As Pittsburghers, we’re all Steelers fans. And those of us of a certain age remember seeing the most famous play in Steeler history — Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception, leading to victory over the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional Championship game, two days before Christmas,1972. We can conjure it up in our minds — Bradshaw’s pass pinballing around the field, finally snatched by Franco, who carried it for the winning touchdown. It’s part of our collective Yinzer consciousness.
The reason I remember it is because I was out of town. But if you were home–– that is, if you were in Pittsburgh––you probably didn’t see it, unless you were in Three Rivers Stadium at the time and hadn’t left early to beat the traffic. You were part of the vast majority of Steeler fans who didn’t see it as it happened. That’s because, back in the 1970s, home games––even home playoff games––weren’t televised unless the game had sold out. The blackouts were an attempt to boost ticket sales.
As unimaginable as that may seem nowadays, it was possible, indeed probable, that the Steelers might not sell out a home game, or even a home playoff game, since the team didn’t have a massive die-hard fan base back then. In fact, they hadn’t been successful in many years.
So the chances that you saw the Immaculate Reception live, or that your parents or grandparents saw it live, are pretty slim. So how did it seep into our collective consciousness like it was a birthright? You may have seen it on the evening news, or on a later NFL Films show or documentary. You may, therefore, “mis-remember” it –– a common issue in the Buzzkill universe of historical myths.
Big deal, you say. It happened. We “remember” it even if we didn’t see it live, and it shaped our lives as Steeler fans. It is a big deal for us, all of us, even though we may not know why.
The fact that Harris’s run won the game is not the big deal. The big deal was what Franco did in the few seconds the pass started down field. He followed the play downfield even though he wasn’t in it, just in case he was needed.
That was a habit that Franco’s college coach, Penn State’s Joe Paterno, had drilled into his players from day one. Anything could happen downfield, and the more Nittany Lions available to deal with any contingency, the better. Blocks might be needed, a loose fumble scooped up, and of course, a tipped or knocked pass grabbed out of the air. The tactic combined never-give-up with you-never-know, and in this instance, on December 23, 1972, it paid off with spectacular results.
The second half of the 20th century brought dark days to Pittsburgh––and not only in the form of smoggy skies. “Pollution” was probably the first thing that popped into people’s heads when “Pittsburgh” came up in a word-association test. The decline of the local steel industry caused layoffs, and smoky city lost population to the suburbs and the sunny west. Something needed to be done, and Pittsburghers did it.
The Pittsburgh Renaissance was a concerted effort between local government, civic groups, and philanthropic citizens to clean up the joint and reimagine the city in the best possible way. After decades of planning, practicing–– and a bit of fumbling––newer, cleaner, techie industries were attracted to town, banking and finance were modernized, our universities and hospitals were boosted and promoted, and people moved back to the city. And the united spirit of Steeler Nation boosterism sure didn’t hurt.
The emergence of the Steelers as a viable force in professional football coincided with the resurgence of Pittsburgh as a proud city, and in hindsight that seemingly miraculous yet long-rehearsed catch by Franco Harris marks the moment the tide turned our way. That’s why it is so important to so many people; why they’re still moved to tears by the memory.
When the city really needed it, we all ran downfield and followed the play. When threatened with an endgame scenario, we grabbed up the ball and finished the play. It wasn’t luck. It wasn’t divine intervention. Saving the city wasn’t an immaculate reception, it was what we had trained for. By following the play downfield, we were following our home town toward its future, ready to scoop up the ball just before it hit the ground and run it in for the final score.