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Saturday, December 22, 2012
Updated: December 23, 10:05 AM ET
Immaculate Reception memories

By Johnette Howard
ESPN.com

"Hang onto your hats, here come the Steelers out of the huddle. Terry Bradshaw at the controls. 22 seconds remaining. And this crowd is standing. Bradshaw back and looking again. Bradshaw running out of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to, fires it downfield … and there's a collision! And it's caught out of the air! The ball is pulled in by Franco Harris! Harris is going for a touchdown for Pittsburgh! Harris is going! … Five seconds left on the clock! Franco Harris pulled in the football, I don't even know where he came from! Fuqua was in a collision. There are people in the end zone. Where did he come from? Absolutely unbelievable! Holy moly!"
-- Jack Fleming, on the Steelers radio broadcast

W

ell, yes, I guess there's no use denying this -- if you happen to tune into the Steelers-Bengals game on Sunday, you will see we have been celebrating the Immaculate Reception again in Pittsburgh like nutballs all week. As a Pittsburgher born and bred, not to mention a sportswriter who once went home to cover a Steelers game only to be confronted when the hotel elevator door opened by a fifty-something female fan wearing a Steelers jersey and eye black, as if she was about to sprint downfield on special teams, I can tell you we are also incapable of being embarrassed about overdoing this, so don't even try.

Franco Harris
Franco Harris also led the Steelers in rushing the day of his famous catch.

The Iron City beer will continue to flow, the stuffed cabbage will be kept warm in deep dishes covered with aluminum foil and the kielbasa will sizzle in the parking lot on the tailgaters' grills. And we will have toasted Franco Harris countless more times before he ambles out to midfield for the halftime ceremony honoring the 40th anniversary of his miracle, same as Pittsburghers marked the play's 25th, 30th, and 35th birthdays too. "Again?" outsiders reasonably ask. "Again and again and again!" we laugh. We do not care how it looks to the rest of you.

To native Pittsburghers and Steelers fans -- especially anyone who was alive and listening to the radio broadcast on that battleship grey Dec. 23, 1972, day -- Jack Fleming's famous call remains, to this day, the most beautiful 91 words that had ever been attached to the franchise before (perhaps even after) all their Super Bowl wins. And it is impossible to claim any distance or objectivity about that. It still brings a lump to the throat, a smile to our faces, maybe even a tear to some eyes.

But why? There are countless ways to explain why the Immaculate Reception remains a victory lap that Pittsburghers and Steelers fans refuse to stop taking even now, four decades later. But the late Myron Cope, Fleming's eccentric on-air sidekick back then, and our wacky local broadcaster for decades on WTAE-TV, said it perfectly in an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated a few months later: "Unless you were one of us … you cannot possibly know the sweetness."

Other people say they do. The Immaculate Reception was recently voted both the best and most controversial play in NFL history, in a poll conducted by NFL Films, whose own YouTube mash-up of one of its older programs on the catch features John Facenda, in his Voice of God, memorably terming the situation the Steelers were facing as "fourth and hopeless." Other towns can claim similarly memorable sports moments too. San Francisco has The Catch, Denver has The Drive, Boston will always have Carlton Fisk urging that home run fair and the Idiots team that reversed the curse in 2005.

And yet, to us, the Immaculate Reception still seems bigger, somehow different.

Look at the fuse it lit. Look at the unparalleled NFL success the Steelers enjoyed next. Look how it changed the entire city.

The Immaculate Reception remains the dividing line in the Before and After for the Steelers as they're thought of today. Among other things, the catch earned Franco -- then a shy rookie of 22 -- a life-size statue of himself at Pittsburgh International Airport, making his catch alongside another life-size statue of a young George Washington, who fired the first shot not far from Pittsburgh to start the French and Indian War. Only non-Pittsburghers find this partnership odd.

The play also gives Franco the devilish annual license to call John "Frenchy" Fuqua, one of his collaborators on the play, and Phil Villapiano, the Raiders linebacker who futilely chased him after the catch, every Dec. 23 -- always very early in the morning -- just to say, "Frenchy? Wake up. Happy Anniversary!" or "Phil? Do you know what you were doing on this day once upon a time?"

"Yeah, well, tell Franco I just got a new [surgically repaired] shoulder," laughs the 63-year-old Villapiano, who accepted Harris' invite to travel to Pittsburgh this weekend to join the official anniversary celebrations, of which there were at least five. "And you tell him the last tackle I'm ever going to make is on that damn statue of him at the airport. Because every time I have to go there now to do business, I have to see that thing."

