Reception is the nickname
given to one of the most famous plays in the history of American
football. It occurred in
the AFC divisional playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers
and the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, on December 23, 1972. NFL Films has chosen it as
the greatest play of all time, as well as the most controversial.
The play was a turning point for the Steelers, who reversed four
of futility with their first playoff win ever, and went
on to win four Super Bowls by the end of the decade. A Pittsburgh
woman, Sharon Levosky, called Myron Cope the night of the game
and suggested the name, which was coined
by her friend Michael Ord. Cope used the term on television and
the phrase stuck. The term was apparently meant to imply that the
play was miraculous or divine in nature.
After Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler scored a touchdown on a 30-yard
run with 1:17 left to go, the Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the Oakland
Raiders 7-6, facing fourth-and-10 on their own 40-yard line with
22 seconds remaining in the game and no time-outs. Head coach Chuck
Noll called a pass play, 66 Circle Option, intended for receiver
Barry Pearson, a rookie who was playing in his first NFL game.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, unable to find Pearson while
avoiding two Raiders defenders, threw the ball to the Raiders'
35-yard line, toward fullback John "Frenchy" Fuqua. Raiders
safety Jack Tatum collided with Fuqua just as the ball arrived.
Tatum's hit knocked Fuqua to the ground and sent the ball sailing
backward several yards, end over end. Steelers running back Franco
Harris, after initially blocking on the play, had run downfield
in case Bradshaw needed another eligible receiver. He scooped up
the sailing ball just before it hit the ground, and ran the rest
of the way downfield to score the touchdown. The touchdown gave
the Steelers a 12-7 lead and the amazing play allowed the Steelers
to win the game.
The critical question was: off whom did the ball bounce in the Fuqua/Tatum
collision? If it bounced off Fuqua, and then Harris was the next
to touch the ball, the reception was illegal since two offensive
players could not touch a pass in succession (a rule that was changed
in 1978). If the reception was illegal, the Raiders would have
gained possession (via a turnover on downs), clinching a victory.
If the ball bounced off Tatum, or if it bounced off Fuqua and then
Tatum, the reception was legal, as a defensive player was the last
to touch the ball.
One official, Back Judge Adrian Burk, signaled that the play was
a touchdown, but the other game officials did not immediately make
any signal. There was no instant replay rule at the time. Referee
Fred Swearingen telephoned the NFL's supervisor of officials, Art
McNally, who was sitting in the press box, after which he signaled
a touchdown. Although this has been described as the first known
use of television replay to confirm a call, at the time the
NFL denied that the decision was made in the press box or using a
television replay. It was later said that Swearingen was scared
of backlash from the Steelers fans if he had ruled the other way.
Fans immediately rushed the field, and it took 15 minutes to clear
them so the point-after, or conversion, could be kicked to give the
Steelers what turned out to be their final margin of victory, 13-7.
The play is still disputed by those involved, particularly by living
personnel from the Raiders and their fans, who insist the Raiders
should have won. Tatum said at the time, and has maintained ever
since, that the ball did not bounce off him. Raiders linebacker
Phil Villapiano, who was covering Harris at the time, also maintains
that the ball hit Fuqua. Fuqua has been coy, supposedly saying
he knows exactly what happened that day but will never tell. John
Madden, coach of the 1972 Raiders, has said that he will never get
over the play, and has indicated that he's bothered more by the delay
between the end of the play and the final signal of touchdown, than
by which player the ball truly hit. After the game he indicated that
from his view the football had indeed touched Tatum.
In 1998, during halftime of the AFC Championship game, NBC showed
a replay from its original broadcast. The replay presented a different
angle than the NFL Films clip that is most often shown. According
to a writer for the New York Daily News, "NBC's replay showed
the ball clearly hit one and only one man Oakland DB Jack Tatum."
Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope, in a 1997 article and in
his 2002 book "Double Yoi!", relates that two days after
the game he reviewed film taken by local Pittsburgh TV station WTAE,
and that the film showed " no question about it - Bradshaw's
pass struck Tatum squarely on his right shoulder." Cope states
that the local film would be next to impossible to find again, because
of inadequate filing procedures.
In 2004 John Fetkovich, an emeritus professor of physics at Carnegie
Mellon University, analyzed the NFL Films clip of the play. He came
to the conclusion, based the trajectory of the bounced ball and conservation
of momentum, that the ball must have bounced off of Tatum, who was
running upfield at the time, rather than Fuqua, who was running across
and down the field. Timothy Gay, a physics professor and a longtime
fan of the Raiders, cited Fetkovich's work with approval in his
book "The Physics of Football," and concluded that "the
referees made the right call in the Immaculate Reception."
Another widely held point of contention to the play was whether
or not the ball had hit the ground before Harris snatched it and
ran with it. The sideline views of both film and video gave no answer,
as Harris had caught the ball out of frame, and came running into
frame from the right side on his path to the end zone. The only other
known NBC video was an end zone shot from above and behind the goalposts
and, in keeping with the mystery of the play, one of the posts was
exactly in the line of sight of Harris' hands and the ball. The best
NFL Films shot of the play, from ground level, which is probably
the most-often seen clip (along with audio of an excited Jack Fleming,
the Steelers' radio announcer at the time) is a tight shot from the
end zone of Harris snaring the ball, with his feet and the ground
just out of frame below.
Villapiano has also stated that he was illegally blocked by Steelers
tight end John McMakin just as he was about to tackle Harris following
The week after this playoff victory, the Steelers lost the AFC championship
game to the Miami Dolphins 21-17, who would then win Super
Bowl VII in their landmark undefeated season. The Steelers, however,
would reverse four decades of futility and go on to become a dominant
force in the NFL for the subsequent decade, winning four Super
Bowls with such stars as Bradshaw, Harris, John
Lynn Swann and the Steel Curtain defense led by Jack
Lambert, "Mean Joe" Greene, Mel
Blount, and Dwight White.
1972 was the team's 40th year in the league, during which they had
finished above .500 only nine times, and until then had never won
a playoff game. In fact, before this game the only playoff game the
team had ever played in was a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in
1947 after the two teams finished tied for the NFL Eastern Division
championship. (The Steelers also lost to the Detroit Lions in the
1962 Playoff Bowl, though this was considered an exhibition game
between the two second place teams in league record books and not
an actual playoff game.) They had long been regarded as one of the
league's doormats (literally, as the 1944 Card-Pitt merger was 0-10
and was ridiculed as the "Carpitts," a play on the word "carpet").
As recently as 1969 the team had posted a 1-13 record, thus securing
the first draft choice in the subsequent NFL draft (in which the
Steelers chose Terry Bradshaw) and seeding their remarkable turnaround.
Since the AFL-NFL Merger, the Steelers have the NFL's winningest
record (surpassing Miami in 2007 because of the Dolphins recent struggles),
have had a league-low three head coaches, and have had only nine
losing seasons, none worse than 5-11. Only twice since the Immaculate
Reception has the team had losing seasons two years in a row and
none three years in a row.
The Immaculate Reception spawned a heated
rivalry between the Steelers and Raiders, a rivalry that was at its
peak during the 1970's, when
both teams were among the best in the league and both were known
for their hard-hitting, physical play. The teams met in the playoffs
in each of the next four seasons, starting with the Raiders' 33-14
victory in the 1973 divisional playoffs. Pittsburgh would use AFC
championship game victories over Oakland (24-13 at Oakland in 1974
and 16-10 at Pittsburgh in 1975) as a springboard to victories in
Super Bowl IX and Super
Bowl X, before the Raiders notched a 24-7
victory at home in 1976 on their way to winning Super Bowl XI. The
two last met in the playoffs in 1983 when the eventual Super Bowl
champion Raiders crushed the Steelers 38-10.