Raiders cornerback Atkinson maintains Immaculate Reception memorable as bad call
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George Atkinson was one of the more notorious members of the Oakland Raiders, a tough, hard-hitting, bend-the-rules cornerback who found himself right in the middle of the rivalry with the Steelers. And, as a result, in the middle of a courtroom.
Atkinson was one of the players former coach Chuck Noll referred to as the "criminal element" after a 1976 game in which Atkinson delivered a forearm to the head of Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann behind the play. The hit gave Swann a concussion and caused him to miss two games.
Atkinson filed a $2 million slander suit against Noll and the Steelers because of the remark, and the ugly 10-day jury trial caused great embarrassment for all parties, including the National Football League. The jurors ruled against Atkinson.
Atkinson probably felt just as helpless that December 1972 day in Three Rivers Stadium when he could do little to prevent what may be the most memorable play in the NFL.
He was on the other side of the field at Three Rivers Stadium, part of a three-deep zone coverage when, in his opinion, he saw the ball deflect off Frenchy Fuqua after a hard hit by safety Jack Tatum into the hands of Franco Harris.
"It was heartbreaking to us because I remember being in the huddle and the last thing we said was, 'It's fourth down, even if the receiver catches it, make sure we make the tackle,'" Atkinson said.
"We even brought in six defensive backs. We brought in a package we never used before and we set Jack Tatum in the middle of the field, right behind the linebackers, as a true free player to look for anything coming over the middle. The middle was his. Sure enough, as the play broke down, we got all his receivers covered.
"[Terry] Bradshaw was almost tackled by Tony Cline or Art Thoms, I'm not sure, and I remember looking back to where the ball was going downfield. Next thing I know Franco is running with the ball and I'm thinking the game is over. I'm thinking Jack was going to make a play on it, but Jack, being the aggressive player that he was, he went for the big knockout. That was a big mistake for us."
Atkinson, though, said he thought the touchdown would be disallowed because NFL rules at the time did not allow a catch if the ball touched two offensive players in sequence. He said the ball "clearly" hit Fuqua first and ricocheted to Harris, who "was back there kind of dogging it." He also said the Raiders thought Harris "trapped the ball" when he caught it.
But what Atkinson said happened after that was really bothersome.
"We knew the play would be blown dead until the referees starting congregating by the dugout," Atkinson said.
"We wandered over to hear what they were talking about. We thought they were deciding if the play was dead; instead, they were concerned about security. I heard it with my own ears.
"They were concerned how much security was there if they made the wrong call. Other than that, why would they have to call upstairs? For what? There was no instant replay. They were calling security there.
"Next thing we knew, they had their arms up in there."
And the most heated rivalry of the 1970s -- maybe the most intense in NFL history -- was born.
"It started from there," said Atkinson, now a member of the Raiders Radio Network who has two sons playing at Notre Dame, Josh and George III. "That was the beginning of it.
"It's one of those moments in sports that happen that sticks with you, not only with the players but with fans, as far as being memorable. Everyone who was associated with it, on either team, will always remember it.
"The Steelers will remember it from a positive standpoint, and we remember it from a negative standpoint, the way it came down. That's the way it is."
First Published October 21, 2012 12:00 am