Sunday, December 23, 2012

TFH 12/23: The Greatest Play, A Dynasty Launched

Before the 1972 regular season, the National Football League's Pittsburgh Steelers had never finished better than second in their division. They won the American Football Conference's Central Division that year to secure their first ever playoff berth, and their 11-3 record brought the franchise's record to a pathetic 179-273. That's a .396 winning percentage.

Forty years ago today, the Steelers played their first ever playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium versus the Oakland Raiders. Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities were dying economically in those days. The steel industry was collapsing. Related jobs in mining and transportation were also on the decline. Other manufacturers such as Westinghouse were also reducing their presence. The Steel City was in pain, and the rise of the Steelers to competitiveness was one of the few bright points.

With the 13th pick in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft, the Steelers had picked Penn State's stand-out fullback, Franco Harris. Harris delivered on his first-round selection by racking up 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns during the season. Little did the rookie know that in the Steelers' first ever playoff game, he'd become the focus of the greatest single play in the history of professional football: the Immaculate Reception.

The game was a defensive struggle. By late in the 4th quarter, the Steelers were clinging to a tenuous 6-0 lead on two field goals. Then, Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler ran the ball in for the go ahead score. The Steelers were behind by one point, with 1:17 left to play.

The Black and Gold were down to their last gasp. Fourth down and ten to go on their own 40-yard line, 22 seconds left to play, no time outs. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw took the snap and desperately looked for a receiver downfield, he was pressured, he scrambled and continued to look for someone to throw to - anyone. He threw...

As the pass reached running back Frenchy Fuqua, he was hit in devastating fashion (clear defensive pass interference by the standards of 2012!) by Raiders' defensive back Jack Tatum. The ball deflected off Tatum (as physics proves) towards Harris. The words of Penn State's Joe Paterno, drilled into the 22-year old's football psyche, rang out in his mind: run to the ball!! There's no way to describe, one must see:

Harris had grabbed the deflected ball just inches above Three Rivers' Astroturf. His run to the end zone and victory is timeless. The Steelers were playoff winners, after years of futility. Yes, they would lose the next week to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game, the Dolphins en route to their perfect season. But, a dynasty was launched. In the next eight seasons, the Steelers would win the Super Bowl four times.

I'm a Steelers fan, and in my years of watching religiously since 1993, I can think of two plays I saw on television that came close to the magic of Franco's run (Ben Roethlisberger's tackle during a fumble return in the 2005 Super Bowl XL run, and James Harrison's interception return - which should be known as "The Interception" - during Super Bowl XLIII) and yet, don't equal. A retrospective:

On December 23, 1972 a dynasty was born, and a city found hope in a team that finally delivered on the field.

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