PITTSBURGH – Franco Harris and the dynasty Pittsburgh Steelers – and even an old Oakland Raiders linebacker – returned to the spot of the Immaculate Reception on Saturday to unveil a monument on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the play.
At a tent adjacent to Heinz Field, Harris and former Steelers teammates ignored chilly conditions during the festive ceremony.
The monument is at the exact site of Harris’ famous touchdown reception at Three Rivers Stadium in a 13-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders in an AFC playoff game on Dec. 23, 1972.
“Isn’t this beautiful, guys?” Harris said to the crowd. “That play really represents our teams of the `70s.”
It was a defining moment in the NFL and sparked the Steelers to a run of four Super Bowl titles from 1972-79. They went on to win two more in 2006 and `09.
“The last 40 years have been incredible,” Harris said. “This is what the Pittsburgh Steelers are all about.”
Outside the tent, Steelers faithful – many waving yellow towels and chanting, “Here we go, Steelers, here we go!” – looked on as Harris was joined on a podium by other former players, including running back Frenchy Fuqua, who was the intended target of quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s pass.
But the ball deflected off either Fuqua or Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum – replays were inconclusive – and an approaching Harris scooped the ball off his shoetops and raced past Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano and defensive back Jimmy Warren into the end zone to put the Steelers ahead with 5 seconds remaining.
“There are moments in life where you know what you’re doing,” Harris said. “Me and Frenchy, we had no idea what we were doing.”
Harris then turned to his right and spotted Villapiano sitting nearby.
“Phil Villapiano thought he knew what he was doing,” Harris said.
Villapiano acknowledged Harris’ good-natured jab with a laugh and a nod.
“Franco and I have talked about that play a million times,” Villapiano said. “So many of those guys from the Steelers are my friends. I never thought that play would lead to so much talk and a statue. I love it. I’m really glad I came here.”
As Harris and Villapiano shook hands and posed for pictures in front of the monument, Fuqua walked toward the crowd and shed a sport coat to reveal a T-shirt that read, “I’ll never tell,” referring to which player touched the ball before Harris made the catch.
According to NFL rules at that time, if two receivers from the same team touched the ball consecutively on the same play, the pass would be ruled an incompletion.
Fuqua often hints that he’s the one person who knows what actually happened before Harris’ Immaculate Reception. In the 2006 book, “Pittsburgh Steelers: Men of Steel,” Fuqua said, “All I can tell you is that it was immaculate.”
The monument, which displays a plaque of Harris bending down while running to catch the ball, was produced in Pittsburgh by Matthews International Architectural Products, the same firm that produced a statue at PNC Park of Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski’s famous World Series-winning home run in 1960 against the New York Yankees as well as Hall of Fame plaques in Cooperstown, N.Y.
It is the third monument commissioned by the Heinz History Center acknowledging the Immaculate Reception. The others include life-size statues of Harris making his catch at Pittsburgh International Airport and at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.