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Fifty Years Later: A Raiders Oral History of the Immaculate Reception

December 23, 1972.

On a 42-degree day in Three Rivers Stadium, a defensive slugfest between the John Madden-led Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers was underway. The winner would move one step closer to the Super Bowl, while the loser would go home empty-handed.

Up 7-6 after quarterback Ken Stabler ran 30 yards for the Raiders' only score of the day, the Silver and Black had the Steelers facing a fourth-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 40-yard line with 22 seconds left.

What happened next has become one of the most controversial and well-known plays in NFL history. went through the Silver and Black's extensive library of sound and story to bring to life the Raiders' perspective of the Immaculate Reception, through the eyes of those who lived it.


Mike Siani, Raiders wide receiver: "I can remember John [Madden] getting the offense together, and saying, 'OK, there's 18 seconds left. They got one more play. We're gonna get in there, and we're gonna take a knee and we're gonna get the hell out of here.'"

Franco Harris, Steelers running back: "Their defense is playing great so I'm thinking they're pretty good with the amount of time left in the game and the way their defense is playing. … Little do we know that it comes down to fourth down."

Fred Biletnikoff, Raiders wide receiver: "In that game, you're not expecting to go blow people out. It's gonna be a grind. It's gonna be a tough battle. And that's what it was. We came down, we battled all the way and stayed in the game with them."

Phil Villapiano, Raiders linebacker: "We got in the huddle, it was fourth-and-22. I said, 'Guys, no penalties, no penalties.' That's the thing that could kill us. To make a stupid penalty."

Harris: "My assignment, stay in the backfield and block. The play is called, go up to the line, ball is hiked. I'm in the backfield. Protection breaks down because I didn't block very well."

John "Frenchy" Fuqua, Steelers fullback: "I come out. I am wide open. I make my move and I see [Terry] Bradshaw. We make eye contact. … I run to a point where the ball is thrown. He didn't throw it directly to me. He threw it to my left a little bit. I run to the ball, and what I can hear is footsteps. Boom, boom, boom, boom. I said to myself, 'Damn. That's [Jack] Tatum.'"

Tatum collided with Fuqua and Bradshaw's pass ricocheted back toward the line of scrimmage, where it was then scooped up by Harris, who took it to the end zone.

Villapiano: "I see Franco pick it up. I got a decent angle. I could have made that play. I take like one step; this guy hits me right in the back and I don't go down. I wish I would have gone down, because maybe we would have got a flag for that. But Franco scoops his ball right up and is gone."

Harris: "I start taking some steps to the ball. And after that, my mind is completely blank. I remember nothing. I see nothing, visually. I hear nothing. I don't see Phil Villapiano being clipped as he always talks about. I remember nothing."

Siani: "I see the ball going down, where [Bradshaw] throws the ball, and now I see it coming back right at him into the back field, and I'm on the field. I'm actually on the field. I've got two feet on the field, ready to go back in, run the clock out, and next thing you know, Franco has the ball, and he runs."

Terry Bradshaw, Steelers quarterback: "How does a guy that's trying to make a block end up catching the pass and winning the game? He ended up down the field. It's pretty funny, actually."

Fuqua: "I'm on the ground. And one thing that I do remember, I remember laying on the ground, looking up and Jack was clapping his hands. And I looked at his face and he had the biggest smile on his face. I watched his smile turn into a frown. It was all in seconds. And then he took off running."

Villapiano: "Nobody was gonna catch Franco. It was just nuts."

Al Davis, Raiders Owner: "[Steelers Owner Art Rooney] was in an elevator. He didn't even see the play. He was going down in the locker room. He thought they'd lost, which they should have."

Fuqua: "I don't think anyone for the first three to four minutes knew what was going on."

Tom Flores, Raiders 1972 wide receivers coach: "Everything happened so quick. It was bizarre."

Bradshaw: "I recall asking, 'What happened? What happened?' I thought I threw a perfect pass."

Harris: "There was that big timeout and it looked like the refs had no clue, no idea. 'What's the call? What's going on?'"

Two mysteries occurred in those last 22 seconds.

The first mystery revolves around who hit the ball.

According to the NFL rulebook at the time, once the ball left the quarterback's hands, an offensive player could not legally catch a pass that had been touched by another offensive player, unless a defensive player had touched the ball at any time.

So, if the pass hit Tatum or hit both Fuqua and Tatum in any order, it would have been a live ball. If the ball didn't hit Tatum and hit only Fuqua, Harris' catch and subsequent touchdown would have been illegal.

Tatum and the Raiders argued that the safety didn't touch the ball, while Fuqua has remained quiet to this day on whether the ball deflected off him.

The second mystery is, if there was not a double touch between the offensive players, did the ball touch the ground before Harris scooped it up?

One ref had raised his arms for the touchdown call, while the others did not. With the first use of instant replay in the league still 14 years away, there was no way to look back, deliberate and come to a conclusive decision.

