The “Immaculate Reception.” It’s a moniker synonymous with one of the most iconic plays in NFL history, one that’s gone down in the record books as one of the league’s most storied moments. But how did the play happen? What led up to it, and where does it stand in history now 50 years later?
What Is the Immaculate Reception?
It’s December 23, 1972, and one of the most exciting plays in Pittsburgh Steelers‘, ney, NFL history is about to take place. It’s the AFC Divisional playoff game, and the Steelers are staring down the barrel of a one-and-done playoff exit in the team’s first postseason appearance since the 1940s.
Twenty-two seconds remaining. Now-Hall of Fame QB Terry Bradshaw uncorks a pass downfield that bounces off of either Steelers running back John Fuqua or Oakland Raiders defender Jack Tatum (a point that’s still contested to this day) and into the outstretched, just-barely-off-the-ground hands of Steelers running back Franco Harris.
Harris gallops into the end zone, securing Pittsburgh its first playoff victory in the history of the franchise. The Steelers win 13-7. The crowd erupts in a frenzy. History is made.
That moment was one of many high points for the Steelers that season, as Harris himself won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, head coach Chuck Noll won AFC Coach of the Year, and legendary defensive lineman “Mean” Joe Greene won Defensive Player of the Year.
Harris, an NFL legend in his own right, passed away this month at the age of 72. His contributions to the game of football and the surrounding community cannot be overstated. And this legendary moment is a snapshot of his greatness. Harris’ miracle grab and subsequent score kicked off what would become a Steelers dynasty.
Fun Facts Surrounding Franco Harris’ Iconic Play
The “Immaculate Reception” is more than just a single play. It’s a moment in time forever memorialized in NFL history. Below are some of the most incredible nuggets of info surrounding the play.
How Many People Watched the Play?
While exact television viewership statistics for this particular game aren’t publically available, what’s so notable and the audience for this iconic moment is that many Steelers fans couldn’t even watch it live.
As a tactic to boost ticket sales to home games during the 1972 season and earlier, the NFL didn’t allow live local broadcasts in a given team’s home region. The league would repeal this rule the next year, but its enforcement during that 1972 season resulted in many Pittsburgh fans missing the opportunity to view the game live. The game was otherwise broadcast on NBC.
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Those lucky enough to view the miracle play in person at Three Rivers Stadium would surely never forget it. Back in the early 1970s, Three Rivers Stadium, home of the Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball, was one of the newest pro sports facilities in the world.
The max capacity of the stadium during football games reached about 59,000. Just upwards of 50,000 fans filled the stands that day.
How Many NFL Hall of Famers Were on the Field?
Franco Harris and “Mean” Joe Greene weren’t the only then-future Hall of Famers on the field on December 23, 1972.
The Raiders’ side included the following players: kicker George Blanda, cornerback Willie Brown, wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, tackles Bob Brown and Art Shell, center Jim Otto, guard Gene Upshaw, and quarterback Ken Stabler. Head coach John Madden, general manager Ron Wolf, and owner Al Davis also represented the Silver and Black that day.
Pittsburgh fielded the following players: Harris, Greene, cornerback Mel Blount, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and linebacker Jack Ham. Noll, owner Art Rooney and his son Dan, and then-assistant personnel director Bill Nunn were all members of the Steelers organization as well.
In all, 20 members of the NFL community now inducted into the Hall of Fame were in some way connected to the Steelers or Raiders that day.
Steelers Made Franchise Playoff History
As previously mentioned, Harris’ miraculous play would go on to be the launching point of a legendary Steelers run. The team hadn’t previously made the playoffs since 1947, just two years following the end of World War II, and it hadn’t ever won a playoff game before Harris trotted into the end zone.
The Immaculate Reception was the spark the franchise needed, and Pittsburgh would become the most feared team in the sport for the next 10 years.
The 1972 team went on to fall to the “Perfect Season” Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game. Still, over the ensuing decade, the Steelers reached the postseason seven more times (all consecutively). They won a quartet of Super Bowls, cementing not only Harris’ legacy but that of everyone connected with the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers.