NFL Nation: Immaculate Reception

Franco Harris, Jimmy WarrenAP Photo/Harry Cabluck
We have a winner. And was there even a doubt? The voters picked "Immaculate Reception" as the Pittsburgh Steelers' most memorable play and I applaud their selection.

Score: Steelers 13, Raiders 7

Date: Dec. 23, 1972. Site: Three Rivers Stadium

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Which is the most memorable play in Steelers' history?

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    71%
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    14%
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    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 41,102)

The irony for a franchise that has so many great plays in its illustrious history is that there is really only one choice for the most memorable one.

Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" won that designation in fan voting on ESPN.com by a landslide over James Harrison's 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and Santonio Holmes' toe-tapping touchdown catch in the same game.

The fans got this right, even though the play that went in the books as a 60-yard touchdown catch did not come in any one of the six seasons in which the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

First and foremost, it gave a franchise that had never won a playoff game and its long-suffering fans belief. That had been in short supply in the near four decades that followed the Steelers' founding in 1933 by Art Rooney.

Harris changed that when he snatched a pass that had ricocheted back with the Steelers facing certain defeat in an AFC playoff game and then rumbled down the left sideline for the winning touchdown.

The 1974 NFL draft, when the Steelers took four future Pro Football Hall of Famers with their first five picks, ultimately put them over the top and led to four Super Bowl victories in six seasons.

But Harris' miraculous play put the Steelers on the course that transformed them from perennial also-rans to the team of the 1970s.

How much it is still a part of Pittsburgh lore -- and how it transcends sports -- can be seen in Pittsburgh International Airport. There are two life-sized statues in the main concourse. One is of our first president, George Washington, who fought in the French and Indian War in Western Pennsylvania. The other statue is of Harris making the most famous shoestring catch in NFL history.

It remains one of the NFL's most iconic plays and is a timeless reminder of playing to the final whistle -- in life as well as in sports.

In the end, every other Steelers play is still vying for second place when it comes to the most memorable one in franchise history.
The debate over the Immaculate Reception is over who touched the ball first: Steelers halfback Frenchy Fuqua or Raiders safety Jack Tatum? But, as the Steelers plan to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the historic play on Sunday, do you know where the ball eventually landed?

Not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not in Franco Harris' trophy room. For the past four decades, the ball has been in a safe in the office of a Pittsburgh insurance agency.

Grantland's Kim Gamble tracks the strange journey of the ball that went from the hands of Terry Bradshaw to Franco Harris to, eventually, Jim Baker. A 26-year-old fan at the time, Baker had ran onto the field in celebration and then watched the same ball that Harris had when he went into the end zone get used for the extra point. After the ball went through the uprights, it hit a cement wall, bounced into the corner of the end zone and ended up at the bottom of a pile of people. Baker wrestled it away, put it inside his nephew's coat and ran out of the stadium.

It's a must-read piece for anyone who watched the Immaculate Reception, the improbable winning touchdown against the Raiders in a 1972 AFC divisional playoff game. Sunday -- Dec. 23 -- marks 40 years to the day that the play occurred. On Saturday, the Steelers will unveil an Immaculate Reception monument near Heinz Field. The team, though, hasn't invited Baker to participate in any official tributes and has never asked to display the ball.

Best Steelers Team Ever: 1975

June, 23, 2010
6/23/10
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Notable players: QB Terry Bradshaw, LB Jack Lambert, RB Franco Harris, DB Mel Blount, LB Jack Ham, WR Lynn Swann, DT Joe Greene, WR John Stallworth.

[+] EnlargeFranco Harris
AP Photo/JJWFranco Harris posted career-high numbers during the 1975 season.
Analysis: The '75 Steelers were the first Pittsburgh team to win back-to-back Super Bowls. It was also the best team from the famed Pittsburgh dynasty of the '70s, which included a bevy of Hall of Famers.

Led by the Bradshaw -- aka the "Blonde Bomber" -- Pittsburgh was able to win through the air and on the ground in an era when most teams were one-dimensional offensively and thrived on ground-and-pound football.

Pittsburgh's famed "Steel Curtain" defense was one of the best of all time and held seven opponents to single-digit scoring during the '75 season. In three playoff games, including the Super Bowl, offenses averaged only 12.3 points per game.

The '78 and '79 Pittsburgh title teams were also tremendous. But the '75 group had several key advantages.

For starters, every key member in '75 was in, or approaching, his prime. Hall of Famers Bradshaw (27), Blount (27), Ham (27), Lambert (23), Harris (25), Swann (23) and Stallworth (23) came into their own during this first run of back-to-back titles. By the time the second run of championships came at the end of the decade, this core group was four years older and some were approaching the end of their storied careers.

Further displaying their dominance, the '75 Steelers won by an astounding average of 15.1 points per game in the regular season, which led the NFL. It was also the highest margin of victory for any of Pittsburgh's championship teams. The '78 team won by an average of 10.1 points per game, while the '79 team won by 9.6 points per game.

Most impressive win: The Steelers' 21-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X was the team's crowning achievement. The Steelers won the turnover battle 3-0 to pull out a historic and close game. It completed the first of Pittsburgh's two back-to-back championships in the decade.

Research Room: The Steelers allowed 17 touchdowns in 14 regular-season games in '75. In contrast, Pittsburgh scored 46 touchdowns, including two fumble returns for scores and one kickoff return.

Big Franco: Harris is best known for the "Immaculate Reception" in '72 during a playoff win over the Oakland Raiders. But his best season rushing the football came three years later.

Harris recorded a career-high 1,246 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns during Pittsburgh's title run in '75. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and also caught 28 passes out of the backfield. The nine-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer had eight 1,000-yard seasons.

Honorable mentions (in order):

1978: A dominant group that won 14 games in the regular season and a Super Bowl. They scored at least 33 points in all three playoff victories.

1979: The last championship team of the Steelers dynasty of the '70s. This group was No. 1 in total offense and No. 2 in total defense.

1974: This team started the run of four championships in the '70s. But it wasn't until a year later that the core group of Hall Famers all blossomed and came into their own.

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