"Oh yeah?" Franco, now 62, laughed. "Tell him it's about time he finally tackled somebody."


I

was a kid of 12 when the Immaculate Reception happened. I was listening to the game live in my grandfather's living room. The NBC telecast had been blacked out locally even though Three Rivers Stadium was sold out. When I tell Harris, the son of a black military man and his Italian war bride, that, he tells me his father and two brothers were watching the telecast back in their living room in New Jersey, and his mother knew something was seriously wrong when everyone abruptly went silent. The Steelers, after leading 6-0 into the waning moments, had just surrendered a go-ahead touchdown to the Raiders' Kenny Stabler, a late-game replacement for starting quarterback Daryle Lamonica. It came on a 30-yard scramble with just 1:17 to play.

John 'Frenchy' Fuqua
John Fuqua had his second-best rushing season for the Steelers in 1972.

Now Harris's worried mom decided to begin playing "Ave Maria" on the record player.

"I don't know if she was asking for divine intervention," Franco says with a laugh, "but my father and brothers said she was blasting that thing."

Things looked bleak for the Steelers -- which is to say, they looked the same as they always had the previous 40 years of their existence.

How bad was it?

Franco: "I didn't know much about the Steelers before they drafted me that year. Then I found out that they were the losingest team in NFL history until that point."

Tim Rooney, one of owner Art Rooney Sr.'s five sons, now CEO of the Empire City Casino and Yonkers Raceway in New York: "I was in the investment business in Pittsburgh then, but I'd go down to sell tickets in the Steelers office on Monday and Thursday nights. I used to tell my brothers the year we lost 13 games, 'My God, are you people hiding in this office? It's not safe out in the streets.' You felt like you had to sneak down the alleyways to leave. And when I needed a haircut, if everyone knew who I was, I'd sit down and I'd start praying, 'Please. Don't ask me about the football team. Please don't ask me about the football team.' Or I'd pray nobody recognized me. Because then when it came up I could say something like, 'There's only one problem with those Steelers. It's those cheap Rooneys! We oughta tar and feather them, and run 'em out of town!' "

Fuqua: "Was I disappointed when I was traded from the Giants to the Steelers [in 1970]? Don't you know it. The year before I got there they were 1-13. One and 13! And keep in mind, when I went home from college at Morgan State in Baltimore at Christmas, I used to take the Greyhound bus home to Detroit. That bus would go right through Pittsburgh, and I remember looking out the window at all those steel mills glowing and smoking they way they did, and all the dirt and ash that would come down on the snow, you know? And I'd say to myself, 'My God, I am so glad I don't live in this city.' "

Andy Russell, Steelers linebacker from 1963-76: "Well, what people forget is we not only went 1-13 Chuck Noll's first year in 1969, I think we lost our first three games the following year. So it was actually 16 straight losses by the start of 1970. It just goes to show you how important talent is, because Noll was a genius. I remember him saying, 'I'm not going to use any gimmicks. I'm going to teach you the right way to play.' And we all thought uh-oh, we knew what that meant: 'A lot of you aren't good enough to stay here.' We had a lot of good guys on those teams. But not a lot of guys that were good football players."

Before 1972, the Steelers had played in only one playoff games in franchise history, winning none. They did improve to 6-8 in '71, Noll's third season. They leaped to a dizzying 10-2 by that December day against Oakland, earning the first playoff game the franchise ever hosted by beating San Diego out there to win the AFC Central in the final week of the regular season.

Now the Raiders were coming to Three Rivers. For days leading up to the game, I distinctly remember how Pittsburgh felt like a town ready to pop. At school, at our local store, Al's Meat Market, at church, and on the days we went into the city to pick up my dad at work that week, the talk was all Steelers, Steelers, Steelers.

Now the ball was snapped to Bradshaw on his own 40. Fourth down and hopeless. Story of our lives.

Bradshaw scrambled to his right, then slid slightly back to his left, ducking and avoiding the second and then third Oakland pass rushers who were pawing at him. He had a strong arm and he fired the ball. It's easy to remember that instant -- in those 40-some yards the ball traveled on its initial path toward Fuqua and Raiders safety Jack Tatum, and then the interminable seconds we waited for the rest of Fleming's call -- how much hung in the balance, all that remained suspended in mid-air …

How bad had it been? How good was it about to become?


F

or the Raiders, the play truly remains what Bradshaw once termed "a spear in the heart." The dislike between the teams was real.

