The Immaculate Reception Turns 50

The "Immaculate Reception" was the most improbable play, defying any earthy label. It merited a special name. A designation soon arrived, a name from the heavens. 

The Blessed Mother has played a prominent role in the history of the National Football League.

“Dad, why do they call it a ‘Hail Mary?’” my kids have asked me many times. 

That’s a reference, of course, to the famous play on December 28, 1975, when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach launched into the air a final, desperate pass with time running out on the clock. The ball was nabbed by Drew Pearson for a winning touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings. Staubach, the great Hall of Fame quarterback, who is Catholic, later explained that after he let loose the ball and was slammed to the turf, he closed his eyes and “said a Hail Mary” for success. 

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Did our Blessed Mother intervene for Staubach in his moment of need?

Well, the Cowboys won the game. And “Hail Mary” has stuck.

Practically every football Sunday ever since, some announcer somewhere says to the audience something along the lines of, “They’re going to have a chance for a ‘Hail Mary.’”

All football fans know what that means.

But while the “Hail Mary” has become synonymous with any quarterback’s last-minute toss of desperation, the most famous play in NFL history—one that cannot be copied, and that no one would dare try to repeat—likewise invokes the Virgin Mary. It happened 50 years ago today, December 23, 1972.

Yes, it’s the Immaculate Reception.

The Immaculate Reception is the hilariously beautiful moniker for an incredible—shall we say miraculous?—pass by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who, incidentally, twice beat Staubach and the Cowboys in two iconic Super Bowls in the 1970s. The occasion was the AFC divisional playoffs, and the victim was the dread Oakland Raiders, a team of dubious characters that Steelers head coach Chuck Noll described as the “criminal element” of the NFL.

The scene was Three Rivers Stadium, sacred ground to Steelers fans, given the team’s unprecedented feats there. Personally, I made pilgrimage from the Mon Wharf across the bridge spanning the Allegheny River on many bitterly cold December Sundays. A religious experience.

On December 23, 1972, the Steelers were trailing the Raiders 7-6. They had been up 6-0 with 1:17 to play when Raiders QB Ken Stabler, known as “The Snake,” snaked his way for a shocking 30-yard touchdown dash, which stunned the Steelers defense. The Steelers got the ball back, with time for only a few plays. 

As the clocked ticked down, it was fourth and 10. Scrambling Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw fired the ball from midfield with 30 seconds left. He aimed for the vicinity of running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who, in a nasty collision, was speared by the dirtiest player in football, Jack Tatum, rightly known as “The Assassin.” (He even wrote a book titled They Call Me Assassin.) As Tatum characteristically brooded over his victim—the downed Fuqua lay on the ground looking half dead (just as Tatum liked them)—the ball bounded in the air and was seized just before hitting the ground by rookie running back and future Hall of Famer Franco Harris. 

(Sadly, Harris unexpectedly and shockingly died at age 72 this past Wednesday, just as the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh were planning to celebrate the Immaculate Reception with him and retire his number—a rarity, as the Steelers organization does not retire numbers, but made a unique exception for Franco Harris. The organization and city mourn. It puts a somber touch on what was expected to be a major celebration at Acrisure Stadium this Saturday.)

The place erupted, especially the section housing Franco’s Italian Army (honorary captain was Frank Sinatra), who shouted, “Run, paisano, run!” The army was founded by local Italian business owners Al Vento and Tony Stagno, who prior to the game had placed the malocchio (“evil eye”) on the Raiders. 

“It’s caught out of the air!” yelled Steelers announcer Jack Fleming. “The ball is pulled in by Franco Harris!”

Among those watching from the sidelines in awe was backup Steelers QB Terry Hanratty (like me, an alum of Butler High School in Butler, Pennsylvania), who was a Heisman candidate at the University of Notre Dame (i.e., Our Lady’s university). “Hanratty, the Golden Domer, had played in the shadow of Notre Dame’s Touchdown Jesus in the mid-1960s,” wrote Ed Gruver and Jim Campbell in their book on the fiery Steelers-Raiders rivalry, Hell with the Lid Off. “As the ball arced toward an onrushing Harris, it seemed to Hanratty to be guided by the hand of God.”

Indeed.

Franco sprinted all the way into the end zone. The crowd went nuts. 

