phone not only worked, but I could even play the tape through the phone.. No problem. I was good to go.

As the stadium filled, you could see the beginnings of what would become Steeler Nation. Gerala's Gorillas were in the end zone. Jack Ham's ‘Dobre Shunka' banner was hanging from the second deck. And the red, green, and white banners of Franco's Italian Army were everywhere.

Franco Harris, the rookie who had gained just 28 yards coming off the bench in the season opener against Oakland, was the talk of the football world. Al Vento, who owned a pizza shop in East Liberty next to Peabody High School, and Tony Stagno, who ran a bakery out past Larimer Avenue, had started the Army with a sign, a helmet, and a flag. The idea caught fire. Myron Cope even flew Al and Tony out to Palm Springs to meet with Frank Sinatra to formally induct The Chairman of the Board as Commanding General of the Army.

At about 11:45 a.m. I called New York to check in. John Chanin told me had had talked to his friend Ray Malavsi. Malavsi told him this would be no repeat of the early season shootout, and the Raiders were more than capable of stopping the Steelers this time. I didn't want to debate my boss, so I simply said I was ready to go and awaiting orders. He said I would be live at six minutes past each hour, beginning at 12:06 p.m. and continuing until the end of the game.

At about 11:45 a.m. I called New York to check in. John Chanin told me had had talked to his friend Ray Malavsi. Malavsi told him this would be no repeat of the early season shootout, and the Raiders were more than capable of stopping the Steelers this time. I didn't want to debate my boss, so I simply said I was ready to go and awaiting orders. He said I would be live at six minutes past each hour, beginning at 12:06 p.m. and continuing until the end of the game.

Malavsi was correct about the game not being a shootout. Both defenses dominated, and the first half was scoreless. The Steelers finally mounted a serious drive on offense in the third quarter, taking it down to the Oakland 2-yard line. Unfortunately, they had to settle for a Gerela field goal. Pittsburgh took the lead on the game's first score, 3-0.

The Steelers defense continued to stifle the Raiders after intermission. Pittsburgh was not exactly marching up and down the field on offense, but in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Steelers once again moved the ball into Gerela field goal range. His kick was true, making it 6-0 Pittsburgh.

The Raiders offense, quiet all game, finally came alive with time running out in the fourth quarter. Kenny Stabler, who had replaced Daryle Lamonica at quarterback, led Oakland on a desperation drive into Pittsburgh territory with less than two minutes remaining. With Oakland on the Pittsburgh 30, Steelers defensive coordinator Bud Carson dialed up a blitz, but Stabler slithered his way around the inside rush and circled left for a touchdown. George Blanda's extra point made it 7-6 with 1:13 left in the game.

The ensuing kickoff was a touchback, forcing Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers offense to begin at its own 20 yard line with only 73 ticks of the clock remaining. Bradshaw got things started with a nine yard completion to Harris, followed by an 11-yard completion to Frenchy Fuqua. There were now just 53 seconds left and the Steelers were on their own 40, still about 25 to 30 yards away from reasonable field goal range.

All of my live reports had gone well, but it was now close to 3:30 p.m. and I was beginning to worry about getting tape for the next hour's segment. Maybe I should head down to the field soon and interview somebody as soon as the game was over.

On first down, Bradshaw's pass to John McMakin was broken up by Jack Tatum. 37 seconds left. On second down, Bradshaw's pass for Ron Shanklin fell incomplete. 31 seconds remained. Then on third down, Bradshaw looked for McMakin again, and once more, it was Passaic High School's Jack Tatum who broke up the attempt. Fourth down now and just 22 seconds left to play.

It was just after 3:30 p.m. now and I was torn between watching the final play and grabbing the elevator to get a piece of tape for the next show. I made the wrong choice.

I ran the ten or twenty steps to the elevator, but when it came, the green ‘Up' arrow was flashing, indicating it was going up to the fifth level - away from the field level where I wanted to go. So I ran back to the baseball press box and watched the last play. I was standing at the back of the box, next to my colleague John Cigna, who was covering the game for my radio station, WJAS.

As Bradshaw was flushed from the pocket, I clenched my right first. And when his deflected pass was scooped out of the air by Franco Harris just inches above the ground, I raised that fist and hollered, "Run, you Paisan!"

Cigna and I both cheered and laughed, as Franco sprinted the last 42 yards into history. Then, it was my turn to run. I sprinted for the world's slowest elevator as it was then finally descended back to level four where I awaited.

Mr. Rooney was on board, along with Bob Prince and Phil, the elevator operator. The Chief had an unlit cigar in his mouth, and was unaware of the reason for the thunderous roar that had just shaken the stadium. He was simply on his way down to the locker room to thank his team for their effort and to congratulate them on the successful season. He didn't want to get in the way of the sportswriters and broadcasters, so he was willing to miss the game's final play. Didn't want to get in the way! That's the kind of man Art Rooney was.

Excitedly, I told him that Bradshaw had thrown a pass to Fuqua, that there was a collision and the ball was deflected to Franco - who took it into the end zone!

Even though I was holding my Sony TC-100 tape recorder in my hands, I didn't have the presence of mind to turn it on to record his reaction for history. I just wanted to tell Mr. Rooney what had happened.

His response was a broad smile, and something like, ‘Well, I'll be. How about that?"

