You could tell a Jack Tatum hit from the sound. Oakland Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano had learned that much from playing in front of the punishing safety for nine seasons in the Silver and Black. “I’d never heard hits like Jack Tatum’s,” the 64-year-old says, in his distinct, raspy Jersey-bred voice. “It was different from everybody else, like when a major-league baseball player smacks a ball versus a college kid. There was that crack. And you knew: Whoever got hit, got hurt.”
So when Pittsburgh Steelers fullback John “Frenchy” Fuqua was rocked near midfield of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, trying to catch a prayer on fourth down in the dying seconds of the 1972 AFC divisional playoff game two days before Christmas, Villapiano didn’t have to look to know it was a Tatum hit that sparked the wildest moment in football history. As soon as then-rookie Steelers running back Franco Harris got his mitts on the ball and headed for the end zone, his Immaculate Reception altered the course of two franchises—17 unbelievable seconds containing secrets that the players from this game swear they’ll take to their graves.
Moments before the play began, Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw gathered his offence together. Down a single point with 22 seconds on the clock, 60 yards between them and the end zone, and with a trip to the AFC championship game at stake, the Steelers faced a daunting fourth and 10. The game had been a grind-it-out affair, typical of two franchises who made the playoffs on the backs of their defences. Bradshaw had been ineffective, unable to get out of the pocket and scramble as he liked to, while the early incarnation of the Steel Curtain defence had forced Raiders head coach John Madden to sub out a struggling Daryle Lamonica for unproven third-year pivot Ken Stabler. After a pair of field goals gave the Steelers a 6–0 lead, Stabler scampered into the end zone with 1:17 left to put the Raiders up 7–6.
With no time outs left, Pittsburgh needed to find the end zone or their season was over. On the other side of the ball, the Raiders were a confident bunch. They had shut down the Steelers offence all day. “Naturally,” Villapiano laughs now, “we didn’t think it would be a big deal to hold them on fourth and long.” In the defensive huddle, the instructions were clear and concise. “No penalties. Just knock the ball down,” the players reminded each other over and over. “Nothing crazy.”
Today, the Pittsburgh Steelers stand as an icon of NFL success, the team with six Super Bowl wins—more than any other. But it wasn’t always like that. For the first half of the franchise’s existence, dating back to 1933, “success” wasn’t a word associated with the Black and Yellow. “They were history’s all-time losers,” says writer Bob Dvorchak, who was covering the game for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It was almost biblical, 40 years of wandering through the wilderness.”
By 1972, the club boasted enough pieces—Bradshaw, Harris, Joe Greene, Mel Blount—to bring hope to Steelers fans. But as Stabler sprinted into the end zone and the Raiders took the lead on that cold, grey December day, they could see the writing on the wall. Typical. Finally make it to the playoffs and get completely shut down. “My boss was with me that day. On fourth down, he got up and packed up all his stuff,” recalls Dvorchak. “[The fans] were trickling out and only the diehards stayed. Nowadays, they all say they stayed to the end.”
Bradshaw broke the huddle, eyed the field and lumbered to the line of scrimmage. The call was 66 Circle, a deep-pass option play that sent receivers far down the field. The Raiders defence assembled in a modified zone deep formation they liked to go to in situations like this, placing the secondary in zone coverage as the linebackers covered the backfield man-to-man. Villapiano, in his second year, was assigned to cover Harris. At the snap, defensive end Horace Jones broke through the line within reach of Bradshaw, who deftly avoided the sack and rolled to his right. Pump fake. Two Raiders bit. With another pump of the ball, Bradshaw sailed a pass toward Fuqua at the Raiders’ 35, right into Oakland’s trap.
Enter Jack Tatum. “He would hardly ever intercept it and he would hardly ever knock it down, unless the ball was thrown right to him,” says Villapiano. “He would always come up and make the hit.” Tatum and Fuqua collided and the ball ricocheted backwards, out of view of the camera and those watching at home. “There was a collective gasp,” Dvorchak remembers, “like I’d imagine you’d hear in a Roman coliseum when the gladiator is going to do something spectacular.” Harris left his assignment and did what he later said all Penn State products were coached to do: Pursue the ball. With a shoestring catch, Harris collected the football and bolted downfield. Villapiano turned to chase after his man, but got tripped up by tight end John McMakin. At the 10-yard line, Harris unleashed a stiff arm on Gerald Irons, who collapsed to the ground as the Steelers rookie crossed into the end zone, a mere 20 yards from where Pittsburgh Pirate legend Roberto Clemente notched his 3,000th hit just a few months earlier. (Exactly one week after Harris’s reception, as the Steelers played in the AFC championship game, Clemente died in a plane crash.) Pittsburgh: 12. Raiders: 6. With five ticks left on the clock.
Forty years of history erased in 17 seconds. Like a Hollywood movie, the sun burst through the clouds and onto the rampage of fans rushing the field. “A miracle!” sportscaster Curt Gowdy yelled to millions of Americans. “It’s a Christmas miracle!”
But it wasn’t official quite yet. For more than 15 minutes, the referees assembled, while the coaches conferred and players milled around, trying to process what just happened. There was plenty to figure out. For starters, did Harris catch the ball cleanly? Or did he trap it? Was Tatum’s hit a pass interference penalty or had Fuqua already touched the ball? Did it bounce off Tatum or Fuqua before landing in Harris’s hands? Because if it hit Fuqua, that was an illegal play under a since-eliminated rule. Was Villapiano clipped by McMakin or did he simply lose his balance?
The call stood, Pittsburgh nailed the extra point, and the franchise was changed forever. Though they lost the AFC championship game the following week, the nucleus from that ’72 roster would go on to win four Super Bowls in the next eight seasons. (The Raiders managed just a single Super Bowl in that span, in 1976.) Collectively, there were 15 Hall of Famers in that game.
But still, the questions linger, the video replay is analyzed to this day—it’s like the sports world’s version of the Zapruder film. Everyone has their theories (Steelers coach Chuck Noll, for one, used physics to determine the ball must have gone off of Tatum), rehashed again when a new camera angle was released last year on the play’s 40th anniversary. “I saw the catch,” says Villapiano, who went on to four straight Pro Bowl appearances, “[but] with the new film, it looks like it was a trap. Definitely a clip. Then again, it was also a pass interference. A lot of crazy s–t happened in 17 seconds.”
Whatever the case, it remains a defining moment for the city of Pittsburgh—a statue of Harris’s catch greets visitors at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Fuqua, for his part, says he’ll die before he reveals whether Harris actually made the catch or not. Harris, too, remains mum. Last year, a filmmaker asked the running back a simple question while filming a documentary about the play. “Can you just look into the camera and say, ‘I caught the Immaculate Reception’?”
“No,” Harris responded with a smile across his face. “Why would I say I caught the Immaculate Reception?”
“Because you did…”
“Do you know that?”
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.