Instead, the refs huddled, and a confused aftermath ensued.


Villapiano: "Everybody was still scattered around, like, 'What is this?' [John] Madden, he ran on the field. He was just trying to get somebody to pay attention to him. The players were – we were just all in shock."

John Madden, Raiders Head Coach: "I ran out on the field, and they said, 'Get back off the field. We don't have it yet. We don't know,' and I said, 'I know you don't know what happened.'"

Siani: "The officials had no idea what to call. None whatsoever."

Harris: "We didn't know that they were in there talking about or deliberating on what happened. Didn't even think it was being questioned or controversial, you know?"

Villapiano: "I didn't know the rule. Offense to offense. I don't think 98% of the players or the referees knew that rule."

Ultimately, the officials declared the pass had deflected off Tatum, thus making Harris' reception legal and confirming the touchdown.

Madden: "The referee, after five or 10 minutes, still hasn't called anything. He goes over to the baseball dugout and gets on the phone and talks to someone. Never said who he talked to, and then hung up the phone, came out, went to the middle of the field and said, 'touchdown.'"

Flores: "I don't know what they got the phone for. The whole thing was bizarre, and we were in shock."

Biletnikoff: "That was the most disappointing thing to me, that the guy didn't have enough guts to stay on the field and make the call from what he saw. He had to leave, and go down in the dugout, and then come out and make that call."

Siani: "All hell broke loose. I had played only one season in the NFL. I had never seen NFL fans ever swarm the field like that. All of a sudden, there were thousands and thousands of people on the field, just yelling and screaming, and going crazy."

Madden: "The frustration was that it ended with a guy talking on a phone when they didn't have anything with replays like they do today, and then coming out and saying, 'touchdown,' and the game's over. You don't play another one until next year. It was tough."

The Raiders returned to the locker room in a stunned silence, with dreams of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy that year dashed.


Pete Banaszak, Raiders running back: "I just sat there for 30 minutes before I started undressing and showering. I was just stunned, and so were 40 other guys. You could hear a pin drop in that locker room, and nobody said anything. It was like somebody took a knife and stuck it right in your heart."

Raymond Chester, Raiders tight end: "Frenchy Fuqua came into the locker room after the game, sat down beside me and said, 'Man, I hit that. It hit me, man.' I told him, 'Man, you better get out of here.' Him telling me that the ball hit him didn't make it any better."

Art Thoms, Raiders defensive tackle: "It was one of the most depressing moments of my life. I sat in that locker room after the game and couldn't even get the energy up to take off my equipment for about an hour."

Banaszak: "I remember [Madden] sitting there and just shaking his head and looking up at us. He didn't say a word. I was waiting for the big speech, and he didn't say anything. He was just stunned, too."

Ron Wolf, Raiders scout: "Two days before Christmas, you just get the guts ripped out of you. Just an awful feeling."

Flores: "The next day, we spent half a day watching every film available on whether if Fuqua had touched the ball or Tatum. That was the ruling, and we couldn't tell that."

Davis: "It's one of the great moments in National Football League history. But it's not a great moment in Raider history. I just thought it was a mistake."

The Immaculate Reception remains one of the top plays in league history. One that everyone is still talking about and debating over 50 years later.

It was also the beginning of a rivalry that grew throughout the 1970s, with four consecutive playoff meetings from 1973 to 1976, and continues today as the Silver and Black once again prepare to clash against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.


Bradshaw: "I'm a great admirer of the Raiders and the way they played. It's unfortunate for them that that's how they lost that football game. But what it did was it created this incredible rivalry."

Villapiano: "Steelers and the Raiders have become very good friends, those teams because of that play."

Siani: "[Franco] and I were rookies together. That was our rookie season. He finished No. 1 in the voting for Rookie of the Year, I finished No. 2. Every time I see him, I say, 'You didn't catch that ball, you know that. You need to tell the whole world that you didn't catch that ball.' And he says, 'Mike, the referee said I caught it, I guess I did.'

Harris: "This was just the beginning because we went on to have an incredible decade of football against each other. Boy were those some great battles. I can't tell you how much respect and admiration I have for the Raiders."

Biletnikoff: "If we had the replay nowadays, which we didn't have then, it might have been a different story. But that's the way it goes."

Mike Madden, John Madden's son: "We had the All-22 [film footage] and it was against our dining room wall for weeks. Dad took this to his grave. It bothered him 50 seconds after Franco crossed the goal line, it bothered him 50 years later. … Nobody knew what happened. We still don't know what happened. We're still talking about it."

George Atkinson, Raiders defensive back: "I call it the 'Immaculate Deception.' I'll never forget it as long as I live."

Silver and Black Productions' full feature, 'All hell broke loose’: How a last-second heave led to one of the NFL’s biggest controversies, premieres Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. on YouTube.

The Raiders take on the Steelers this Saturday, Dec. 24, at 5:15 p.m., airing on NFL Network.

Illustration by Harrison Freeman.

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