On Christmas Eve 1972, when the rest of the world was preparing for the holiday, Tom Northrop was having an emergency dental procedure.
And he had a big, happy grin on his face.
Then 16 years old, the publisher of the Observer-Reporter had been sitting in the thinner altitudes of Three Rivers Stadium the day before. The playoff game between the trailing Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders was in its final seconds when it happened.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the ball toward the Raiders’ 35-yard line, aiming it in the direction of Steelers halfback John “Frenchy” Fuqua. But Fuqua was hit by the Raiders’ Jack Tatum just as the ball arrived. The ball ricocheted backward – it’s still disputed whether the ball hit Fuqua or Tatum or both – and Franco Harris, the Steelers’ fullback, grabbed it a centimeter or two from the ground.
Clutching the ball, Harris ran down the edge of the field, sailing past two more Raiders and elbowing aside Raiders’ defensive back Jimmy Warren to score a touchdown. It all happened in just 14 seconds.
Northrop leapt out of his seat, and the weighty field binoculars that were hanging around his neck flew up into his face and hit with a hard smack.
He emerged from the game with one of his front teeth chipped.
When he met his parents after the game was over, which the Steelers won 13-7, he showed them a portion of his tooth.
“I was thrilled,” Northrop said. “It didn’t bother me one bit. It was worth the time in the dentist’s chair.”
What Northrop had just witnessed was, of course, the Immaculate Reception, one of the greatest plays – if not the greatest play – in the history of professional football, and a holy moment in the history of Pittsburgh sports. Perhaps its only rival is Bill Mazeroski’s bottom-of-the-ninth home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, which lifted the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates past the seemingly invincible New York Yankees.
On its 40th anniversary, the Immaculate Reception is being immortalized in a statue that was unveiled near Heinz Field and Stage AE on the North Shore Saturday. Harris was to be on hand for that, as well as an “Immaculate Reception Memories” event at the Senator John Heinz History Center.
On the phone last week from his Pittsburgh-area home, Harris said he occasionally reflects on the twists of fate that led him to be at just the right spot on the turf to catch the deflected pass.
“I really do reflect on that. I look at all the components that were connected to that play ... There’s just so much to it.”
More than just a breathtakingly great – and still controversial – football play, the Immaculate Reception marked a turning point in the Steelers’ fortunes, according to Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the History Center. After having been founded in 1933, the Steelers spent most of the 39 years before the Immaculate Reception as not-so-lovable losers. In Pittsburgh sports, they took a back seat to the Pirates, who had a lengthy history of winning seasons, World Series championships and having legendary players like Honus Wagner, Ralph Kiner and Willie Stargell on their roster.
“It set the stage for what was to come in the next couple of years,” Madarasz said. “It was a turning point for Pittsburgh going from a baseball town to a baseball town and a football town.”
Though the Steelers didn’t advance to the Super Bowl that season, they managed to go two years later, and they beat the Minnesota Vikings. They won again the year after, and in 1979 and 1980. Few teams have been able to match the Steelers’ late 1970s dominance.
“It’s not just the touchdown,” Madarasz continued. “It became bigger than a single play.”
Even though the Immaculate Reception now is commemorated by a statue, like a long-ago Civil War battle, it’s not an event that occurred outside living memory. You don’t have to go too far in Washington or Greene counties to find people who were in the stands at Three Rivers Stadium on that blustery Saturday afternoon. Ray Dami, a Peters Township resident, still remembers the tension that crackled through the stands after the Immaculate Reception. The game was put on hold for 10 minutes while referees debated whether the play was a touchdown or incomplete pass.
“You couldn’t tell,” Dami recalled. “There were several different calls they could have made. It was pretty exciting.”
The fact that the call did not go the Raiders’ way still raises blood pressure on the West Coast four decades later. In that part of the world the Immaculate Reception has been dubbed “the Immaculate Deception.”
“I remember the long delay,” said Buddy Jeffers, a Chartiers Township resident. “And (then) everybody went crazy.”
Manuel Pihakis, a Canonsburg resident, was at the game with his sons, Georgie and Michael, and they were seated near the 40-yard line close to the field. After the Immaculate Reception, “all three of us jumped up on the dugout,” Pihakis remembered.
Usually Waynesburg resident Ronald Lemley didn’t purchase a program when he attended Steelers games but he happened to buy one for that game. Forty years later, he is still glad to show it off.
“That was one of the most exciting plays we had ever seen,” Lemley said. “It was really thrilling.”
Harris often hears stories from people about their memories of the Immaculate Reception, and he doesn’t feel weary of discussing it.
“When people talk about it, they’re smiling and having fun.”