Pittsburgh Steelers: Frenchy Fuqua

Immaculate Reception stands alone

July, 21, 2014
7/21/14
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I wrote following a fan vote for the most memorable play in Pittsburgh Steelers history that all were vying for second place behind Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception.”

That turned out to be true for every other NFL team as well.

Harris’ galloping touchdown after making a shoestring catch of a desperation pass – one that had caromed backwards -- won ESPN.com’s bracket challenge for the most memorable play in NFL history.

The Immaculate Reception beat Dwight Clark’s touchdown catch that launched the San Francisco 49ers’ dynasty in the early 1980s, capturing 52 percent of the fan vote over a three-day period.

Harris’ play was the last one standing despite some stiff competition, confirming how enduring it is -- and that it transcends the Steelers and even Pittsburgh.

The play as ESPN.com NFL columnist Kevin Seifert wrote had a little bit of everything: drama, a great individual effort and intrigue.

We may never know if Terry Bradshaw’s pass first touched Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua, which would have made Harris’ reception an illegal one, despite Zapruderesque dissection of the play.

The controversy over the final play -- and the Steelers' 13-7 win over the Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium -- touched off a rivalry that shaped the 1970s.

And while the Steelers lost the following week in the AFC championship game to the Miami Dolphins no less an authority than Dan Rooney has said Harris’ catch and game-winning touchdown gave the franchise hope and belief.

It might be difficult for a younger generation of Steelers fans to believe but Pittsburgh was badly in need of both before the Immaculate Reception. The Steelers had never won a playoff game before Harris’ miraculous catch and run.

Since beating the Raiders in 1972, two days before Christmas, the Steelers have won 32 times in the postseason and six Super Bowls.
Franco Harris, Jimmy WarrenAP Photo/Harry Cabluck
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This is the first of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.

Score: Steelers 13, Raiders 7
Date: Dec. 23, 1972 Site: Three Rivers Stadium

Steelers founder Art Rooney was already headed to the elevator by the time Terry Bradshaw unleashed the last-gasp pass that started perhaps the most memorable play in NFL history.

The gregarious, stogie-chomping owner wanted to get to the field to congratulate his coaches and players on a successful season.

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There was a reason the man affectionately known as "The Chief" and the Steelers fans who streamed toward the exits had already conceded defeat in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game.

The Steelers were facing a fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line with no timeouts and a dying clock working against them when Bradshaw dropped back to pass.

Bradshaw escaped a heavy rush before firing a pass down the middle of the field.

Raiders safety Jack Tatum and Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua arrived at the same time as Bradshaw’s throw, and the ball shot back from the Raiders’ 35-yard line.

Rookie running back Franco Harris had been trailing the play, and, in one of the seminal moments in Steelers history, heard the voice of the man who, ironically, had turned down Pittsburgh’s head-coaching job in 1969, which later went to Chuck Noll.

Penn State's Joe Paterno had always exhorted his players to run to the ball, and in that moment, Harris followed his college coach’s voice to the ball. He scooped it up just before it hit the rock-hard turf at Three Rivers Stadium and, with mere seconds left on the clock, started galloping down the left sideline.

Harris outraced several Raiders to the end zone and stiff-armed defensive back Jimmy Warren before scoring the touchdown that produced the first playoff victory in Steelers history.

Had instant replay reversal rules been in place then, Harris’ score might not have stood since it would have been an illegal pass if Fuqua had touched the ball first.

But the officials ruled it a legal catch on the field after confusion and hysteria had initially ensued, imbuing the dramatic play with controversy and fueling a Steelers-Raiders rivalry that came to define the NFL in the 1970s.

The Steelers lost to the Dolphins the following week in the AFC Championship Game, but "The Immaculate Reception," as it was dubbed by legendary Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope, is widely credited with putting the Steelers on a track to win four Super Bowls from 1974 to 1979.

"I rank it as high as it could be for giving the Steelers the feeling they could be a great team," Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney has said, "that there might be divine intervention, because that play was so remarkable that is hard to believe."

 
Mike Mitchell, LaMarr WoodleyGetty ImagesIn safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker LaMarr Woodley the Steelers and Raiders hope to find free-agent steals.
LaMarr Woodley is now a Raider as he signed with Oakland last week following his release from the Steelers. The Steelers, meanwhile, made an uncharacteristic signing on the first day of free agency, bringing in Mike Mitchell to take over for Ryan Clark at free safety. Mitchell played for the Panthers in 2013 but spent his first four seasons with the Raiders.