Tatum, who later wrote an autobiography "They Call me Assassin", and who had paralyzed Darryl Stingley with an infamous hit, went to his grave lamenting how the Steelers profited from a questionable call. Poor Jimmy Warren is forever frozen on film as the last Raiders tackler with a shot at Franco before he stiff-arms him away. Fuqua says he and former Raiders tight end Raymond Chester "almost had to be forced to shake hands" at a Morgan State reunion a few years back. "I said, 'Chesty? Still?' "

Phil Villapiano
After the disappointing end to the 1972 season, Phil Villapiano went to the next four Pro Bowls as a Raider.

Russell held a Raiders-Steelers charity flag football game in Pittsburgh after everyone retired. He says, "Boy, that was a mistake." He tore his Achilles. Fuqua dislocated an ankle. Franco broke his nose.

For the Steelers and Pittsburghers, the Immaculate Reception is only happy memories. It marked the start of a revival for the team and the city that has moved in lockstep ever since. That's the connection. And it's felt. It's not some hackneyed, made-up hagiography.

The Steelers went on to become the only NFL team to win six Super Bowl titles, and they share the record for most Super Bowl appearances with the Dallas Cowboys (eight) just as Pittsburgh simultaneously reinvented itself. Back then it was a down-on-its-luck city that was going through the wind down of its lifeblood steel industry, a town maligned as a place where not much interesting happened. Today, the skyline that explodes into view when you exit the Fort Pitt tunnel barely resembles the one of my youth. There's not a steel mill left in the city limits but there's bustling healthcare, technology, education and robotics industries.

Franco, who still lives in the Pittsburgh suburbs and runs two companies, one of them called Super Bakery, gets why all of it remains so inextricably meshed: "The Immaculate Reception was the end of people saying, 'Same old Steelers.' And it was a time when we showed things weren't going to be the same around here anymore."

The rivalry between the Steelers and the Raiders went on to be a blood-and-guts affair for the next decade after his play. And what a collection of Hall of Famers and personalities it threw out.

The Raiders had Tatum and fellow safety George Atkinson, whom Noll once called part of the "criminal element in the NFL" after they clotheslined Steelers star receiver Lynn Swann. (For that, Noll got himself sued.) Oakland had John Madden to match X's and O's with Noll, ancient George Blanda to handle the placekicking, and warhorse center Jim Otto to go with young bloods like Villapiano, whose Bay Area nickname was "the Enforcer." Stabler, a shaggy, drawling, sleepy-eyed Alabaman, fit Al Davis' "Just Win, Baby!" vision of the team perfectly. He always seemed to have studied the game plan by the light of a jukebox, and went on to become a quarterbacking star after nearly winning that Immaculate Reception game in relief.

And the Steelers? By the time Franco joined them in '72 from Penn State, they already had "Mean" Joe Greene and Jack Ham, Dwight "Mad Dog" White, and running back Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam vet and 16th-round draft pick who'd come back from serious leg injuries suffered in combat to make the team. And of course, they also had Bradshaw, a Louisiana boy who married an Olympic ice skater, JoJo Starbuck, wore a toupee away from the stadium for a while though not during games, and dabbled in country music singing for bit. (The reviews were about as good as they were for the toupee.) We loved Bradshaw in my blue-collar 'hood. We also had no idea what the hell to make of him.

And, of course, the Steelers also had the wonderfully loquacious Fuqua, though you can call him Frenchy, or his other nickname, The Count. He earned that one because he sometimes sashayed around town in a cape and funkadelic platform shoes with live tropical fish sloshing around inside the see-through heels.

Told that I must know the story behind the shoes, Fuqua says the way that started was he was at the Dapper Dan banquet in Pittsburgh one offseason, an elderly New Jersey man told him, "Frenchy, I've got exactly what you need" and Frenchy said, "Oh, yeah? What's that?" When the shoes arrived months later to Fuqua's surprise -- "He'd had a couple Jacks, I'd had a couple Jacks, and you know … ." he says -- a few things quickly became clear. The man had gotten his shoe size wrong. ("They were a 10.5, I wear an 11 EE, and my feet still hurt to this day. Every speaking engagement I would get, every banquet I was invited to, they'd say, "You're wearing the shoes, right?") The other realization? Tropical fish are not as hardy as one might like.

"I started off with goldfish. They died. I went to tropical fish. They died. Listen, none of the fish stayed alive -- none," Fuqua says. "I started getting some mail now-- about 50 pieces in the course of a week. People were downing me because I was killing the fish in my shoes! Well, I really felt bad. I took the letters to Joe Gordon, our Steelers p.r. guy, and I said, 'Joe, I really don't know what to do. I haven't killed but about 20 of 'em. That's all.'

