Was the Reception actually Immaculate?

Was the Reception actually Immaculate?
December 19, 2012, 12:45 pm

Franco Harris on whether he trapped the ball instead of catching it: "I can't say." (USA TODAY IMAGES)

ALAMEDA -- To a more recent vintage of Raiders fan, the world turned upside down in the snow of New England and, really, shame on you if you utter the words "Tuck Rule" in the streets of Silver and Blackdom.

But for the veteran denizens of Raider Nation, another utterance gets their blood boiling just as quickly…even if it is fast approaching its 40th birthday.

The Immaculate Reception.

Take a breath. Count to three. Ready now? OK, then checking out today's premiere of the NFL Network's "A Football Life: The Immaculate Reception" at 5 p.m. PT will only peel off certain silver and black scabs but in a wildly entertaining documentary, it might be worth it. After all, 40 years is 40 years, right?

You all know the story -- at least, you should if it still gets you riled up -- as there were 22 seconds left in an AFC divisional playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 23, 1972. The Raiders led, 7-6, and the Steelers were facing 4th-and-10 at their own 40-yard line.

Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass and after barely eluding defensive ends Horace Jones and Tony Cline, Bradshaw threw a laser from his own 30-yard line down field toward Frenchy Fuqua. A collision ensued -- between Fuqua, Jack Tatum and, presumably, the ball -- at the Oakland 35-yard line and the ball bounded back towards the line of scrimmage.

Jimmy Warren jumped up briefly in celebration before realizing that an oncoming Franco Harris had the ball and Warren gave chase. Warren caught up to Harris at about the 10-yard line before being shrugged off as Harris crossed the goal line with five seconds to play.

As the documentary explains, it's "the story of a play that's lived a life of its own.

"The Immaculate Reception is a myth. A miracle. A cottage industry. A conspiracy. A crime. And, a detective story."

No doubt. The film of the play has been called "The Zapruder Film of sports," and for good reason. Mostly because everyone loves a good conspiracy.

"If you could have packaged all that anger and frustration," offers Raymond Chester, "it probably would have been nuclear."

In fact, four conspiracy theories have arisen from the ashes of the play, which has taken on religious overtones in the Steel City, while being referred to as the Immaculate DE-ception by the Raiders.

The four conspiracies investigated:

* The Fuqua Theory, as in, did Fuqua touch the ball? If he did, the play, under NFL rule 7, Section 5, Article 2, Item 1, would have been an incompletion.

"The question: Frenchy, did you touch the ball?" Fuqua says in the documentary, followed by a seven-second pregnant pause. "Maybe. Maybe not."

Andy Russell says in the documentary Fuqua told reporters that day the ball bounced off his chest.

"I knew that that's not the right answer," Russell says. "I grabbed him, and I said said, 'Frenchy, no, what you meant to say was…"

* The Trap Theory, as in Harris trapped the ball off the Riverfront turf.

"I can't say," Harris says.

Added Bradshaw: "More than likely, because Franco doesn't speak, he probably trapped it on the ground."

* The Riot Theory, as in, with the crowd having already flooded the field, the referees were not going to rule it a non-touchdown.

"(Ref Fred) Swearingen had a problem," says Phil Villapiano. "I think, if he would have ever reversed that call, that man might have died. And all the other officials too."

* The Clip Theory, as in Villapiano claims he was clipped by John McMakin on Harris' run.

"We totally got screwed," Villapiano vents. "I was definitely clipped…if it wasn't for that clip, I think I make that play and we have no Immaculate Reception."

McMakin, though, calls his block the "Magnificent Obstruction."

Does the documentary then, which enlisted the help of former CIA director General Michael Hayden, solve anything?

Not really. Not even with the film of the play digitally remastered, though, from this vantage point, it appeared as though Fuqua did touch the ball with his left hand before it bounded off Tatum.

Still so incensed over the play, John Madden would not be interviewed for the documentary. Instead, clips of the former Raiders coach from 1986 and 2002 speaking on it are used. As are snippets of the late Al Davis ruminating on the play in 1989.

Bottom line, if you think it was a clean play before watching the documentary, you'll still believe so. And if you think the Raiders were robbed, you'll be even more convinced now. Especially with George Atkinson's passionate takes.

"That play, if you're a Steeler fan, you believe in it," Fuqua says. "If you're a sinner, like them damn Raiders, you'll never accept it. So it's almost like the Bible, a myth to some and a faith to others."

Now, about that Rob Lytle fumble...