From a 2009 post by Tom Schaad, with light editing. Franco Harris died Wednesday, just two days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.
“Hang onto your hats. Here come the Steelers out of the huddle. Terry Bradshaw at the controls. 22 seconds remaining; and this crowd is standing. Bradshaw back and looking again. Bradshaw runs out of the pocket…looking for somebody to throw to…fires it downfield…and there’s a collision…IT’S CAUGHT OUT OF THE AIR! THE BALL IS PULLED IN BY FRANCO HARRIS! HARRIS IS GOING FOR A TOUCHDOWN FOR PITTSBURGH!”
Jack Fleming, WTAE Radio December 23, 1972
The words crackled through the darkness of my father’s basement. The old clock radio sitting on Dad’s workbench; our only connection to NFL history in a pre-cable TV world. In 1972, playoff games were blacked-out in local TV markets. So long-suffering fans of the Steelers had to reach back to the days when great moments were painted by artists of audio; masters of language, who drew images of competition, and sent them over the air to big screens that existed only in the mind. Radio invited the fertile imagination of the dedicated sports fan, and before 1972, there weren’t many as loyal, or more patient, than those who put up with the Steelers. Nearly every Sunday, they wound up on the short end; a perpetual doormat for other NFL teams–a trend that continued for 40 years.
But by 1972, the ingredients of greatness came together, like coal, limestone and iron ore mixed in one of Pittsburgh’s blast furnaces; a young coach named Chuck Noll molded a team of heavy metal which terrorized the AFC Central Division with an 11-3 record. Rookie running back Franco Harris began a decade of dominance behind an offensive line worthy of the city’s blue-collar pride. That season also saw a brash young quarterback from Louisiana Tech fill the air with pigskin bullets; the final shot hitting an unlikely target and cementing a place in football lore. Terry Bradshaw was showing mustard seeds of leadership that would blossom into a Hall-of-Famer career in the Steel City.
But on this cloudy Sunday, in my father’s dark basement. I stood with Dad as we watched the radio and hung on the play-by-play description of Jack Fleming. It was the Steelers first post-season appearance since 1947, when the Philadelphia Eagles took them out to the woodshed for an embarrassing 21-0 thrashing. On this cold December afternoon, the Oakland Raiders descended on Three Rivers Stadium. It was the first of many clashes on green battlefields throughout the decade.
Dad didn’t care much for NFL football. He followed the college game. Notre Dame and Pitt were his two teams. He worked as a carpenter at the University of Pittsburgh during this time. In 1972, the Pitt Panthers, like the Steelers, were on the cusp of greatness. The legs of Tony Dorsett, another proud warrior from Western Pennsylvania, would carry the Panthers to the National Championship in 1976. But two days before Christmas four years earlier, we listened, father and son, to the Steelers. Dad’s cigarette gave off a faint orange glow in our unfinished basement. His weathered face listening to Fleming’s electronic description of the action behind a faint blue veil of tobacco smoke.
The Steelers already had the reputation of a bone-crunching defense. Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Mel Blount were just starting Hall of Fame careers. Future members of the Hall on offense, Bradshaw and Harris, were quiet on this afternoon. The first half ended: Steelers 0 Raiders 0.
Dad didn’t say much. I was a 10 year old boy with shaggy hair who daydreamed about making the “big play” in all sports. When I got together with the guys, we would play baseball, wiffle ball, street hockey, basketball, and football. If we didn’t have enough for a game, imaginations flourished with re-creations of the Baltimore Colts, Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers. I would announce highlights that came straight out of those iconic slow-motion football ballets that put NFL Films on the map. But in 1972, we all wanted to be Steelers!
“Bradshaw back to throw…complete to Ron Shanklin who gets away from two defenders down the sideline TOUCHDOWN…Steelers win the Super Bowl! (This is followed by all of us mimicking the roaring crowds who shower us with adoration)
This was “Fantasy Football” to a 10 year old in 1972 Pittsburgh.
But the Raiders were real and giving the Steelers fits. In the second half, Pittsburgh kicker Roy Gerela managed two short field goals, and the Steelers looked like they were on their way to their first ever playoff win. But Oakland, had mounted a last minute touchdown drive and had suddenly gone ahead, 7-6. Ken Stabler, the quarterback who had replaced Daryle Lamonica at the start of the final quarter, had run 30 yards down the sideline for the Raider touchdown with only 1 minute 13 seconds left to play.
Dad looked at me and said, “Well, there’s always the river.”
I was angry and moaned about going this far only to blow it. I pouted about how the Steelers were supposed to lose.
“Pipe down, will yah?” “Shhhhh. We have another shot at it. Take it easy.”
Bradshaw started at his own 20, and threw five straight passes. Then the Steelers found themselves with fourth down on their own 40. Just 22 seconds left. That basement was quiet except for the thin AM sound from that old clock radio. Bradshaw’s pass ricocheted off Oakland safety Jack Tatum as he collided with Steeler running back Frenchy Fuqua. Franco Harris just happened to be at the right place at the right time (or as Harris described in more interviews, he was trained to always run to the ball on every play.) Harris scooped up the ball before it hit the ground and sprinted the down the sideline with what was later dubbed, “The Immaculate Reception.”
The Steelers had their first ever playoff win, and I ran up the wooden steps from the basement to the kitchen door, and ran outside to meet the rest of the guys! We re-created what we heard on the radio two days before Christmas in 1972. Pittsburgh would lose the AFC title game to the fabled Miami Dolphins, who went 17-0 that year. But that magic moment on a cold Sunday in Pittsburgh triggered a tidal wave of excellence that formed the Steeler Nation!