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The Immaculate Reception is easily one of the most famous plays in NFL history — and one of the most controversial. It also kicked off one of the greatest rivalries the league has ever seen.

For those who may not be familiar with Franco Harris’ famous catch, a play NFL Films once called the greatest of all time, here’s a crash course.

What is the Immaculate Reception?

In the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs following the 1972 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers sought their first-ever postseason victory and squared off with John Madden‘s Oakland Raiders.

In a defensive battle that was scoreless at halftime, the Steelers trailed 7-6 with 22 seconds remaining in the game and were facing 4th-and-10 from their own 40-yard line with no timeouts.

On the snap, third-year Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass but faced enormous pressure from Raiders defensive linemen Horace Jones and Tony Cline. He first scrambled right, then took a step to his left and fired the ball in the direction of Steelers halfback John Fuqua.

But just as the ball arrived at the Raiders’ 35-yard line, Oakland safety Jack Tatum flew in and collided with Fuqua, knocking him to the ground and sending the ball backward. In the right place at the right time, Steelers rookie running back Franco Harris, who’d run down the field in case Bradshaw needed another option, caught the rapidly moving ball before it hit the ground and ran into the end zone for an improbable touchdown.

As the NFL is quite stingy with its game film, we can’t post it here. But here’s a link to it for those who haven’t seen it.

Pittsburgh fans immediately rushed the field, and it took 15 minutes to clear everyone out, during which time the officials contemplated whether what would become known as the Immaculate Reception was actually a touchdown.

The Immaculate Reception controversy

Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers' running back who caught the Immaculate Reception
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

NFL rules were different in 1972. Back then, if an offensive player touched the ball first on any pass play, he was the only offensive player eligible to catch it.

But if a defensive player touched the ball first, “or simultaneously with or subsequent to its having been touched by only one [offensive] player,” the ball was up for grabs as all offensive players became eligible to catch it. In 1978, this rule was changed so that any player could catch a pass on any deflection.

So the question became: Who caused the deflection? If the ball hit only Fuqua, Harris’ catch didn’t count. But if it hit Tatum or Tatum and Fuqua (no matter the order), the Immaculate Reception did count.

After a long delay, the officials determined it had hit Tatum, and the Immaculate Reception was ruled a touchdown. Once the field was finally cleared, Roy Gerela added the extra point to give the Steelers a 13-7 lead, which was the final margin of victory.

The play has been analyzed for decades, and while most believe the ball did indeed hit Tatum, not everyone is convinced.

Pittsburgh lost the following week in the AFC Championship Game to the Miami Dolphins, who then finished their historic undefeated season with a victory in Super Bowl 7.

The Immaculate Reception game kicked off a fierce rivalry between the Steelers and Raiders, who met in each of the following four postseasons, with each team winning twice. Pittsburgh, of course, won four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s, while Oakland gave Madden his lone Super Bowl win following the 1976 season.

Until his death in 2021, Madden said he never got over the Immaculate Reception. And even after watching the clip over and over for years, he still never knew what exactly happened.

Immaculate Reception FAQ

What year was the Immaculate Reception?

The Immaculate Reception occurred during the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Oakland Raiders playoff game in the Divisional Round on December 23, 1972.

Who caught the Immaculate Reception?

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris caught the Immaculate Reception following a collision between Steelers halfback John Fuqua and Raiders safety Jack Tatum.

Was the Immaculate Reception legal?

The Immaculate Reception was ruled a legal catch as officials deemed the pass had hit Raiders safety Jack Tatum and not Steelers halfback John Fuqua. Given NFL rules at the time, had the pass hit only Fuqua and not Tatum, Franco Harris’ catch wouldn’t have counted. But if the pass hit only Tatum or Tatum and Fuqua, no matter the order, it was legal.

How much is the Immaculate Reception ball worth?

The Immaculate Reception ball would likely fetch a lot of money at auction, but its owner refuses to part with it. Then-26-year-old Jim Baker attended the game with his then-14-year-old nephew, Bobby, and scooped up the ball after the extra point. Baker has received several six-figure offers for the Immaculate Reception ball but won’t sell it.

Who threw the Immaculate Reception?

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the Immaculate Reception.