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TOYS AND GAMES: Immaculate Reception Anniversary

Today is a special day in Pittsburgh. Perhaps one that should be declared an annual holiday.

On December 23, 1972, the “Immaculate Reception” came to life in Three Rivers Stadium. The years that followed would see the Steelers would forge an NFL dynasty.

Given the ambiguous nature of today’s NFL replays, the Immaculate Reception seems even more significant. As you watch on TV, you wonder why a play is being called one way when the replay shows the exact opposite, particularly if you inject a little common sense into the equation.

Chuck Noll, the Hall of Fame coach of the Steelers, explained to me the common sense aspect of the Immaculate Reception and why he wasn’t concerned at the time that the famed play would be overturned.

First, what happened.

In an AFC divisional playoff game between the Steelers and the Raiders, the Steelers were down 7-6 with 30 seconds remaining in the game. That’s when Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua at the Raiders’ 35. The pass arrived just as Raiders safety Jack Tatum converged on Fuqua, resulting in a ricocheted ball that running back Franco Harris grabbed at his shoe tops before sprinting into the end zone for the winning score.

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The rule at the time dictated that a passed ball could not be deflected from one offensive player to another or the play would be ruled illegal (a rule which has since been changed). So the ensuing controversy dealt with whether Tatum’s hit had deflected the ball to Harris or if the ball had first hit Fuqua and gone to Harris.

All kinds of time passed before the decision was made that the call stood.

My meeting with Noll took place on January 14, 2004. He would be the final interview for my book, Steel Dynasty: The Team That Changed the NFL.

We were sitting in the kitchen of his home in Bonito Springs, Florida when I asked him about the Immaculate Reception, which seemed to trigger a fire from within and he grew animated.

“After it happened it was pandemonium,” Noll said. “People were all over the place. We had people on the sidelines who had come down earlier because they thought it was over. Then this happened. [Team owner] Art Rooney usually didn’t come down, but he was down there.

“It was a double deflection kind of thing and it was a question of whether it bounced off one of their players or one of ours, which would have made it an ineligible pass. But as it turned out, and rightfully so, they made the right call.”

Noll surmised that if Tatum arrived one way and the ball exited on the same path that it had arrived, the only plausible call was that Tatum had been the one to deflect the ball.

Noll stood to demonstrate.

“You have the ball coming here and you have a receiver coming here, both forces are coming this way then you introduce another force coming this way, which was Tatum, now the ball goes back,” Noll said. “There’s no question in my mind who hit the ball, that’s just Physics 101. If the ball had continued this way, I would have thought otherwise. But this one came back from another direction with a great force.”

There you have it, simple and no replay needed.

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography