Players don't remember catch, but Raiders' Brown does
ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) -- The Immaculate Reception is still vivid in Willie Brown's mind, and it still irks him.
It was Dec. 23, 1972, at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. The Oakland Raiders led the Steelers 7-6 on Ken Stabler's 30-yard touchdown run with 1:13 to go.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, facing fourth-and-10 on his own 40-yard line, hurled a long pass toward John "Frenchy" Fuqua. Raiders safety Jack Tatum plowed into Fuqua just as the ball arrived, launching it into the hands of fullback Franco Harris -- who ran 42 yards for the winning touchdown with just five seconds left.
Brown, the Raiders' Hall of Fame cornerback, watched the play from about 15 or 20 yards away in disbelief. He claims that Harris didn't have a clean catch because Fuqua, not Tatum, had touched the ball, and the ball hit the ground before he had it.
"We thought the ballgame was over once the ball hit the ground," Brown said.
Neither NBC-TV nor NFL Films could determine whether Fuqua, Tatum or both touched the ball before it deflected to Harris. Under NFL rules at the time, the play would have ended if Fuqua had touched the ball.
The hometown fans swarmed the field after Harris' apparent touchdown run, even though then-Raiders head coach John Madden questioned the play. And the Steelers had won the divisional playoff game.
Brown, now the Raiders' director of squad development, said he's watched the play on film over and over throughout the years, from every conceivable angle, and still draws the same conclusion: It wasn't a touchdown.
"It bothers me a lot," he said.
Today, Brown contends, instant replay would have overturned the play and the Raiders would have been off to the Super Bowl. The Steelers lost to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship.
"I thought we had the best team in football," he said.
For the record, Fuqua has never revealed whether he actually touched the ball.
Many of the current Raiders players weren't born when the Immaculate Reception happened, although most have heard of it. Time and infrequent meetings have tempered the once intense rivalry with the Steelers, so it doesn't come up too often.
"It's been a while since we played them and a lot has changed," Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon said in anticipation of Sunday's rare matchup in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers beat the Raiders 29-10 the last time the teams met in 1995. The Raiders haven't been to Three Rivers Stadium since 1980.
Oakland head coach Jon Gruden vividly remembers the bad blood between the Raiders and Steelers.
"I can remember George Atkinson and Jack Tatum talking to [John] Stallworth and [Lynn] Swann after every whistle. I can remember that ricocheted pass and Franco Harris going in for the touchdown. That was a cold, dreary day," Gruden said. "Terry Bradshaw was in here the other day, wearing a Raider hat, doing an interview on Tim Brown.
"You can't help but recall, remember all those great games. They were always pivotal in terms of who was going to go the Super Bowl in the AFC."
"Everyone on the street was a Steelers fan, except for me," he said. "I only cared about the Cowboys."