Commentary

'Franco caught it'

The indelible moment that birthed the legacy of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers

Originally Published: November 14, 2013
By Gary M. Pomerantz

Franco HarrisAP Photo/NFL PhotosFranco Harris's "Immaculate Reception" in the 1972 playoffs catapulted the Steelers to relevancy.
Excerpted from Their Life's Work by Gary M. Pomerantz. Copyright © 2013 by Gary M. Pomerantz. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. and reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Three Rivers Stadium, December 23, 1972. Forty-three degrees, overcast, and damp at kickoff. The Oakland Raiders, with a villainous reputation, dressed virtuously in white, except coach John Madden, who wore long sideburns, a black jacket, gray slacks, and black Adidas sneakers.

Here, for the Steelers' first home playoff game in a quarter century, was a panoramic view: $10 tickets scalped for $100; Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica, fighting a flu, hung in effigy in the crowd; Art Rooney Sr. (aka the Chief), his fat cigar already soggy from twisting in his saliva, telling sportswriters in the press box before the game that Pittsburgh fans suddenly thought he was a genius. Just three seasons old, Three Rivers Stadium was a cookie-cutter structure, formidable in its way, built for utility, its playing field covered with an artificial turf. To the Chief, who had spent too much time in too many rickety old stadiums, Three Rivers was like heaven, clean, spiffy, and modern, especially the plush Allegheny Club, where black waiters were heard to cheer for Franco Harris, "That a way, soul brother!" The deposed Forbes Field would stand for sixty years, Three Rivers for only half that long. In its time Three Rivers would host two World Series, concerts by Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, and crusades by Jehovah's Witnesses and Billy Graham, but it would be remembered, above all, for one moment, freakish and heroic, on this day.

Nearly three hours into this divisional playoff game, the Steelers' magnificent defensive performance and 6-0 lead dissolved with less than two minutes to play. The Raiders' backup quarterback, Ken Stabler, eluded the pass rush from the Pittsburgh 30-yard line, broke containment, and hobble-raced down the left side as the ghosts and goblins of Pittsburgh's past whispered, "Same Old Steelers! Same Old Steelers!" Greene and Greenwood were unable to catch Stabler from behind; neither could Ham nor reserve defensive tackle Craig Hanneman. Only safety Mike Wagner had an angle, but just as he put his mitts on Stabler, the quarterback lunged into the end zone for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeLifes Work
Courtesy of Simon & SchusterIn Their Life's Work, author Gary M. Pomerantz delves into the lives of the 1970s Steelers, who owned the decade by capturing four Lombardi trophies.

On the Oakland sideline, receiver Cliff Branch sprang up in celebration, lifting his legs high and wide, kangaroo-like, once, twice, seven times. Madden pumped his meaty fist. The Raiders led, 7-6; the stadium clock read "1:13."

Seventy-three seconds.

Now came a moment that sports produces best: a communal experience that merges adrenaline and hope against logic and history to produce a civic rush in an economically depressed town. It would have a startling diversity, forever bonding in lore a black running back from Detroit claiming to be French royalty, a Jewish sportscaster with an Anglicized surname, two second-generation Italian Americans from East Liberty drinking Riunite wine and waving a corno to ward off the mallochio, and a biracial running back named Franco Harris whose Italian mother had escaped Hitler and now was at home in New Jersey, watching on television with his African-American father. Deflated by the Steelers' sudden deficit, Gina Parenti Harris stepped into her garden in Mount Holly and then came back inside. Asking for intercession for those who have waited so long, totally without hope, she put a record on her phonograph -- Beniamino Gigli's arresting "Ave Maria." A few hours later, in a downtown Pittsburgh bar, a Steeler zealot would stand atop a chair and call out to the Virgin Mary in his own memorable way.

No one felt it coming, not after three hurried Bradshaw incompletions had left the Steelers in supplication, down to a final chance: fourth-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 40 with 22 seconds to play. Even the Chief gave up. He left his upstairs box, bidding adieu to his priest and his driver, and stepped into the elevator, joined there by the part-time ball boy, Bill Nunn III, and others, their heads down, not a word spoken. At ground level, Nunn turned right, toward the field, the Chief to the left, toward the Steelers' locker room. There, he waited for the inevitable silence to fill his stadium, intending to tell his players, as he had so many times since 1933, that they had put up a good fight.

If only Bill Mazeroski were here ...

Mazeroski's home run in the bottom of the ninth inning that defeated the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series at Forbes Field was the last sports event to send Pittsburgh into the purest form of euphoria. Steelers scout Bill Nunn Jr. saw that home run -- as a Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter he gave Clemente a ride to the airport from the clubhouse after that game -- and now he sat in a box upstairs with personnel director Art Rooney Jr., furious at the Steelers' defense for the breakdown that permitted Stabler's score.

