Anyone who appreciates NFL history knows about the Immaculate Reception — the miracle play in the 1972 divisional playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and the host Pittsburgh Steelers. This is the game where the late Franco Harris caught a deflected pass and raced for the winning touchdown with five seconds left to play.
What is controversial about the play is NFL rules at the time could have wiped the touchdown off the board, giving the Raiders the win. Throw in the mix a telephone call from Art McNally, the NFL’s supervisor of officials, to referee Fred Swearingen, and the game has gone down in lore not only with fans, but with conspiracy theorists, forensic video analysts, and physics students.
The game celebrates its golden anniversary today, as a longer clip of the original NBC game broadcast has recently been made available online.
Referee Fred Swearingen had the honor of leading the divisional playoff crew of umpire Pat Harder, head linesman Al Sabato, line judge Royal Cathcart, field judge Charley Musser, back judge Adrian Burke and alternate Fred Wyant.
The Raiders had a typically good season and were visiting the upstart Steelers featuring young players that would become the bedrock of the four-time Super Bowl winners in the coming decade.
It was a hard-fought game with the Raiders taking a late 7-6 lead, breaking the hearts of over 50,000 shivering fans at Three Rivers Stadium. The Raiders kicked off and Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw had time for one, maybe two desperation heaves.
On the first play, Bradshaw barely avoided a sack and got the pass off. As we have seen countless times, the pass was intended for Steelers receiver Frenchy Fuqua. The Raiders Jack Tatum put a huge hit on Fuqua and the ball caromed wildly back toward the line of scrimmage. Franco Harris made the shoestring catch and raced for the touchdown.
Back then, the NFL had a rule that two offensive players could not touch a forward pass consecutively. If the pass touched an offensive player, then a defensive player, the offense was eligible to catch it. It was a difficult rule to call, especially with players moving fast and putting little brushes and flicks on the passed ball.
There were two aspects to this play that the officials had to rule on. Did Harris catch the ball or did it touch the ground? And, did the pass carom off of Fuqua or Tatum? If it caromed off of Fuqua, Harris’s catch was illegal and the touchdown nullified.
As fans stormed the field, the Steelers stormed Harris in the endzone, and the Raiders stormed the officials, Fred Swearingen gathered his crew near the goal line to rehash the play.
Adrian Burke initially signaled touchdown when Harris crossed the goal line. Then the conference began. There were two officials who saw the carom and Harris catch: Burke and umpire Pat Harder. Both reported to Swearingen that they didn’t have any evidence of an incomplete pass or illegal double touch. Swearingen polled the rest of his crew and they didn’t have anything to report that would take the touchdown away.
Between Swearingen carefully quizzing his crew, and shooing excited players, coaches and fans away, the conference was beginning to stretch into the uncomfortably long territory.
Up in the press box, Art McNally, supervisor of officials, was watching the officials. He became concerned that the crew might have been confused about the double touch rule. He asked a liaison to get in touch with alternate official Fred Wyant, and have Wyant assist or at least implore the crew to make a decision. Unfortunately, the message went straight to Fred Swearingen, not Fred Wyant, that McNally was calling him to the phone.
There follows dramatic footage in the above clip of Swearingen going into a Three Rivers Stadium dugout, picking up the phone, and talking to McNally. Swearingen reported to McNally that Harder and Burke had a legal catch and touchdown. McNally told them to proceed.
Swearingen then stepped back onto the field and for the first time, signaled touchdown, affirming Burke’s signal at the end of the play. The Raiders didn’t agree with the call.
Many people thought that they witnessed the first-ever instant replay review. Both McNally and Swearingen were adamant that they didn’t discuss the call. It was only a misplaced message that brought Swearingen to the phone. Swearingen and crew didn’t need any help, and McNally told them to go ahead and get on with the final five seconds of the game.
The Steelers kicked the extra point, kicked off to the Raiders, the Raiders threw one incomplete pass and the game was over with the Steelers winning 13-7 in a miracle game.
In his retirement years, Swearingen said the Raiders hated him and never believed his or McNally’s explanation about the phone call.
The joke after the game was that Swearingen asked if stadium security could protect them if they changed the call. Security said “no” so the officials stuck with the touchdown. That is a complete joke. Despite what conspiracy theorists say, Swearingen and McNally had and have too much integrity and guts to think about personal safety in regards to ruling on a play.
With 1972 analog TV technology, I think we can all agree that instant replay wouldn’t have helped with the double-touch rule. (It is a replay on the original broadcast that shows one of the only cameras to capture the collision and the catch.) Also, fans storming the field was in fashion back then, but anathema now at pro games. Security got the fans off the field for the final kickoff and final play by the Raiders, and they stormed the field again. It was weird seeing fans standing on the sideline shoulder to shoulder with the Steelers waiting for the game to end.
Also, after the phone call and Swearingen’s touchdown signal, Raiders head coach John Madden ran onto the field to argue with the referee. While technically an unsportsmanlike conduct foul, Swearingen showed good judgement in not flagging Madden.
Madden and several Raiders players say that McNally made the call for Swearingen. Their main argument is that the referee didn’t make an official call until after the phone conversation. Most of the controversy could have been avoided if, before the phone call, Swearingen asked his crew, “Burke and Harder have a touchdown. Is anybody 100 percent certain it isn’t a touchdown? Adrian and Pat, was there a double touch? Did anybody see a double touch? Is there any reason this should not be a touchdown? None? OK, I’m going to signal the TD.”
Now, I’m sure Swearingen was asking those questions to his crew, when the liaison said there was a phone call for him from McNally. And in the cacophony of celebrating Steelers players and fans, and screaming and cursing Raiders, the conference didn’t go as smoothly as I described above. It couldn’t have. In the book The Third Team, Swearingen admits that his mistake wasn’t signaling touchdown before going to the phone. That would have quelled the Raiders’ claims that McNally made an instant replay call.
What makes a play legendary is if it is miraculous. What makes it immortal is if there is some mystery around it. The Immaculate Reception fits both categories.
All of the on-field officials from that game have passed away. Only McNally survives. Sadly, Franco Harris passed away just days before a special commemoration of the famous game. But after we are all long gone, the Immaculate Reception will live on.