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Forty years later, the Immaculate Reception remains one the great mysteries of all time

Jay Busbee
Yahoo Sports

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Franco Harris (32) eludes Jimmy Warren on a 42-yard run to score the winning touchdown. (AP)

They were two gentlemen of a certain age having dinner, and this time, they were talking what-ifs.

What if Bradshaw had thrown to a different receiver? What if Tatum hadn't tried to take Fuqua's head off? What if Harris hadn't come back to the ball?

It's conversation that still dominates bars and living rooms in Pittsburgh and Oakland. The only difference with this conversation is that these two gentlemen wore the black and gold four decades back, and this conversation took place just last week.

In other words: 39 years and 51 weeks later, the Pittsburgh Steelers can't stop talking about the Immaculate Reception, the most improbable and to this day controversial ending to a playoff game in NFL history.

To understand just how important the Immaculate Reception is to the Steeler mythos, we need to roll back 40 years, to December 1972. The United States is still at war with Vietnam. Watergate is an ugly little burglary just starting to blossom into a conspiracy. The last mission to the moon, Apollo 17, has just returned to Earth. And the Pittsburgh Steelers are perpetuating four decades of football futility.

It seems inconceivable, now that the Steelers are the winningest Super Bowl franchise in football, that at one time Pittsburgh was a pathetic football town. But for most of the Steelers' early existence, that was exactly the case. The franchise began life in 1933, and until the 1972 season had exactly one postseason appearance: a loss in 1947.

But in 1969, the team had hired a new coach, a 37-year-old named Chuck Noll, and right then everything changed. Noll immediately dug deep into the roster to see what he had to work with. The answer: Not much.

"Andy Russell was one of the few guys who was any good on that 1968 team," says Rocky Bleier, who was drafted by the Steelers in '68. "And he remembered Coach coming into practice before the 1969 season and saying, ‘Guys, I've looked at the last three years of tape. And I know what the problem is. You're just not any good.' "

From such beginnings was a dynasty born. Noll drafted brilliantly: Among his initial first-round picks those first few years were guys by the name of Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris. And by 1972, the pieces were starting to fit together. The Steelers posted an 11-3 record, won the AFC Central division and headed into the playoffs for the first time in decades.

There, on Dec. 23, they'd face the Oakland Raiders and the two-headed monster of head coach John Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler. Pittsburgh had beaten Oakland in the first game of the season, but there was no reason to think that would hold any significance in this game. The Raiders had been to the postseason four of the past five years, including an appearance in the second Super Bowl.

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Terry Bradshaw gets a hug from reserve quarterback Terry Hanratty. (AP)

"Coming into the game, we were confident," recalls Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano. "We didn't think we were going home for Christmas. We knew Pittsburgh had a good team, and going to Pittsburgh was never easy, but we knew we could hold them."

"We knew it was going to be tough, but we'd gotten this far," Bleier recalls. "We'd won our division, and that gave us confidence we'd never had before."

Confidence, perhaps, but not necessarily the trust of the fans. While Three Rivers Stadium was packed with more than 50,000 Steelers fans, they hadn't bought their tickets early enough to stave off a blackout. (Yes, in 1972 the NFL actually blacked out playoff games that didn't sell out 72 hours before game time. That policy changed the next year.)

Most of the game was unremarkable; there was no scoring at all in the first half. Two Steeler field goals had Pittsburgh up 6-0 with only a few minutes left, but Stabler and the Raiders were driving. And this is where the what-ifs that Bleier and Russell considered last week start to kick in.

Consider: Rookie Craig Hanneman was pressed into service at defensive end for the Steelers. As Bleier noted, with Oakland driving late in the game, Hanneman didn't recognize the Raiders' formation and slanted inward enough that he couldn't keep containment on Stabler. The Snake rumbled for a 30-yard touchdown to put Oakland up 7-6 with just over a minute remaining.

"We were thinking, 'This thing's over,' " Villapiano recalls. "Our defense could stop them at any time. We're in the huddle and we're pretty happy. We had set up a deep zone, and we didn't think there was any way they were going to penetrate it."

"You could feel the stadium just sag," Bleier said. "That was the reputation that the Steelers had, that they always blew it. Always found a way to lose. So when Stabler scored, you knew the fans were thinking, ‘Same old Steelers.' "

But the Steeler defense's misplay had a bright side: Stabler scored so quickly that it left time for Bradshaw and the boys to take their own shot at the end zone. Initially, it didn't go so well. After three straight incompletions, the Steelers faced fourth-and-10 at their own 40 with just 22 seconds remaining.

What happened next would become the most famous play in NFL history, in part because to this day nobody knows for sure exactly what happened.

