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Entering the huddle for what he thought would be the final play of his rookie season, Franco Harris took a few seconds to reflect on his first year with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I did tell myself, ‘Franco, you had a heckuva season,’” said the Steelers running back.
It was fourth-and-10. The Steelers were on their own 40-yard line, and with 22 seconds remaining in the 1972 AFC divisional playoff game, they trailed the Oakland Raiders, 7-6.
Harris lined up in a two-back set formation. His assignment on the play was to block for quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
What happened next remains the subject of debate even today, 40 years after the play.
Bradshaw drops from under center and scans the field. The Raiders defense forces him out of the pocket as he looks for an open receiver. Bradshaw pump fakes, then launches the ball down the middle of the field at Steelers RB John “Frenchy” Fuqua. As Fuqua extends to make the catch, he gets hammered at the Raiders’ 35-yard line by hard-hitting safety Jack “The Assassin” Tatum.
Franco Harris sheds a tackle before crossing the goal line for the game-winning touchdown.
The impact propels the ball high in the air toward the middle of the field, where Harris makes a fingertip catch just inches from the turf. Harris barely breaks stride as he makes the grab, then races down the sideline for a touchdown.
After 15 minutes of deliberation, the officials uphold the original call on the field and rule the play a touchdown. The Steelers win the game and advance to the AFC championship game.
What it took
Even today, Harris can’t quite find the words to describe the events leading up to the play. For a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story commemorating the 40-year anniversary of the “Immaculate Reception,” Harris says, “I remember leaving the backfield, but I don’t remember anything in between. I can’t tell you if I saw the ball, or if I saw anything or if I knew what actually happened.”
At that moment, Harris says, his football instincts took over. “What I knew, once I had the ball in my hands was, ‘run!’” he said. “As athletes, this is something we all know. You can’t think, you train yourself just to react.”
The rookie Harris lost himself in the moment, and the result is one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
What it meant
No other play in NFL history changed the fortunes of a franchise quite like Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception.
Harris said, “When I was drafted by the Steelers … I came to find out they are the worst team in NFL history. From the time they were founded to 1971, they had the worst record of any NFL team.”
Although the Steelers lost the AFC championship game that year, they went on to win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. The Immaculate Reception was the start of a storied 13-year career for Harris, all but one of those seasons with the Steelers. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, a member of four Super Bowl championship teams, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
But he will forever be remembered for the Immaculate Reception.
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