"And Joe -- he looked at the mail, didn't read it, just looked at it -- and then he said, 'Frenchy, this is great! You keep it up!' "


B

efore Bradshaw made his last pass of the game, the Steelers' Russell remembers the stadium falling silent as the offense walked up to the line. Some of his defensive teammates had already begun removing the tape from their wrists, figuring the game was over. Bob Smizik, the longtime Pittsburgh sports writing fixture, recalled in the Post-Gazette this week how he had just banged out "Bradshaw had thrown his fourth straight incompletion of the drive" on his typewriter on deadline and was ready to hand it to a copy runner.

Even Harris, whose initial assignment on the play was to pass protect, recalls thinking to himself, "Well, this is probably going to be the last play. And it's been a good season … ' "

In New Jersey, Franco's mom turned up "Ave Maria."

In my grandfather's living room, we leaned closer to the radio.

The play's first option was a throw to rookie Barry Pearson, but Fuqua, who was slogging through an off day of just 25 yards rushing, remembers thinking, "I am going to get this ball. And I'm going to redeem myself when it comes to me."

He remembers originally running a hook pattern down the left side of the field, then running to his right as Bradshaw began scrambling in that direction, just as he'd always been coached. When Bradshaw clearly spotted him and reared back to throw, Fuqua remembers catching a glimpse of Tatum -- the most feared headhunter in the league -- starting to come for him, too.

Tatum had broken up two of the Steelers' previous three plays in the series, and he clearly should've just knocked the ball down. But he was The Assassin. That wasn't his personality.

To this day, Villapiano wonders if the ball would've caromed straight back toward the line of scrimmage as far as it did -- about eight yards, and just high enough for Franco to make his shoestring catch on the run -- if it had been anyone else putting a lick on Fuqua. "Because you have to understand," Villapiano explains, "when Tatum put a hit on somebody, it wasn't just hard, it was so pure, it even made a different sound. It was, 'Whap!' "

Knowing that would be enough to give any receiver alligator arms. And Fuqua, laughing now, remembers, "As the ball was in the air, I could actually see Tatum coming. Then I could hear his breathing. Pretty soon he was so close, I could hear his heart beating. And still the ball hadn't arrived. So I knew we were going to have contact. And it was going to be in-ti-mate."

The collision slammed Fuqua to the turf.

"Now I'm on the ground. I'm looking up at Tatum. Tatum is jumping up and down celebrating. And he has a smile on his face. Then I watched that smile of his turn to a frown. By the time I turned to my right, I caught a glimpse of Franco running toward the end zone."

But again, where did the 22-year-old rookie come from? Harris says after he and Villapiano had come to a stalemate as he was pass blocking, a voice in his head, something from his not-so-distant training under Penn State Joe Paterno, told him, "Run to the ball, run to the ball."

Villapiano, who was then in his second pro season, remembers being a little surprised when Harris took off on such a hustle play. "As soon as Bradshaw threw the ball, I was gone, I left Franco to go sprinting toward Fuqua. And then the ball flew right back over my head maybe 15 or 20 feet. And it had some velocity. And then -- oh my God -- I see Franco bending over to make a clean catch. Now, I'm chasing him thinking, 'I can't F------ believe this.' "

Harris plucked the ball off the turf at about the Raiders 42-yard line. By the time he reached the end zone -- was this really happening? -- people in overcoats and parkas were spilling out of the stands. The Steelers players sprinted down to mob Harris. There is some great film footage of Bradshaw slapping both of his hands on his helmet, throwing back his head and laughing at the sky in disbelief while some guy with mutton-chop sideburns hugs him. Then another. And another.

The play was so controversial, Fuqua has still to this day never said whether it struck him or Tatum first. There was a rule then, since rescinded, that nullified plays if the ball went from an offensive-to-offensive player first. Tatum ran back upfield and grabbed Fuqua saying, "You know you touched that ball! You know you touched that damn ball!" Russell jokes Fuqua has no idea what happened because Tatum hit him so hard, "Frenchy doesn't remember a thing."

Madden was infuriated that referee Fred Swearingen called up to the booth, where NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally was -- reportedly just to say, "Two of my men say only the opposing players touched the ball." Instant replay wasn't allowed then, and McNally insists he never told them he'd seen the NBC replay or what to call. He just said, "Everything's fine then. Go ahead." All told, it took 15 minutes to confirm Adrian Burk's solitary touchdown signal and clear the field enough for Roy Gerela's extra point in the Steelers' 13-7 win. The next week they lost to the Miami team that finished 17-0.

"On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being most pissed, Madden is still a 9.9," says Villapiano.

But there is no controversy in Pittsburgh about what happened.


