In a couple of weeks, the now-Las Vegas Raiders will visit Pittsburgh to play the Steelers five decades (and a day) after the catch that has been officially named “the greatest play in NFL history.” It launched a dynasty—and a bitter feud between the teams.
Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, whose shoestring snag of a deflected pass in the closing seconds of a Dec. 23, 1972, playoff game turned into a touchdown and a shocking victory, will be honored at halftime of the game on Saturday, Dec. 24, when the Steelers retire his jersey.
“It’s so hard to believe that we’re celebrating a play that happened 50 years ago,” Harris told Blue Sky News. “I mean, 50 years is a long time. And for something to stand the test of time, that long, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is.
“And 50 years later, it still feels great.”
The controversial play (Did the ball bounce off receiver Frenchy Fuqua first? Did it hit the ground before Harris grabbed it?) was dubbed “the Immaculate Reception,” a sobriquet popularized by iconic broadcaster Myron Cope. It is still lamented by Raiders players and fans, who refer to it as “the Immaculate Deception.”
A figure of Harris making the catch famously greets arriving passengers at Pittsburgh International Airport, a beacon for Steelers fans happy to be home and a blasphemy to the occasional Raiders fan that passes through.
“I think we should change that statue immediately,” former Oakland Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, who was covering Harris on the play, once told Sports Illustrated. “I told Franco the last tackle I ever make in my life is I’m going to come off the airplane… and ram that statue and I’m going to drive it over the top and we’re going to both go down on to that dinosaur that’s down below.”
But Harris gives as good as he gets. According to Villapiano, his good friend calls him every Dec. 23 and reminds him of the play.
Harris’ touchdown was the first in Steelers playoff history after decades of mediocrity, and it sealed their first-ever playoff win. Two years later they won the first of four Super Bowls in the 1970s and became one of the premier franchises in American sports.
A permanent monument to the play stands outside Acrisure Stadium at the exact site where it took place at the now-demolished Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers will host an event there on Dec. 23, replaying the radio broadcast from the game.
Because the game wasn’t televised in Pittsburgh, radio was the only way fans could follow the game without having a ticket. And over the years, it seems like there were a million Pittsburghers there, if stories are to be believed.
“Fifty years later, it never gets old,” Harris said. “And I still enjoy it when people come up to me and say, ‘Franco, I was at the game!’
“But sometimes now I’m getting, ‘Franco, my grandpa was at the game!’”