Franco Harris gets busy on the phone every Dec. 23. He calls former Steelers teammates, and he calls at least one former Oakland Raider. It is not to wish him a Merry Christmas.
Linebacker Phil Villapiano knows it's coming.
"What were you doing 40 years ago?" Harris will ask him this year. "What were you doing on this day?"
The Raiders' Phil Villapiano recalls Immaculate Reception
Former Oakland Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano talks with the PG's Ed Bouchette about his role in the Steelers' fabled Immaculate Reception. (Video by Andrew Rush; 9/23/2012)
Villapiano will pick up the phone and respond much as he always does: "You dirty dog!"
With that, the old Raider laughs. He has become friendly with many of those he opposed Dec. 23, 1972, the day of the Immaculate Reception. Last year, though, Villapiano made a threat when Harris called him on that date.
"When I go into the Pittsburgh airport, I see that statue of Franco," he said of the replica showing the famous shoestring catch that ended in the game-winning, 60-yard touchdown that gave the Steelers their first playoff win in franchise history, 13-7. "He called me on the 23rd of December, which he does every year. I told him this year, Franco, my last tackle that I make before I die, that statue comes down!"
It's all in good nature now, but it was not that way 40 years ago when Villapiano's assignment was to cover Franco Harris on that fourth-down play. He did that. But after quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the ball over their heads toward halfback Frenchy Fuqua downfield, there was no more reason for anyone to cover Harris. No logical reason anyway.
"The ball goes flying over there," Villapiano says, giving his version of the play. "Bradshaw throws downfield."
Villapiano left Harris to follow the ball, in case he could make a play if a Steeler caught it.
"I'm gone, man, because you never know. Go! Go make a play!"
Bradshaw's pass whistled through the air as Fuqua and Raiders safety Jack Tatum converged on it.
"Tatum comes up, hits Fuqua," Villapiano continues. "I said, 'This is crazy, only a Raider would do such a thing.' Come up, knock the thing down, make the tackle. No, he has to come up and drill him. So he drills him, the ball hits off Frenchy's shoulder, it goes flying, right over my head. So I turn, and there's Franco, right where I left him, about 10 or 12 yards away."
Harris caught the ball, officials ruled, just before it hit the ground. Villapiano is among the rare Raiders who believes it was not a trap, although he still swears it bounced off Fuqua's shoulder and not Tatum's, which would have made it an illegal reception.
But all was not lost for Oakland. The linebacker had a bead to bring down Harris. He did not see another Steelers rookie, tight end John McMakin, closing from behind him.
"I have a really good angle," Villapiano said, thinking at the time "No big deal, I can make this play."
But "McMakin! That guy dives at the back of my legs. Doesn't get me down, but I stumble ... I think I could have made [the tackle] in the middle of the field."
Villapiano maintains it was the second illegal maneuver on that play.
"It was a clip! And the ball went from offense to offense. Those two things were totally illegal. Here's Franco, loafing down the field, catches the ball, and then he turns it on."
Nearly everyone in Oakland believes the ball hit off Fuqua, which would have made it an illegal reception in 1972, a rule that was changed two years later. Villapiano is no different.
"The ball definitely hit Frenchy. I saw it. Because Tatum hit him so hard in the back, his shoulder went flying forward and the ball came -- Bam! -- like that. It took a massive blow to make that ball ricochet. There's no way that ball could have got all the way across the field -- it probably flew, what, 30, 40 yards through the air? Maybe 30 -- it flew. It was like a pass."
Fuqua long has claimed he knows precisely what happened yet never has said what he thinks he knows publicly. Once, Villapiano heard him let on as if to try.
"Ray Mansfield one year had an idea -- 'You bring in 20 Raiders and I'll bring in 20 Steelers, and we'll go against each other,' " Villapiano recalls of a golf event between the two former combatants. "It was so cool. That's the night Frenchy got up and did his thing. He started crying. He's finally going to tell about the Immaculate Reception. He cried and cried, got off the stage. He never told!"
There has been plenty of crying from Oakland the past 40 years, but Villapiano was never one to shed tears over that play.
"I told Franco a million times, I don't care if we lost that game a million more times because it gave us something," the old linebacker said in May when he again joined many former Steelers in Andy Russell's annual charity golf tournament at Nevillewood. "I'm here today, like last night, sitting with Andy and all those guys; we keep talking about that, about those years. It made a beautiful thing, it was great for the NFL.
"A couple years ago when they did that 100 greatest plays, that was No. 1. It was fun. I was happy to be part of it."
First Published September 23, 2012 4:45 AM