O

n the 25th anniversary of the catch, an esteemed Carnegie Mellon physicist, John Fetkovich, was asked if he could finally settle the mystery of whether the ball could've possibly flown on the trajectory and distance it did to Harris if it hadn't hit Tatum first. Remember, only Tatum was traveling full speed toward the coming pass. Fuqua was running across the field.

After pondering a few tests on how to measure the ball coming off a player -- Fetkovich joked in a phone interview this week, "My first thought -- very fleeting -- was to clothe my wife into about four heavy coats and throw the ball at her, but I wasn't sure she'd go for it" --- he settled for frame-by-frame film analysis, approximating the speed the ball traveled by slamming it off his garage's brick wall, then calculating the distance it would've traveled.

His conclusion? Quit yer crying Raiders. (OK. So maybe I said that.)

Fetkovich says, "It was a legal catch."

"The important thing to remember," he continued, "is Fuqua was going across the field, and so he was not carrying any momentum towards the ball or away from the ball. It had to be Tatum that hit it. It's the difference between swinging a bat at a baseball and sending it over the fence or just bunting it with a stationary bat."

By the 30th anniversary, the way Franco's play was named came to light as well. Sharon Levosky and her date for the game, Michael Ord, celebrated the Steelers' dramatic win in a few nightspots. Then they went to her father's house and -- just to remind you how long ago this was -- Levosky called Cope at Channel 4, where he was preparing his 11 o'clock broadcast "and I was put right through," she says. Knowing it was the first look many fans were going to be getting of the highlight, Levosky asked Cope to say on the air, "From now on, this day will forever be celebrated as the Feast of the Immaculate Reception."

And Cope did.

"I do still get some people who still don't believe it was me," Levosky admits with a laugh. "So you know what I've started saying? 'You can Google me.' "

The Heinz History Center's life-size statue of Franco went up at the airport in 2005. For the past few years, 63-year-old Vicki Battallini, who works at the "Visit Pittsburgh" desk near baggage claim but has never met the real Franco, has tended to it. She says, "At first they bought me a Dustbuster. But that didn't work. Now I use that silver utility tape to get the dust off him. If you're going to talk to him, you tell him he owes me because I get harassed by people coming down the escalator like you wouldn't believe. Here I am, I've got tape on his leg, tape on his backside and these men -- between us, it's always men -- will yell at me as they're coming down the escalator, 'Hey! What are you doing?' or 'Why are you touching Franco's backside?' … I think they don't think I work here. They think I'm some crazed fan."

"Oh man," Franco laughs.

NFL Films made a new documentary about the Immaculate Reception that aired this week.

On Saturday, the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh (which also houses the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum) dedicated a monument that was placed using GPS calculations, on the exact spot where Franco made his catch 40 years ago in Three Rivers. It used to stand on a spot right next to where the Steelers' current stadium, Heinz Field, stands.

Friday, Franco held his usual private dinner for his teammates to celebrate the anniversary.

When the Steelers were replacing the artificial carpet a couple years after the catch, Franco also got a big swatch of actual Tartan Turf where he grabbed the ball. The Heinz Center's museum now displays that, too, along with the shoes he wore that day. A gentleman named Jim Baker still has the Immaculate Reception ball, which he says he out-wrestled other fans for after Roy Gerela's PAT. He keeps it in a vault in his insurance office in Pittsburgh.

And Villapiano? He's grown philosophical about the Immaculate Reception over the years.

Sort of. No, really. He swears he has.

"Did he tell you he was clipped on the play? Franco asks.

That did come up, I say.

"Did he tell you the only way I was free to get the ball was I was loafing?" Harris laughs.

Yes, he might've mentioned that too.

"But I was clipped!" Villapiano protests. Then he laughs again and says, "But aw, hey, look. You could say I could've done this, Tatum should've knocked the ball down, the lineman should've sacked Bradshaw, Gerald Irons should've got Franco. But we went on to the Super Bowl later, too. And the other day, someone asked me a great question: 'Would you change the outcome if you could?' And I thought of all the fun we've had with this over the years, all the people I've met and conversations I've had and the friends I've made. And I had to say no."

Fuqua says, "I still get people who weren't born yet tell me they were in the stadium that day 40 years ago. I used to say, 'How old are you?' and they'd say, 'I'm 32!' But I don't call them out anymore. I just decided, 'Why don't we all just enjoy this fairy tale together?' "

Franco, now 62, says that something new about the Immaculate Reception strikes him every year.

Like what?

"When Jack Fleming began to make that call of the last play," Franco asks, "how did he know -- how did he know? -- to say, 'Hang onto your hats?' "