You can't have grown up in the United States in the last 50 years and not be at least marginally familiar with The Immaculate Reception. Not even if you didn't see it get picked by the NFL as The Greatest Play of All Time or it appear on every, single pro football highlight countdown. In fact, you don't even have to be a sports fan to have heard about it. Over the last four years I've made repeated trips to the Pittsburgh airport because both my sons have gone to school within an hour of the place. And when you come down the escalator from the gates to baggage claim, you are greeted by two statues: George Washington and Franco Harris. So the leader of the revolution that gave birth to this country, and a running back grabbing a ball by the fingertips about an inch above the ground. So pretty much the story of America, summed up in two carved images.
It's that much a part of our pop culture. The Raiders at the Steelers, two of the most iconic franchises in NFL history, ascending at a time when pro football was beginning to take over the zeitgeist and supplant baseball and boxing as our national sport. One of several epic battles between the two, which at the time were always breaking Pittsburgh's way. And this one was especially hard for Raider's fans because the were up 7-6 in this one until Harris took a caromed Terry Bradshaw pass 60 yards as time expired for the 13-7 win. Just brutal.
Until recently, I've always understood that the ruling on the field was controversial. Until recently though, I didn't realize how much. But more on that in a minute. The reason I'm bringing it up is that this year marks The Immaculate Reception's 50th anniversary. And Pittsburgh is leaving no stone unturned to pick the half century old scab and turn it into a festering, pus-filled wound once again:
Source - The Steelers announced today that Harris’s No. 32 jersey will be retired at halftime of their home game against the Raiders on December 24. ...
Harris’s No. 32 will be just the third number retired by the Steelers, following Ernie Stautner’s No. 70 and Mean Joe Greene’s No. 75.
So to review, Harris retired in 1984, and until now the Steelers were perfectly content to let his number go unretired for 38 years. Their franchise is tied for the most Super Bowls in history, with six. They've sent more guys to the Hall of Fame than any team but the Bears and Packers, and to this day have only retired the numbers of two of them. But they're adding Harris as the third, just to mindfuck the Raiders. Because the catch has tortured them and their fans for about three generations. The failure of that play has haunted their steps through four moves to three different home cities. And the Steelers are choosing an otherwise joyous Christmas Eve to make sure they don't forget it. Absolutely diabolical.
Back to my own understanding of the play. What I've always believed is that the catch was disputed because everyone in Oakland thought it hit the ground and Harris picked it up on the short hop. Shame on me. Thanks to the book "Badasses: John Madden's Oakland Raiders" by Peter Richmond (which I'm not getting paid to endorse by I'll give credit where it's due, football book author to football book author, cha-ching!), the anger and pain goes much, much deeper than merely a blown call. It rises to the level of conspiracy theory that lives on to this day like JFK's assassination.
For starters, Bradshaw's pass was intended for Steeler's running back Frenchy Fuqua, who was having an already miserable day, with 16 carries for just 25 yards. It's common knowledge that the ball bounced off Fuqua's shoulder pad as he was hit by safety Jack Tatum (who deserves to be suffering eternal torment at the end of Satan's dick for a hit a few years later), backwards to Harris and into history. What's less known is that, according to the rules at the time, a ball that bounced off an offensive player can't be caught by another offensive player. By rule, that would blown dead as an incomplete pass, if any player but the guy who first touched it caught it.
But on this one, the officials called it a touchdown. And then huddled. And huddled. Until their huddlers were sore. And were allegedly overheard to ask "Do we have security on the field? ... If you do, I'm going to make this call in favor of the Raiders." Then one of the truly great-named referees, Fred Swearingen,
… made his way into the Pirates' dugout at Three Rivers and was believed to have called upstairs to the NFL Director of Officiating, Art McNally, while John Madden ran onto the field, his jowls flapping and his spittle flying everywhere. After an eternity, Swearingen came back out and signaled touchdown. The only logical conclusion we can reach is that McNally was upstairs looking at every angle of every replay to see if there was one that so obviously showed the ball hitting Fuqua or bouncing off the turf that they'd have no choice but to reverse the call and give the game to Oakland. Finding none, he had cover to let the ruling stand and get his officiating crew out of Pittsburgh in one piece.
All of which - you guessed it - was also completely against the rules at the time. You couldn't catch a deflected pass. You couldn't review replays. And you couldn't let the head of officials determine who won or lost a playoff game. Nor could you commit buggery against a franchise, a city and a fanbase. All of which they did.
And the Raiders are still not over it, half a century later. So you have to admire the sheer, cruel audacity of the Steelers to choose Christmas to remind them of it. Even if it means hanging up the No. 32 of a guy they never deemed worth of having his number retired before then. It's a form of cruel and unusual punishment. And it's diabolical.
Speaking as someone who was traumatized as a kid by the despicable Roughing the Passer call:
… which was to me what watching his parents get gunned down in a Gotham City alley was to young Bruce Wayne, I applaud the Steelers for their Hall of Fame level of petty vindictiveness. And I hope that when the Pats do decide to retire No. 12, they do it on the anniversary of The Tuck Rule. The Raiders can't suffer enough for my liking. Cheers to you.