ESPN.com Steelers writer Scott Brown and ESPN.com Raiders writer Paul Gutierrez take a closer look at Woodley and Mitchell and what their signings mean for their respective teams.

Paul Gutierrez: The Raiders had many needs entering the offseason, perhaps none greater than pass rush. They seemed to address that by signing Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, but I’m sure Raiders fans are wondering just how much Woodley, who turns 30 in November, has left in the tank?

Scott Brown: The Raiders should be getting a player who will be extremely motivated following his release by the Steelers -- and by how his career played out after they had made Woodley the highest-paid defensive player in franchise history. It proved to be a rather stunning fall from grace for Woodley, and ultimately the Steelers picked Jason Worilds, whom they had been widely criticized for drafting in the second round in 2010, over Woodley.

Woodley’s inability to stay on the field led to the Steelers making that choice, and if he can stay healthy he could turn out to be a real bargain for the Raiders. Woodley played well until a calf injury sidelined him in the second half of the last season and ultimately shut him down. What has the reaction been to the Woodley signing, and do you think the Raiders view it as a low-risk, high-reward proposition?

Gutierrez: The reaction has been one of relief from Raiders fans, especially since Tuck had signed earlier in the wake of the Rodger Saffold debacle. Now, I’m not saying it “saved” the Raiders’ free agent-signing season, but it did wash away some of the bad taste because the Raiders had a huge need at pass rush. In Woodley (57 career sacks) and Tuck (60.5 career sacks) they addressed it even if both guys will be on the wrong side of 30 come midseason. Still, Woodley and Tuck, bring a championship mentality (two Super Bowl appearances) to a franchise that has not had a winning record since 2002. And yeah, the money is right (“only” up to $12 million) as is the length of the deal (two years).

Still, there are questions about how his skill set plays into the Raiders’ base 4-3 defense since Woodley was the left outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme. He says he’ll play with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end in a 4-3. Do you see that as a realistic possibility, or is that too much to ask of him at this stage of his career?

Brown: Woodley should be fine moving to defensive end as that is what he played in college when he tormented quarterbacks for Michigan. The move might help him regain some of his pass-rushing mojo as Woodley won’t drop into coverage nearly as often as he did with the Steelers. I like the signing for the Raiders, especially if Woodley prepares and plays as if a fire has been lit under him. Did complacency set in after he signed the six-year, $61.5 million in 2011? It sure seems that way and maybe getting released is what Woodley needed to get his career back on track.

The Steelers normally stay on the sidelines during the first wave of free agency but they made a significant signing when they lured Mike Mitchell away from Carolina with a five-year, $25 million contract. Mitchell spent his first four seasons in Oakland and I’m curious about your impressions of him. Did he simply need a change of scenery or did things click for him last season because he played on a better team?

Gutierrez: Yeah, it’s been a couple of years since I covered Mitchell on a day-to-day basis but he definitely left an impression as one of the best interviews in the Raiders locker room, win, lose or draw. The spotlight was on him from the day Al Davis used a second-round pick on a little-known player from Ohio University. Davis had visions of another undersized, hard-hitting safety from the Buckeye State in Jack Tatum but that was a tough bar to reach. Still, he had some flashes… especially in covering San Diego tight end Antonio Gates a few years back. A change of scenery, and being with a team that had a better pass rush, definitely helped him out in Carolina. Plus, he was able to freelance more with the Panthers as a free safety, rather than on the strong side. And with his outspoken manner, gritty disposition and, yes, rep as a hard hitter, he seems to fit the mold of Raiders and Steelers' DBs of yore, even if he’s not Tatum or even Donnie Shell.

Speaking of old school, Raiders fans still refer to “IT” as the Immaculate DE-ception… so when, if ever, is Frenchy Fuqua going to tell the entire story?

Brown: I just read a tremendous book on the 1970s Steelers, “Their Life’s Work,” and it sounds like he is taking that story to his grave. I’m sure Steelers’ fans would counter that the Immaculate RE-ception is history and in the books no matter how it went down. It certainly is one of the more intriguing chapters of that storied rivalry and remains so after all of these years. What are the chances that the Raiders and Steelers turn back the clock at some point and resume meeting regularly in the playoffs as they did in the 1970s?

Gutierrez: Well, that would mean the Raiders have to get BACK to the playoffs, a place they have not visited since 2002. Realistically, I can’t see it happening in the next year or two, but in the NFL, things do change quickly. Not sure the rivalry can ever get back to the days of the ’70s, though, when the Steelers and Raiders met in three straight AFC title games, which I wrote about in January.

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