By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 1999
The rule was very clear. No two receivers could touch the football in succession on the same play; a defensive player had to touch it between the two for the second receiver to make a legal catch.
Jack Tatum swears to this day he never touched it.
No matter. Tatum, the Oakland safety, and Frenchy Fuqua, the other Pittsburgh receiver, are only footnotes to history, to Franco Harris' reception of Terry Bradshaw's desperation pass.
Harris' catch and run on Dec. 23, 1972, lives in the annals of NFL game-winning pass plays so remarkable that they boast their own identities -- The Catch (Joe Montana to Dwight Clark) and the Hail Mary (Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson).
And the Immaculate Reception.
It gave the Steelers a 13-7 triumph with only five seconds remaining in their AFC divisional playoff game in Three Rivers Stadium. That came just 68 seconds after the Raiders apparently had scored the winning touchdown on a 30-yard run by quarterback Ken Stabler.
Now Bradshaw's job was basic: get close enough for a game-winning field goal. But after four passes, Pittsburgh faced fourth and 10 on its 40-yard line.
The play called for Bradshaw to throw to little-known Barry Pearson; maybe the Raiders would lose him downfield. But Oakland jammed him at the line and Bradshaw was chased out of the pocket.
Harris was pass-blocking for Bradshaw. He took off downfield as Bradshaw scrambled.
"I wasn't supposed to be out there," Harris said. "I thought Terry was in trouble. ... I thought I'd better get out there if he had to throw it to me."
Bradshaw fired the ball toward Fuqua, his secondary receiver. As the ball got to Fuqua at the Raiders 35-yard line, so did Tatum. "All I was trying to do was knock the ball loose," Tatum said. "I touched the man but not the ball."
Said Fuqua: "I thought I could catch it, but somebody hit me from behind. Next thing I know, Franco went roaring past me. I was wondering what the hell was going on."
The pass had ricocheted off Fuqua -- and, referee Fred Swearingen ruled -- off Tatum as well, soaring 7 yards back in a lazy arc. Harris, steaming down the left sideline, picked the ball off his shoe tops and raced 42 yards to the end zone.
"I was damn lucky," he said.
The play may well have been the first subjected to instant replay by the NFL, although the league denied it. After the officials signaled that it was a TD, Swearingen conferred with them, then used a sideline telephone to call Art McNally, NFL supervisor of officials, in the press box. Then the touchdown signal was given again.
Jim Kensil, the NFL's executive director, insisted Swearingen was merely advising McNally that the play was legal. "There was no decision from the press box and television replay was not used in making the decision," Kensil said. "The referee was simply clearing up a confusing situation."
Bradshaw never saw the play. Neither did Steelers coach Chuck Noll. Neither did 71-year-old Art Rooney, beloved owner of the Steelers. He was in the Pittsburgh locker room, waiting to personally thank his players for what he thought was a valiant effort in a losing cause. For 40 years his team had never made the playoffs. Two years later it gave him a Super Bowl -- and three more after that.