Immaculate Reception: The most spectacular play in NFL history was not an easy one to witness, report or photograph


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The sentence was ominously pecked out on a portable typewriter in the Three Rivers Stadium press box, ready to be given to a Western Union operator and transmitted to the copy desk across the river at The Pittsburgh Press. An epitaph of the 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers for the reading public:

"Bradshaw had thrown his fourth straight incompletion of the drive."

It was to be the final detail of a running story of the Steelers' first home playoff game written by Bob Smizik, the 31-year-old sportswriter for the Press -- there doing the early edition copy so that Steelers beat writer Phil Musick could record the main edition story for posterity.

The play simply needed to end, so Smizik could put the season to bed for Pittsburgh.

In the back of the press box, Press news reporter Joe Grata took in the last moments of that AFC divisional game against Oakland after spending the game gathering nuggets of color from around the stadium.

Grata couldn't help but notice "The Chief," Steelers owner Art Rooney, shuffling off to the elevators with some friends just before the Steelers' final play.


Immaculate Reception:
TheSeries
This is the Steelers' 80th season, and the 40th since the ImmaculateReception, that one remarkable play many believe was one of the bestin the history of the NFL. It neatly divided the team's fortunes intothe woeful 40 years before, and the championship years after. ThePittsburgh Post-Gazette is taking a season-long look back at that playand its impact on the city and the team. Look for a story in eachSunday's Sports section that revisits that moment from the point ofview of players from the Steelers and the Raiders, as well as fans andteam officials, culminating in coverage on Dec. 23, the 40thanniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

To the left of the Raiders bench, 23-year-old photographer Bob Donaldson readied to capture images of the visiting would-be victors as a freelancer for The Associated Press.

He turned to the field action at the snap.

"I remember the play starting and [Terry] Bradshaw running toward the Oakland sideline," Donaldson said. "I was shooting pictures of him -- there was a lot of player traffic and he's turning away. I see him throwing the ball to the other side from where I am, and I am completely obscured. I am in the worst possible place in the world for a photographer.

"I don't see anything that happens until I hear an incredible roar -- like distant thunder that, as it got closer and closer, got louder and louder. I have been doing this my whole life and have never heard a sound like that -- it was just unbelievable, the sound."

Not one to mince words during his 39 years as a Press and Post-Gazette sports columnist, Smizik put it more succinctly: "All hell broke loose."

"I was watching while I was typing that sentence -- I wanted to get ahead of the curve -- the next thing I knew, Franco was running down the field."

The story's ending changed, but getting it right proved a challenge. The game famously wasn't televised in Pittsburgh but was broadcast on a closed-circuit system in the stadium press box, on small sets mounted from the ceiling.

"No one knew what happened. Musick was sitting next to me and he was the pre-eminent Steelers expert in town. He stands up on his chair to watch the replays and starts dictating to me what to write," Smizik said, and everyone else in the press box within earshot copied down what he was saying.

Grata, now 68 and retired after 38 years at the Press and Post-Gazette, scurried back to the elevators looking for Rooney, adding -- for the record -- an extra note of lore to the game: Art Rooney missed the Immaculate Reception.

"I thought -- Jesus! -- Rooney just missed the biggest play of his life!"

"They were waiting for the elevator -- they didn't see the play -- I wondered if he was in the elevator already? But they're walking back [to the press area] and the crowd is cheering and I said, 'You won, Mr. Rooney! I don't know how, but you won!' "

"That trumped everything I had -- being in the wrong place at the right time. I ran right back to the office. I wanted to get that in as many editions as I could."

At ground level, chaos unfolded on the Tartan Turf.

"On the field, you are the last person in the world to understand what happened," Donaldson, who joined the PG staff in 1986, said. "I remember hearing [Raiders coach] John Madden screaming at the top of his lungs. It was pandemonium. There were people all over the field."

Donaldson, whose grandfather played football in the 1920s with Rooney and his brothers on the North Side "Hope-Harvey" team, didn't get the iconic shot of Harris making the catch, but his boss that day, Harry Cabluck of the AP, did.

Needless to say sports media was not the high-tech, hyper-staffed endeavor that it is today.

"We were shooting black-and-white film that we had to get to a makeshift darkroom in the bowels of the stadium," Donaldson said. "It had to be developed and dried. Then you had to make an 8x10 enlargement and wait until it dried. You had to put a caption on it, done on a typewriter and pasted on. Then you wrapped it around a drum that was the photo transmitter, which was like a giant fax machine. It spun at 60 revolutions per minute and one inch a minute was transmitted.

"Can you imagine having the greatest thing that's ever happened and having to wait eight minutes to transmit it?"

Smizik ultimately wrote about Frenchy Fuqua, the intended receiver on the play.

"I'm not sure he knew what happened," Smizik said, adding that the Steelers' locker room was one of muted excitement.

"It was not what you think it would be. They weren't champions yet. This was a cool, calm, collected group. They were happy -- but they took things much more in stride than the athletes of today. Chuck Noll set the tone. There was more to do. They had a game next Sunday, that game against the best team in the NFL."

Despite the immense nature of the game, and its now hallowed outcome, Smizik said he "had no inkling whatsoever of the magnitude of what had taken place in front of me. No one knew it would become the most famous play in football history."

Smizik spent four decades unflappably chronicling some of the most poignant moments in Pittsburgh and American sports, but on that particular night, a funny thing happened on his drive home.

"I was on the Parkway -- and my hand started shaking," he said.

"That had never happened before, and it's never happened since."

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First Published December 9, 2012 5:00 AM


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