Supervisor of officials: Confusion over rule fueled Immaculate Reception conspiracy theories
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Art McNally was sitting in the press box at Three Rivers Stadium, serving as the National Football League's supervisor of officials for the Immaculate Reception game that has stayed with him 40 years later.
Over the years, McNally has often thought that much of the controversy surrounding Franco Harris' catch of a deflected pass was because of a general misunderstanding about the rule.
He also thinks something else is misunderstood: That the officiating crew headed by referee Fred Swearingen consulted him to make a ruling on the play.
McNally said the confusion that ensued -- whether Raiders safety Jack Tatum or Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua touched the ball -- is because the rule was never made clear to all who witnessed the play.
McNally said once Tatum touched the ball -- and to him, Tatum did, which is why the ball ricocheted backward 10 to 15 yards -- it didn't matter if Fuqua touched the ball or not.
"We haven't had [to make] this rule in eternity," McNally said. "Part of the rule that people didn't understand is, yes, you can't have two of the people [from the same team] touch the ball. But parts of the rule were not that clear. The key of the rule is that Tatum touches the ball before Fuqua.
"If he touches it at the same time as Fuqua, or simultaneous, or after Fuqua, the fact it's touched by any number of players doesn't make a difference. As I sensed as the years and years went by, people were trying to tie in that if Tatum touches the ball first and Fuqua touches it [after that], it's incomplete by rule. But that's not true.
"If Tatum touches the ball anywhere at all, it automatically opens the gate and the Fuqua-Harris catch is OK."
The league eventually did away with that rule in 1978.
McNally, though, could not understand what was taking the officials so long to make a final ruling. He said side judge Adrian Burk was running down the field with Harris and had signaled touchdown. He also said umpire Pat Hardin also thought it was a touchdown, even though he didn't signal.
"The conference stretched out and stretched out and I'm upstairs thinking, 'OK, it's good to have the conference, but this is such an unusually long conference.' My impression is, what was the problem?
"Fred Swearingen went to one of the representatives of the Steelers, Jim Boston, and said he wanted to come to the sideline," McNally said. "He goes into the dugout and next thing I know, Joe Gordon, who is the Steelers p.r. guy in the press box, says, 'Art, you got a phone call.'
"When I got the phone in my hand, Swearingen said to me, 'Two of my men said the ball was touched by opposing players.' In my mind, soon as he said that, it was clear. What I said to him was, 'OK, you're fine, go ahead and go.' That was the extent of the conversation.
"There was no question about 'What do you think?' He in effect said two of my guys said the ball was touched by opposing players. I gave the phone back to Joe, Fred turns out of the dugout and rules touchdown."
Nor, McNally said, was there ever a question from Swearingen about having enough security to get out of the stadium -- something Raiders Coach John Madden and cornerback George Atkinson have suggested.
After the game, McNally and several crew members were riding in a car, heading to the airport. Swearingen was not in the car. McNally said that was when he asked one of the officials why the conference on the field took so long.
"One of the men said, 'The longer we kept talking about this, now there began to become a little bit of doubt. Someone in the crew said, one guy in the booth can help us and he's upstairs,' and that was a reference to me being in press box," McNally said. "So when Fred left the field, his purpose was he was going to ask me, 'What did you see on the play?' because he wanted to verify it.
"And the fact he said two of my guys said the ball was touched by two players, he got a positive statement the rule was handed properly. He never got to the point where he asked me a question. I just said, 'OK, you're good to go.' "
McNally, 77, still serves as a part-time observer for the league after retiring as supervisor of officials in 1990. He said the Immaculate Reception is a game that has stayed with him for 40 years, probably more than any game he has witnessed or worked in history.
"It was such a tremendous play," McNally said. "And it's the most contentious decision made of any games we've had in the NFL."
First Published November 25, 2012 12:00 am