Steelers owner Rooney emphatic about Immaculate Reception referees
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Art Rooney Sr. told the story many times, how he missed the Immaculate Reception because he was headed down the Three Rivers Stadium elevator to console his players on their playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders.
But Dan Rooney saw it all on Dec. 23, 1972, as Franco Harris streaked toward Steelers history and Raiders infamy.
"I was upstairs, sort of where the control room was, above the press box," Dan Rooney said. "As soon as that play happened, now Franco's running, I knew it was going to be controversial, and I ran down to the press box."
Now his story gets interesting, because his public relations director, Joe Gordon, told a similar one that ran in these pages last week. Gordon and Rooney each remember being the one who took the phone call from their man on the field, Steelers official Jim Boston. It's 40 years later, and memories are not always perfect.
Nevertheless, here is how Dan Rooney recalls it:
"I'm standing there just observing you guys, everyone's excited, jumping up and down, things like that. Then I looked back to the field and I see Jim Boston taking the referee and bringing him over to the phone.
"I was standing next to the phone. The phone rings and I pick it up. It was Jim Boston. He said Fred Swearingen wants to talk to Art McNally. I said, 'Art McNally?' He said yeah. I called for Art McNally, who was close by. 'Hey, Art, come here.' "
McNally, supervisor of NFL officials, had attended the game.
"I said, 'This is Swearingen,' " Rooney said of his conversation with McNally. "He said, 'Swearingen, what's he calling for?' I said, 'I don't know.' "
McNally took the call from the referee at the game.
"I'm standing right there so I hear what McNally is saying," Rooney said. "McNally kept saying, 'Call what you saw.' "
There was a pause as Swearingen said something on the other end. And Rooney said McNally repeated his instructions: "I'm telling you to call what you saw, whatever it was."
"Then," Rooney continued, "he said 'Get your guys together, you're running it, and call what you saw.' He hung up very quickly."
So that is what Swearingen did, according to Rooney, he called it like he saw it, or at least how he thinks he saw it.
"With that, he went back out on the field, had a huddle, put up his hands. It was a touchdown."
The story repeated through the years by some in the Raiders camp and popularized by their coach, John Madden, is that Swearingen asked McNally if there were enough security to protect him if he ruled it an illegal reception, that it had bounced off Steelers teammate Frenchy Fuqua and not Raiders Jack Tatum. Others say Swearingen asked McNally what he saw on television replays upstairs that might help him make the call.
"That's not so, definitely. He didn't advise him,'' Rooney insists of McNally's response to his referee. "He said exactly that. I was standing right there and heard every word."
What we do not know is what Swearingen asked or said to McNally.
"There's been a lot written about it," Rooney said. "He may have said, 'What did you see?' But McNally never said anything, he said, 'Call what you saw.' "
Unlike his father, Rooney did not bolt for the locker room even after the game ended.
"After that, I loafed around the press box. After awhile, I went out and down to the dressing room. Everybody was on Cloud 9, cheering each other, all excited.
"It may have been the most exciting game I had seen up until that time."
Many believe that improbable victory was a turning point for a franchise that had not experienced a playoff victory in its first 39 seasons.
"Oh, I was intelligent enough to know what it meant, it meant it was taking the Steelers to a new level," Rooney said. "And I have to say that during that season there were some things where you could see the team coming along. I remember Franco Harris taking a handoff around end and he must have run for 40 yards against the Vikings. With that I said in my mind, 'This is it, this team is going to be good.'
It was a new time, no question about it."
Although his father missed the actual play, he relished its aftermath.
"It was tremendous," Rooney said.
"Everybody in the world said they saw it live. They did see it on replay because they kept showing it. I thought and still do that it was the greatest play ever."
Naturally, Rooney believes to this day that it was all perfectly legal, that the officials got the call right.
"I really think that the ball hit Tatum and bounced back. Now it was simultaneous ... it's one of those things, unless you do have film and look at it like they do now in slow motion, that you could tell.
"It was great. When Franco got the ball, I wasn't sure he was going to score. I said, 'OK, we'll kick the field goal.' "
What if Harris were tackled in bounds? The clock would have run out and Oakland would have survived.
"That,'' Rooney said, "would have been a disaster."
First Published November 4, 2012 12:00 am