Bradshaw took the snap and found himself under immediate pressure from the Raider defensive line. He spotted halfback John "Frenchy" Fuqua and lofted a pass in his direction. But Raiders safety Jack Tatum had lasered in on Fuqua and collided with him at the exact moment the ball arrived. The ball ricocheted back up the field. Harris, who'd been racing downfield to give Bradshaw another receiver, plucked the plummeting ball out of the air, raced the rest of the way to the end zone and gave Pittsburgh its first-ever postseason win.

It was an exceptional play … and it might very well be illegal on three different counts. Let's tick off the conspiracy theories:

1. Did Bradshaw's pass hit Tatum or Fuqua first? If the ball deflected off Fuqua, Harris could not have been the first one to catch the ball off his teammate. If, however, it caromed off Tatum, the ball was live. Did Tatum knock Fuqua into the ball, or did the ball bounce off only Tatum?

2. Did the tip of the ball hit the ground before Harris caught it? This is where the lack of TV cameras is maddening; the famous video shows Harris reaching forward for the ball just as its nose falls out of the frame. Harris gets his hands around the ball just outside the camera's view, pulls it back to his chest, and he's off.

3. Did the Steelers commit a penalty? Villapiano had the task of covering Harris. But he broke on the pass, heading toward Fuqua. He changed direction once Harris caught the ball but gets hit, either in the back or the side, by tight end John McMakin.

Neither Fuqua nor Harris will provide any definitive answers; they've been asked the same question for 40 years and don't plan to tip their hand any time soon. And don't ask Bleier to provide any insight. "As the play started, I said to myself, 'I can't watch this,' and I made some excuse to turn around and go to the Gatorade table," he says. "All of a sudden, I heard this huge roar."

That roar is another part of the reason the Raiders and their fans still regard the Immaculate Reception with disgust. Had the game been played in Oakland, the thinking goes, the refs would have had the courage to make the call the Raiders believe should have been made – that it was a dead ball, one way or another. The referees took several minutes to collect themselves and verify the initial call on the field of a touchdown; when they did so, Pittsburgh fans stormed the field and delayed the extra point for another 15 minutes.

"If you'd asked all the players, Pittsburgh and Oakland, I'll bet none of them knew the two-touch rule," Villapiano says. "But Coach Madden knew. He called us over because it was getting pretty crazy out there on the field. He told us the ball can't go offense to offense, and we were thinking, ‘Whoa, Coach might have them on a technicality.' "

He didn't. The touchdown call stood, and Madden to this day will not talk about the Immaculate Reception. (He declined to answer several questions from Yahoo! Sports.)

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John Madden refuses to answers questions about the Immaculate Reception. (AP)

In the 40 years since, only a handful of plays even come close to The Immaculate Reception: Joe Montana and Dwight Clark's The Catch, The Music City Miracle, Manning-to-Tyree, and maybe two or three others. But all of those were masterpieces of execution, not mystery.

"The play could happen today, of course," Bleier says. "But it caught the imagination both because of what it meant to the Steelers and because of that unknown element. Today, with the number of cameras we have, there would have been definitive coverage."

While this season's Monday Night Football Seattle/Green Bay debacle showed that there are still debatable calls, this one wouldn't have been; the questionable elements of the play would have been plainly visible on one of the dozens of cameras that ring every NFL game. (Villapiano, unfortunately for him, might have been clipped regardless of the era.)

So back to the dinner conversation between Bleier and Russell. As Bleier notes, so many things had to go so perfectly for this play to happen: "What if Terry has more time to make the play? And Franco, he was taught from the time he was a kid that when there's a pass, you go to the ball. What if he hadn't done that? What if Tatum had done what he was supposed to and knocked the ball down instead of trying to take Frenchy's head off?"

The what-ifs remain the province of imagination and video games. What's indisputable is the way that the Immaculate Reception changed the Steelers franchise. Pittsburgh would lose the next week in the AFC Championship Game to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, but the franchise would go on to win four of the next seven Super Bowls.

"That was the turning point, that was it all coming together," Bleier says. "Forty years of frustration, of losing. The Immaculate Reception was our buy-in. … From then on, we felt like we belonged."

The legend of the play remains strong in Pittsburgh. A statue of Harris catching the ball – which is most definitely not on the ground – stands in the Pittsburgh airport. And this weekend, players from both the Steelers and Raiders will convene in Pittsburgh for two days of recollections and memories. The Steelers will unveil a statue of Harris at the exact spot where he caught the pass, an area that is now a parking lot for Heinz Field. The players and the fans will remember, and they'll debate, and they'll keep the play alive for years to come.

Villapiano and the Raiders didn't get the last word on that fateful day 40 years ago, so we give it to him here: "In the greatest games, every little thing counts," he says. "One little thing changes, and the game is completely different. They won. I don't know if it was fair and square, but they won. And we're still talking about it 40 years later. That's a beautiful thing."

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