NFL: How Franco Harris' Pittsburgh Steelers heroics led to conspiracy theories and a statue

It's 50 years ago since Franco Harris produced a controversial winning touchdown in the last few seconds to beat the Oakland Raiders. They've been talking about it in Pittsburgh ever since...

In the first instalment of our look back at the most iconic moments in NFL history, we bring you the inside story about the most famous play of them all.

In Pittsburgh International Airport there is a statue of a Steelers player stooping to catch a ball that may be unfamiliar to many but actually immortalises the man who was at the centre of arguably the greatest play in NFL history.

That player is Franco Harris, who orchestrated the "Immaculate Reception", etching his name into NFL folklore and ensuring he would never have to pay for another drink in the Steel City again!

What makes this play so iconic is not so much the technique involved in making the catch, but the unique way in which the ball ended up at Harris' feet and the unresolved controversy that endures, even 50 years later!

So here's how it went down....

Late late drama

In December 1972 in Pittsburgh, with the hosts trailing in the last 30 seconds of their Divisional matchup against the Oakland Raiders, quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass attempt towards wide receiver John Fuqua.

With Raiders safety Jack Tatum and Fuqua competing for the ball, it ricocheted backwards and Harris caught it just before it hit the ground, running for a game-winning touchdown which sparked what would be termed nowadays as "scenes"!

The play was not immediately confirmed as a touchdown as it was not clear if the ball had hit Fuqua, Tatum, or both players, before rebounding to Harris.

If it had hit Fuqua alone, he would have been the only player eligible to catch the ball and the touchdown would have been overturned. However, if it had hit Tatum alone or both players, the play would stand as a touchdown.

Franco Harris has a statue and a regular in museums

With no official instant replay review in those days, the referees convened but could not reach a consensus, leading to referee Fred Swearingen asking to be taken to a sideline phone and speaking to the NFL's supervisor of officials, Art McNally up in the Press Box.

Only those involved know the exact nature of the conversation, but in a 1997 interview with the New York Daily News, McNally asserted that after watching a TV replay, he was of the opinion that Tatum alone had touched the ball.

And when Swearingen said that two of the officials thought that both players had made contact, while the other three were not in a position to judge effectively, he was advised from above that a touchdown should be given.

However, the presence of both Dan Rooney, son of the Steelers owner, and Pittsburgh's PR Director Joe Gordon in that very same Press Box, added an extra layer of controversy.

And with controversy came the inevitable conspiracy theories, the best of which was the contention that referee Swearingen was not debating the legalities of the play on the sideline phone but enquiring as to whether there were enough police in the stadium to cope with the near-riot that would likely ensue if the play was reversed!

Camera controversy

To add to the mystique even more, there was also no conclusive proof that the ball hadn't hit the ground before Harris scooped it up, as the main sideline camera did not show the catch itself, just Harris scampering into frame on his way to the end zone.

And to complete the holy trinity of controversy, Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano also stated after the game that he was illegally blocked by Steelers tight end John McMakin, and would have tackled Harris otherwise.

However, when all was said and done the touchdown stood, the Steelers were victorious and there were enough talking points to keep all of the bars in East Carson Street buzzing with conversation for weeks to come!

All that was lacking was a nickname for this momentous event, which was resolved that very evening when a few hours after the game, Steelers fan and local news legend Myron Cope received a call from a woman who suggested that he name the play the "Immaculate Reception", given the festive time of year.

Despite worries that he would offend the Catholic Church, Cope just couldn't resist such a catchy moniker and once those words left his lips they leaped into the consciousness of NFL fans.

And speaking of fans, one Pittsburgh supporter managed to ensure his name would also be forever associated with the Immaculate Reception, by emerging from what must have been a scrum for the ages with the match ball.

Baker's baby

And the funny thing was that Jim Baker had not even planned to attend the game as he and his wife had returned from hospital with their newborn son the previous day.

However, when Baker's brother-in-law offered him a couple of tickets, he took the opportunity to escape the nappy changes and take his nephew along to Three Rivers Stadium.

And when he saw an opportunity to grab what he knew would be an iconic match ball, the Baker household had another new arrival to celebrate, with Baker stating in a later interview

"A few days later everybody was coming to see the football, not the newborn!"

With obvious parallels to the Tom Brady record-breaking ball incident from the 2021 season, Baker offered the ball back to the Steelers in exchange for lifetime season tickets, which was surprisingly turned down.

And he himself turned down a number of big money offers, choosing instead to keep the ball in a guarded bank vault but occasionally appearing with it in public, including with Franco Harris himself on the 25th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception in 1997.

To the modern NFL fan, spoiled by a huge number of in-game camera angles, it seems absurd that there has never been conclusive proof of exactly what happened in this play.

Franco Harris is a huge celebrity in Pittsburgh

And none of the players involved can say for definite what happened, or perhaps they just don't want to, as the inscrutability of the play is the reason it is still talked about today and why, as recently as 2019 it was voted by media members as the greatest NFL play of all time.

And perhaps the statement that best sums up the mystique of the Immaculate Reception was delivered by the late great John Madden, who was the Raiders coach at the time:

"No matter how many times I watch the films of the 'Immaculate Reception' play, I never know for sure what happened."

That makes two of us John!

The Immaculate Reception has it all - intrigue, controversy, conspiracy theories, human stories, a catchy nickname and a man at the centre of it who made the play of his life.

Even after 50 years it is still talked about, not so much because there has never been anything like it, but because we will never see anything like it again in the modern-day NFL.

And while the Steelers may have lost to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship, many fans contend that the Immaculate Reception was the catalyst for a period of Pittsburgh dominance that saw the Steelers win four Super Bowls in six years.

All of which began with a Super Bowl win just two years later in which the MVP was, you've guessed it, Franco Harris, remarkably becoming the first African-American to do so.

Harris was a part of every Pittsburgh Super Bowl-winning side in the 1970's, setting a number of records along the way, yet such is the power of the Immaculate Reception, it is a humble pick six with which Harris will forever be remembered for.

We're guessing though that he wouldn't have it any other way!

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