Bob Prince, whose reason for being on that elevator remains lost to history, was speechless. It was also a matter of history repeating itself for The Gunner. Prince was in Forbes Field for Mazeroski's World Series home run, but was in the Pirates locker room, with no television set, waiting to do post-game interviews. He never saw that ‘Shot Heard ‘Round The World.' Bob Prince was ‘in the house' for the two greatest moments in Pittsburgh sports history, and ironically, never saw either.

When the elevator reached the ground floor, I quickly exited and headed for the field. Six seconds remained in the game, but there was a long delay while John Madden argued and fumed while the refs consulted with NFL Officiating Head Art McNally about the legality of the Harris touchdown.

Since I had a field pass hanging from my neck, I slipped out of the tunnel and took a quick left turn onto the field and down to the end zone...then crossed over to the Steelers side of the field where I made a beeline for Franco Harris. Nobody stopped me.

"Frank! Frank!" I hollered, turning on the tape recorder. "Tell me what happened."

Franco was still panting, short of breath. It wasn't so much from the play, as much as from being on the bottom of the celebratory pile. He turned to face me, and walked a step or two in my direction.

Speaking into my microphone, Franco recounted how he was back to block on the play, but when the pocket collapsed and Bradshaw started to scramble, he headed into the flat. He kept trying to catch his breath while reliving the play, giving his account an amazing feel of excitement. He said he headed in that direction when the pass was thrown to Fuqua because maybe he could block somebody. When the ball came caroming to him, he just caught it and kept running.

I had my golden piece of tape - the ‘Money Cut' we call it - and, once again, I let the excitement of the moment overcome my newsgathering opportunity. I asked no follow-up questions, such as how he felt, or what his thoughts were, or whether anything like this had ever happened to him before. Instead, I just turned off the tape recorder, watched Roy Gerela's squib kick - the last play of the game - and then ran back to the tunnel and the press elevator.

When the elevator came down - with the first mob of sportswriters getting off - I waited to get on with my precious single cut of tape.

Phil took me up to four. I walked the few steps to my seat in the baseball press box, and I called ABC's (800) number and said I had a cut of Franco Harris.

"Holy shit," said John Chanin, "NBC is still on the air and they haven't even had him! How did you do that?"

"I told you he was a friend of mine," was my reply, slightly embellishing my working relationship with the man of the hour.

"Hey Lou," Chanin hollered to anchor Lou Boda, "Mike's got tape of Franco Harris for the Four-Oh-Six!"

I unscrewed the mouthpiece and put the alligator clips on the two prongs, then inserted the mini-plug into my tape recorder. I fed the tape into the phone. It was 3:51 p.m. It not only led the 4:06 p.m. sportscast, it was the lede on the 4 p.m. ABC Radio network newscasts.

After I fed my 17 seconds of paradise, Chanin asked "Did you get any more Franco? Did you ask him what his thoughts were or anything else we can use?"

"No," I said, thinking fast and covering my butt. "I'll get him in the locker room. I wanted you to get the lede in time to get it on the air this hour. Lemme go now!"

"Great!! Good work! Go!" said Channing with a sense of urgency.

"Wow," said Lou Boda. "Great work Mike!"

I took the next elevator down to the ground level and headed to the locker room, where Terry Bradshaw was in standing by his stall in the corner, sporting a huge grin and shaking his head in disbelief. "I've played football since the second grade and nothing like that ever happened before. It'll never happen again."

Franco relieved the play over and over again for various reporters and camera crews, and center Ray Mansfield spoke for Steelers fans everywhere when he told us, "I went from the depths of despair to the apex of ecstasy."

Chuck Noll kept telling everyone who would listen that there was an important lesson to be learned here about effort. Some players just shook their heads and smiled.

A quick run over to the Oakland locker room yielded an interview with Tackle Gene Upshaw, who spoke for his team when he said, "It's a helluva way to lose. He just threw the ball up for grabs, a desperation pass, and it bounced into a guy's hands. One fluke play. I guess that's football, but I can't accept it."

Thirty-seven years later, John Madden still can't.

Madden was being interviewed by a pack of reporters, but I figured I already had enough good stuff, so I took the mother lode of tape back up to the press box and fed it to New York.

As I finished feeding the material, John Chanin said that Franco seemed to be a very nice guy and that if Franco ever wanted to get away for a week or so, John had a place in Mexico where he could go fishing. Franco was more than welcome to join him, Lou and some of the other folks from ABC, Chanin said. I told him that Franco was, indeed, a good guy, and that I would relay the information. Chanin then asked me when I was coming to New York to take a look at the radio sports and news operation. I said I'd like that.

A week later, the Steelers lost to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins, but forces had been set in motion that brought about the Steelers dynasty and four Lombardi Trophies later that decade.

Other forces, too. I went up to New York and got to meet the crew. I spent a couple more years in local radio and TV brushing up my skills and gaining some badly needed maturity. I also continued working as a stringer for ABC, covering events upon request. In 1978, I began a thirty year career at ABC Radio News. Shortly after that, John Chanin left ABC. He went on to start America's first all sports radio format, WFAN in New York, which became the highest billing radio station in the country.

The sounds and excitement of that afternoon have never left me, but the one I can still hear most clearly is that of Coach Noll, lecturing us in the locker room. His trademark thin smile was much wider than usual, and there was even the hint of joy in his voice and a twinkle in his steely eyes.

"When you are on the ground or just standing around, you cease to be a football player," he said speaking softly, carefully crafting and caressing each word.

The Emperor, The Professor, then explained it all in three short sentences, and gave us a lesson for life.

"Franco made that play because he never quit on the play. He kept running, he kept hustling. Good things happen to people who hustle."

Words to live by.