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Immaculate Reception

The Immaculate Reception is the nickname given to one of the most famous single plays in the history of professional American football. It occurred in an AFC semi-final game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 23, 1972.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were behind their longtime rival, the Oakland Raiders by the score of 7 to 6, with 22 seconds remaining in the game, and with the ball on their own 40-yard line. Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the ball to the Raiders' 35 yard line, toward running back Frenchy Fuqua. Raiders safety Jack Tatum had a violent collision with Fuqua, and in the confusion the ball bounced off one of the players. Steelers receiver Franco Harris, who later admitted that he was out of position on the play, then scooped up the ball just before it hit the ground, apparently off of the tops of his shoes, and ran the rest of the way downfield to score the tying six points with five seconds remaining in the game.

The critical question was: whom did the ball bounce off? If it bounced off Fuqua and then Harris was the next to touch the ball, the reception was illegal under the rules of the time; the penalty "illegal touching" would be called if the ball had touched a teammate of the receiver before being caught. If it bounced off Tatum, or if it bounced off Fuqua and then Tatum, the reception was legal, as a defensive player was the last to touch the ball.

The game referees did not immediately make any signal, and there was no instant replay rule at the time. After making a phone call to the NFL, the referees signalled a touchdown. Fans immediately rushed the field, and it took fifteen minutes to clear them so the point-after, or conversion, could be kicked to actually win the game.

The play is still disputed by those involved. The surviving videotape and photographs of the play are not conclusive. Tatum has said the ball did not bounce off him. Fuqua has been coy, supposedly saying he knows exactly what happened that day but will never tell. Raiders coach John Madden, currently (as of 2004) a sportscaster with ABC television, still seems to be resentful. The linebacker who was covering Harris has claimed he was clipped (illegally tackled from behind) before he could make a tackle.

After this playoff victory, the Steelers went on to lose the AFC championship game to the Miami Dolphins, who would then win Super Bowl VII in their landmark undefeated season. The Steelers, however, would go on to become a dominant force in the AFC for the subsequent decade, winning four Super Bowls with such stars as Bradshaw, Harris, and Lynn Swann.