To this day, controversy rages over whether the ball bounced off Tatum or Fuqua, a crucial distinction bearing on whether Franco’s pickup was a legal catch. Raider players bitterly refuse to acknowledge it was a catch, with Tatum crony George Atkinson dismissing it to this day as the “Immaculate Deception.” Nonetheless, the referees, after a long delay, ruled it a catch. Legendary Raiders Coach John Madden was so distraught that for the rest of his life he couldn’t even speak of the play.

The play was immediately dubbed miraculous. The announcer for NBC’s national broadcast was Curt Gowdy, who declared on that December 23: “You talk about Christmas miracles. Here’s the miracle of all miracles!”

It was the most improbable play, defying any earthy label. It merited a special name. A designation soon arrived, a name from the heavens. 

At the end of the game, a local bar owner named Michael Ord lifted his Iron City beer at his crowded tavern. He hushed the assembled and asked them to join him in a toast to what he ordained “the Feast of the Immaculate Reception.” 

It was an inspired moment by the Catholic bar owner.

To be sure, I cannot say if Ord’s theological thinking was exactly right. Many Catholics, sadly, confuse the conception of Mary with the conception of Jesus celebrated at Christmas. But then again, Mary’s Immaculate Conception is honored in December, too—about two weeks earlier. So, let us not split hairs over Ord’s epiphany. 

In my playbook, the dear Mr. Ord is a football prophet. Who am I to question the theology of this inspired messenger?

(Ord is interviewed in the wonderful 2012 NFL Network documentary “A Football Life: The Immaculate Reception.” The documentary is highly recommended. It will have you laughing and crying.)

But how did Ord’s proclamation make its way from beer glass to popular lexicon? Ord’s girlfriend, Sharon Levosky, managed to reach the most colorful character in Pittsburgh sports lore, Steelers’ broadcaster Myron Cope, inventor of the Terrible Towel (itself possessed of strange powers). Every evening, Cope did the sports coverage on WTAE-TV Channel 4. Though not Catholic, Cope was moved by the spirit of Ord’s inspiration. He went to his show that evening and shared the moniker, pleading the indulgence of any stuffy, offended viewers: “I accept neither credit, nor should you hold the moniker to be impious.”

No offense taken, Myron. All hail the Immaculate Reception!

Soon, the world was describing the play in precisely these religious overtones. Here in Pittsburgh, it’s kind of like, well, if you’ll forgive me, dogma.

Born in Pittsburgh in December 1966, I was six years old when Franco grabbed the pigskin. I certainly remember it. In fact, when you fly into Pittsburgh, you’re reminded of it. Strangers arriving from distant foreign lands are rightly mystified to encounter two monuments atop the escalators: General George Washington from his early days traversing Western Pennsylvania and, naturally, his equal, Franco Harris bending to grab that ball on December 23, 1972.

Like other profound historical moments, the full legacy of the Immaculate Reception would not be felt for years. The Steelers actually did not go on to win the Super Bowl that year, losing in a weird way to the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship. But they would win four Super Bowls by the end of the decade, with what is widely considered the greatest team in NFL history. Two years later, in the 1974 draft, the team drafted, incredibly, four future Hall of Famers: Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster, and John Stallworth. And they signed a fifth future Hall of Famer, Donnie Shell, who had gone undrafted. 

In fact, nearly 30 Hall of Famers were represented from both the Steelers and Raiders teams of the 1970s. That’s astonishing. It reflects the power of the moment—the moment of the Immaculate Reception.

I would be remiss if I didn’t conclude with a crucial fact: the Virgin Mary had a prominent place among the Steelers ownership and at Three Rivers Stadium. The legendary Steelers founder, Art Rooney, known as “The Chief,” every day went to Mass and prayed the Rosary. When the Steelers moved into Three Rivers in 1970, Rooney had fellow Catholic Tony Parisi, the team’s equipment manager, place a statue of the Virgin Mary in the locker room with a dish of holy water. The Chief would sprinkle the room with holy water. The Virgin Mary had a prominent place among the Steelers ownership and at Three Rivers Stadium. The legendary Steelers founder, Art Rooney, known as “The Chief,” every day went to Mass and prayed the Rosary.Tweet This

Coincidence? To borrow from Pope John Paul II, coincidence is what the believer calls Providence.

Today, the Immaculate Reception is widely considered the greatest play in NFL history, judged so by NFL Films, Sports Illustrated, polls, and more. Nothing rivals it.

A fitting testimony to our Blessed Mother.

[Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck/AP]

  • Paul Kengor

    Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

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