Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know who Ben Roethlisberger or Troy Polamalu are?
We’d be in for one heck of a surprise if someone stepped forward. In a region where Terrible Towels seem to be issued at birth and black and gold jerseys never go out of fashion, the Pittsburgh Steelers are an obsession. From Wilkinsburg to Waynesburg, the team’s fortunes are a perpetual source of conversation, particularly during football season. It stands in stark contrast to some cities, such as Detroit, where the doings of the Lions are mostly greeted with indifferent shrugs.
It wasn’t always thus. For decades, the Steelers were the second-class citizens of Pittsburgh sports, wallowing in mediocrity or worse behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, who always seemed to have top-flight sluggers or pitchers on their roster, and had a history of winning on their side.
That all started to change 40 years ago today.
On Dec. 23, 1972, a blustery Saturday afternoon, the Steelers’ rookie fullback, Franco Harris, caught what came to be known as the Immaculate Reception.
It’s an amazing play, and is considered by many to be the greatest in the history of professional football. In a playoff appearance against the Oakland Raiders with a little over a minute left on the clock, the Steelers were down 7-6 after Oakland had scored a late touchdown, with no timeouts left. Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the football toward the Raiders’ 35-yard line and Steelers running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua. As Fuqua leapt to catch the ball, he was hit by Raiders safety Jack Tatum, and the ball ricocheted in the direction of Harris. He grabbed it just before it hit the turf and ran it in for a touchdown.
Pity the poor souls at Three Rivers Stadium that day who had made a trip to the concession stand or had already departed to beat the traffic.
In the last four decades, the Immaculate Reception has been draped in controversy, and the footage of it has probably been as scrupulously examined as the home-movie footage Abraham Zapruder shot in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963. It’s never been determined definitively whether the ball was deflected off Fuqua, Tatum, or both before Harris caught it. According to the rules governing the National Football League at the time, if Tatum never touched the ball, it would have been incomplete. Tatum is dead now, so he can’t weigh in one way or another. Some Raiders fans continue to call it “the Immaculate Deception.”
But the play, and the Steelers’ win that day, was a turning point in the team’s march to 1970s dominance. They didn’t go to the Super Bowl that year, but they made winning trips in 1975, 1976, 1979 and 1980. The Steelers provided a valuable morale boost to the region, which was on the ropes because of the collapse of the steel industry.
A statue unveiled Saturday on Pittsburgh’s North Shore guarantees the memory of the Immaculate Reception will live on long after most of the players and spectators who were at Three Rivers Stadium that day are gone.
Forty years later, the tables have turned completely – the Steelers are first in the affections of most Pittsburgh sports fans and, after two decades of losing seasons, the Pirates are now the beloved if deeply troubled child. They could sorely use an Immaculate Reception-style moment of their own one of these days.