Mazeroski's 17-year baseball career had ended in October and now he was 30 miles away, at home in Greensburg, listening to the Steelers on radio, like most of Pittsburgh, because this game was blacked out on local TV.

On the Oakland sideline, Madden gathered his offense, and receiver Mike Siani heard him say what he, and the other offensive players, already knew. "We will get the ball back," Madden said, "and run out the clock." His players had a secret nickname for Madden -- Pinky -- because when he erupted with anger, his face turned bright crimson. At this moment, Madden was serious, focused, white-faced.

Two Raider rookie linemen, Dave Dalby and John Vella, roommates, stood together farther back. Neither had played much, a few moments on special teams. Dalby said, "J.V., can you believe how much money we'll make from this game?" The answer, both knew, was $7,500. "And even if we lose the next game," Dalby said, "we'll get $15,000." That would nearly double their first-year salaries.

From the sideline, Noll sent in the play, "Sixty-six Circle Option," a pass play designed for rookie Barry Pearson, a receiver just inserted into the game and known for his fine hands. His job was to run a post pattern downfield, angling toward the middle, and get a first down and more, in hopes of setting up a game-winning field goal try by Roy Gerela. Bradshaw had completed just 10 of 24 passes, not good.

From the sideline, Ham could not watch. "I'm a realist," he said, and he began to cut the tape from his wrist, his back turned to the field. Bleier felt resigned to defeat, too. He thought, I can't watch the disaster that's about to take place. He didn't want the season to end. In case someone was watching him, Bleier walked from the sideline to a nearby table and reached for a Gatorade he didn't want. Joe Greene, an eternal optimist, stood nearby with cornerback John Rowser, and told him, "This season has been too good. It ain't gonna end this way."

In Section 29, near the Oakland 35-yard line, Tony Stagno, co-founder of the fan club Franco's Italian Army, waved his red pepper-like corno, putting a curse on the Raiders. Now, with fourth down calling for dire measures, he pulled out the little hunch-backed man carved from ivory, but it slipped through his fingers and fell to the ground. Al Vento, pizza man and fellow co-founder of the fan club, reached down to get it for him.

Michael Ord, a 33-year-old marketing consultant and Steeler zealot, sat in his usual seat near the 50-yard line, in the upper deck, close to the stadium's upper rim, nearest to God. He loved his view of the field from here, and the savory smell of a turkey or chicken cooking on a fan's small grill perched on the stadium's top ledge. Sometimes a cooked drumstick or thigh was passed to him. With his girlfriend, Sharon Levosky, and his father, Ord stood.

All eyes on Bradshaw.

The Raiders showed a four-man rush, though defensive tackle Art Thoms would become a "spy," holding his place, in containment, in case Bradshaw tried to run. Now Bradshaw scrambled to his right with the Raiders' massive linemen Horace Jones and Tony Cline in pursuit. Instinctively, Bradshaw stopped and pivoted, slipping Jones. He did not see Pearson, but downfield, near the Oakland 35-yard line, he spotted the Frenchman breaking into the clear.

[+] EnlargeNoll
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesThe play Steelers coach Chuck Noll called was not intended for running back John "Frenchy" Fuqua.
His pass to Fuqua, a laser beam, was released just as Cline lowered his shoulder into him, knocking him to the ground. Bradshaw would not see what was about to happen.

Watching from the sideline, Steelers trainer Ralph Berlin said, "That's it. We're done," and he began to walk toward the end zone where he saw Tony Parisi, the equipment manager, carrying in the water buckets.

There was a celebrated Raiders style, swashbuckling rogues and head-hunters playing with a dark fury and recklessness. Safety Jack Tatum made that style his. One of the game's hardest hitters, Tatum was a feared tackler who threw forearm shivers and was known to his teammates as the Assassin. In a 1977 preseason game, Tatum would make a hit that paralyzed New England receiver Darryl Stingley from the chest down.

Now, as Bradshaw's pass came to Fuqua, so did Tatum, from behind. The Raider safety had three options: (1) attempt to deflect the pass; (2) tackle Fuqua near the Raiders' 35-yard line, leaving the Steelers with only a few seconds to try a long field goal; or (3) make like the defensive assassin he was and, as Raider linebacker Phil Villapiano would say, "Just knock the f----- out!"

True to character, Tatum chose the third option, throwing his shoulder violently into Fuqua's upper back, near his left shoulder.

