Two men, one football, one violent and famous collision. One of the two men is dead, so that leaves only one to tell his story.
Frenchy Fuqua relives it over and over and over, and has for 40 years. But with each rendition comes a glaring omission. What he doesn't reveal is the truth, if he even knows what happened on Dec. 23, 1972, the day of the Immaculate Reception.
The gregarious onetime Steelers running back -- who wore a flowing cape to highlight elaborate outfits that once included live goldfish swimming in the plexiglass heels of his shoes -- remains a hit on the banquet circuit. Fuqua's involvement in the play has made him a few bucks and given him plenty of lasting fame through the years, but he still has not given anyone a straight answer.
Don't look for him to start now.
The issue is simple. Raiders safety Jack "The Assassin" Tatum torpedoed into Fuqua as he was about to catch Terry Bradshaw's fourth-down pass. The ball ricocheted backward, where Franco Harris caught it and ran for a 60-yard touchdown with five seconds left that gave the Steelers their first playoff victory in franchise history, 13-7.
NFL rules at the time did not allow for a reception by an offensive player if the ball deflected directly off a teammate. It had to be touched by a defensive player. Therefore, if the ball bounced off Fuqua, it would have been an incomplete pass and Oakland declared a 7-6 winner. Referee Fred Swearington, after some time and a controversial phone call to the press box, ultimately ruled it hit off Tatum.
The Raiders, including Tatum, have long testified the ball glanced off Fuqua's shoulder as he was hit by Tatum. The Steelers maintain it caromed off Tatum, who died two years ago. Films of the play are inconclusive.
"Prior to Jack passing away, we worked the banquet circuit for maybe two years and got to be friends -- and I can't stand any of the Raiders," said Fuqua, smaller than his playing days but still a delightful speaker.
"I said [to Tatum], 'I know what happened. Do you?' He said, 'All I know is I was going to tear your damn head off.'
"And when he passed away, for the first time I realized that I was the only one."
Fuqua claims that Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. -- who missed the entire play because he took an elevator from his box to the locker room to console his players for losing the game -- told him not to say what happened.
"I was kidding with him after that game. I said, 'Chief, should I tell what happened?' He told me, 'Frenchy, keep it Immaculate.' He said 'No, Frenchy, if you know what happened, that's good enough.'
"Will I tell before I die? I doubt it very seriously unless a concussion makes me talk out the back of my mouth."
Former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell, whose locker was next to Fuqua's, claims the running back has no idea what happened on that play. Fuqua disputes that.
"It's part of being a receiver," Fuqua said. "It's part of being a person that concentrates on the ball."
Fuqua won't answer the question about the play, but here's what he will offer up:
"We wanted to hit Barry Pearson with the post. The pass protection broke down so all of the timing was off. Bradshaw rolls out to his right and I thought he was going to get tackled, but he ducked and he came up and he fired the ball. Now, from the angle I'm coming from, the outside in, Jack Tatum's coming from an angle straight ahead.
"What I was going to do, if nothing else, is beat him to the point. We got there about the same time. Now, if the ball hit me, it bounced a hell of a ways. If the ball hit him, he wasn't aiming at it, he was going at my head.
"I can tell you this: I did not take my eyes off the ball, as you can tell from the way that my body was. What happens from that point on was truly Immaculate."
Fuqua has maintained that flair for the dramatic through the years. When he speaks about it before groups, he carries a cell phone that rings with what he calls the NFL theme song. Just as he lures the audience into thinking he might reveal his side of what happened, his wife, sitting in the audience, calls his cell. The song plays, and Fuqua, who puts the microphone next to his cell so all can hear the tune, answers.
"Hello, Roger? No I'm not going to tell what happened on the Immaculate Reception. Don't take my pension away!"
Thus ends his speech -- a nod to "The Chief" and a promise of silence kept for nearly 40 years. At this point, the truth, it seems, is likely to die with Frenchy Fuqua.
First Published September 16, 2012 4:00 AM