Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Immaculate Reception

On this day in 1972, Terry Bradshaw completed a pass to Franco Harris that scored the game–winning touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the AFC playoffs.

Over the years, Bradshaw probably completed dozens of passes to Harris. But what made that play so memorable was the fact that Bradshaw hadn't been throwing to Harris. His target, based on the play that had been sent in from the sideline, was meant to be a fellow named Barry Pearson, a rookie receiver.

Oakland led, 7–6. It was Pittsburgh's ball, fourth–and–10 on the Pittsburgh 40. There were 22 seconds left. After the ball was snapped, Bradshaw was almost immediately under considerable pressure by Oakland's linemen, and he scrambled around a bit, then threw the ball in the direction of John Fuqua.

Fuqua collided with the Raiders' hard–hitting safety, Jack Tatum, and the ball ricocheted in Harris' direction. Harris scooped up the ball before it could hit the ground and ran in with what wound up being the winning touchdown.

It may be the most famous play in NFL history. NFL Films chose it as both the greatest play and the most controversial play of all time.

It is called "The Immaculate Reception," a name it apparently was given that very day.

The story I've heard is that the nickname was used first by a Pittsburgh sportscaster, who was reporting on the game. A Pittsburgh woman called him and suggested it. He used it, and it has been in use ever since.

I've heard lots of nicknames for games, plays and players over the years, and that one may be the most perfect I've ever heard.

What makes it perfect is knowledge of the Steelers' history — and how that play really changed things for them forever.

The 1972 season was the Steelers' 40th in the NFL. More than 75% of the time, the Steelers had finished seasons with losing records. As they entered their game with the Raiders on this day 38 years ago, they had never won a playoff game. But Harris' catch heralded the changing of the guard in the NFL.

The Steelers didn't win the Super Bowl that year. Instead, they lost the AFC Championship to Miami the next week, and Miami went on to cap its 17–0 season with a Super Bowl triumph over Washington.

But the Steelers wound up being the dominant team of the decade, winning four Super Bowls with Bradshaw, Harris, Lynn Swann and the Steel Curtain defense.

And the seeds for that great run could truly be said to have been planted in Three Rivers Stadium on this day in 1972.

That was what made it the Immaculate Reception.

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