"That's the way Jack played it and every one of us Raiders loved him for that," Villapiano said. "It was a perfectly clean hit. He overdid stuff a lot of times, and it was due to backfire."

Moving behind Tatum, cornerback Jimmy Warren raised his arms in celebration, but only for an instant.

Harris, a thinking player, the very trait some pro scouts had criticized, was called to block for Bradshaw on the play. Villapiano shadowed him, grabbing Harris' jersey. But when Bradshaw scrambled from the pocket, Harris reacted and moved downfield. At Penn State, Joe Paterno had implored his players, including Harris, "Go to the ball! Go to the ball!" Harris did just that now. Villapiano saw Bradshaw throw and thought, The coaches will grade this film. If I stand here, I'll get a minus. So he let Harris go and moved toward Fuqua when suddenly Tatum struck Fuqua from behind and the football whiplashed back over Villapiano's head. The linebacker's first thought: Oh, f---!

Near the stadium's upper rim, Ord's father, Barney, a postal supervisor, saw the pass deflected. He covered his face with his hands, a debacle revealed, and sat in his seat with a feeling of despair.

From the ground, Fuqua, knocked woozy, looked up and saw Tatum smile wickedly. Yet so violent was their collision, the ball fluttered more than seven yards in the other direction, toward the oncoming Harris, who bent forward and scooped it from the air, near his shin.

"If I had stayed with him," Villapiano lamented, "the ball would've come to me, because I was on the inside."

Now Harris broke to his left, a $30,000 running back carrying the hopes of steelworkers who, if still employed, made, on average, less than a third of that amount.

In Section 29, where Franco's Italian Army massed, Vento located the fallen hunchbacked man on the ground, beneath a seat, and handed it to Stagno. Then Vento looked to the field, stunned by what he saw.

Up in the press box, Dick Hoak, the Steelers' running backs coach, sitting with fellow assistant coaches Bud Carson and Babe Parilli, leaped onto a table and shouted, "Keep going, Franco! Keep going!"

Scout Tim Rooney sat in a different box with his cousin and boss, Art Jr., and Bill Nunn Jr., and when Harris made the catch, they all rose from their chairs. As Art Jr. stood, his chair's leg dug into cousin Tim's new Cordovans, mutilating the left one and gouging his toe.

Sitting in the stands with his wife, scout Dick Haley, who had expressed concerns about Harris in his scouting report a year earlier while noting "there is no doubt that he has great ability," saw his last point proven. "A phenomenal play by Harris," he decided, "to have the skill level to go down and catch that ball and keep running. A lot of guys would have gone to the ground to make the catch."

Greenwood, meanwhile, had been moving slowly along the Pittsburgh sideline toward the locker room, appreciative of the Steelers' season that was ending. When he heard the crowd roar, he half turned and saw Harris sprint past him at the 30-yard line, with the ball in his hand. It confused him.

Near the stadium's upper rim, Barney Ord, seated with his head in his hands, was confused by the roar, too. He smacked his son Michael in the side, stood up, and asked excitedly, "What's happening? What's happening?"

[+] EnlargeFranco Harris
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarA marker now stands on the spot where Harris made one of the most famous catches in NFL history.

Only one Raider had a chance to stop Harris, Warren, who angled toward him near the 11-yard line. But Harris stiff-armed him, and Warren slipped from the back of Harris' moist jersey and crashed to the turf. Harris ran along the sideline, and just inside the pylon, to score a touchdown with five seconds to play. He casually dropped the ball in the end zone, as was his style, while dozens of fans leaped over the grandstand walls and rushed to slap him on the back.

Greene, his eternal optimism affirmed, ran along the sideline in pursuit of Harris and victory.

Bradshaw ran into the end zone, too, holding his head in disbelief, looking skyward, and accepting hugs from fans as if they were old friends, and imploring, "Somebody tell me: What happened?" Art Rooney II, Dan's twenty-year-old son, stood beside the Steelers' bench and tossed a water bottle in the air. It took about twenty minutes for that bottle to come down, or so it seemed. Just then, from out of the stands, the former Steelers defensive back Brady Keys appeared and bear-hugged the young Rooney, jumping up and down, and squeezing him so tight that Art II felt close to passing out.

In Section 29, Franco's Italian Army danced and kissed cheeks, convinced of the power of their hunchbacked man. Near the stadium's upper rim, Michael Ord answered his father's question, saying, "Franco caught it!" And then, moments later, as he crossed the goal line: "Thank God!" And then speaking for all of Pittsburgh: "Finally!"

From Their Life's Work by Gary M. Pomerantz. Copyright © 2013 by Gary M. Pomerantz. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. and reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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