The Reception of the Immaculate Conception took place 50 years ago on 12/23/72. And he has captivated NFL fans ever since.
Why is the Immaculate Conception still venerated 50 years later?
The same reason people love to debate whether there are bigfoot or aliens or ghosts or honest lawyers.
Because there is enough evidence to prove it existas there is that proves they don’t.
Since a lot of video footage from the show exists, none of it is conclusive. And in a world where absolutely nothing happens without being videotaped from multiple angles, the intrigue around this comedy has only continued to grow year after year as technology advances.
What was at stake before the Immaculate Reception in the game that took place in that AFC Divisional playoff game on December 23, 1972 at Three Rivers Stadium?
The 1972 season marked the third year after the AFL-NFL merger, which resulted in the Steelers moving to the newly formed American Football Conference despite not being a member of the American Football League. Thus, this was the third year that a playoff matchup between the Raiders and Steelers could take place outside of a Super Bowl.
After missing the playoffs the year before, the two teams met in the opening game of the season (on September 17), which Pittsburgh won 34–28. In that game, the Steelers took a 17–0 lead to 27–7 on a blocked punt return touchdown and two rushing touchdowns by Terry Bradshaw. Oakland would fight back with three fourth quarter touchdowns, including a 70-yard touchdown pass from « The Mad Bomber » Daryle Lamonica to Mike Siani, but Pittsburgh won
Both teams would end up winning their respective division. Pittsburgh’s 11–3 record put them one game over the Cleveland Browns, who earned the AFC wild card slot, and Oakland’s 10–3–1 mark ousted the Kansas City Chiefs of 2 and a half games.
The Steelers hosted the game. Whoever won would face the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship the following week.
What happened in the game before the Reception of the Immaculate Conception?
It was a tough, grueling, physical game between the Steelers and Raiders that characterized the blood feud between the two franchises in the early 1970s. Every match was as brutal as it was meaningful.
The Steelers and the Raiders hated each other. So much so that in 1976 it resulted in a criminal courtroom.
A $2 million dispute resulted from Atkinson’s vicious hitting away from the game late in the first half of the 1976 season opener that rendered Pittsburgh wide receiver Lynn Swann ineffective for the second half with a concussion.
Steelers head coach Chuck Noll called Atkinson « a criminal element » who should be banned from the NFL. Atkinson filed a complaint.
After four hours of further review, this is what the jury decided: no libel. No malice. No harm to Atkinson. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle fined him $1,500 for being a dirty player. Noll was deducted $1,000 for criticizing another team’s player.
But this happened four years after the Immaculate Conception. The event itself signals a rushing boil of impending tensions.
The first half of the Immaculate Reception match was a 0-0 draw. It was a classic blustery, cold, windy day in Pittsburgh. By the end of the third quarter the Steelers had built up a 6-0 lead on two field goals.
With 1:17 left in the game, Raiders QB Ken Stabler scored in one of the slowest 30-yard QB TD scrambles you’ll ever see.
What era the Immaculate Reception?
Trailing a 7–6 Oakland Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers faced 4th and 10 at their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the game and no timeouts.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, under heavy pressure, ran the ball to the Raiders’ 35-yard line, where it was bound for running back John Fuqua. At the exact moment the ball landed, Raider safety Jack Tatum made contact with Fuqua and slammed him to the ground. The ball was thrown backwards, end to end, heading towards the icy grass field.
Steelers running back Franco Harris was blocking the play, but gradually moved downfield as received, once Bradshaw had to get out of the pocket.
Just as the ball hit the ground, Harris yelled out of nowhere and scooped it up, with a firm stride. Harris ran past two Raiders defenders and used a stiff arm to drive back a Raiders defender and scored a TD.
The reception of the Immaculate Conception GIF:
“The critical question: who touched the ball in the Fuqua/Tatum collision? If he rebounded to Fuqua without ever touching Tatum, then Harris’ catch was illegal. If the ball bounced off Tatum alone, or if it bounced off both Fuqua and Tatum (in any order), then the catch was legal.
The rule stated in the relevant part that if an attacker touches a pass first, he is the only attacker eligible to receive the pass. “However, if a [defensive] player tap [the] pass before, or at the same time or after its having been touched by one alone [offensive] player, then all [offensive] players become and remain eligible « to catch the pass ».
So what really happened? Was the Reception of the Immaculate Conception a legal game?
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get two completely different answers.
Raiders defensive back Tatum said the ball didn’t bounce off him, both immediately after the game and in his memoirs. The Steelers’ Fuqua has turned his involvement in the show into a cottage industry, giving speeches and public appearances in which he remains coy but says he knows « exactly what happened » and will never say.
Then Raiders coach John Madden summed it up best: « No matter how many times I watch the ‘immaculate reception’ movies, I never know for sure what happened. »
Besides reading the story of the event and various first-person accounts, how can you get a direct answer? Going straight to the two players involved: Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris.
When I asked Bradshaw how the Immaculate Reception affected his life, he said no, adamantly.
“The ‘Immaculate Reception’ did nothing to help me; we won one game and were beaten the following week. It’s voted a great show every year, but not a lot. It wouldn’t change anything that happened.
“I threw the ball as hard as I could from our 30 yard line, to their 35, where it makes contact and goes flying through the air. Franco is standing around their 45. I didn’t throw the ball hard enough for it to bounce that far back to Fuqua, and since Fuqua was running across the field, the ball would have swung to the right if it was I had hit him. That ball must have bounced off Tatum: if that had happened, Tatum’s momentum would have carried the ball back. »
After my interaction with Terry, I was hoping Franco would reflect on the play in a more positive way. Probably because I have had for all these years. And Bradshaw’s sentiment about the show was like discovering that Santa wasn’t real.
But Franco was optimistic and confident about what comedy meant to him.
“This was the stepping stone to the success we had for the rest of that decade. Prior to that year, 1972, the Steelers were a laughingstock. I honestly did Not I want to play for them – and I went to Penn State so I should have!”
“Prior to that year, the Steelers had an 8 game losing streak. And even before they were nothing good. We win the Immaculate Reception game, but beat the Raiders in the end. Sure, we lost to the Dolphins the following week, who ended up winning the Super Bowl that year, but the next 7 years we make the playoffs every year and win four Super Bowls. I think that definitely contributed and who knows how different everything would be if it didn’t happen.
« But one thing’s for sure: I definitely caught that ball. »
The Reception of the Immaculate Conception turns 50.
Like any great mystery or unknown, the thing that keeps it going is the lack of a conclusive answer. And the same goes for the Immaculate Conception.
If it’s supposedly concluding comedy footage recorded by Pittsburgh’s Channel 4 that was lost due to « inadequate archiving practices. »
Or that all of that day’s major video recordings from multiple angles fail to show the full and completed show, the mystery of the Immaculate Reception will live on forever.
Unless your name is Terry or Franco.