The Immaculate Reception: For Jim Otto, no doubt or catch
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For years following the Immaculate Reception, Jim Otto saw John "Frenchy" Fuqua at playoff games and other football functions.
When asked whether he had illegally touched the ball on the play, Otto said Fuqua would smile. Then Fuqua would say, "You'll find out sometime."
But Otto, a Raiders Hall of Fame center, doesn't need to wait for any possible Fuqua revelation. Forty years later, Otto firmly believes the touchdown Franco Harris scored for the Steelers in their improbable, 13-7 playoff victory against Oakland at Three Rivers Stadium shouldn't have counted.
"I saw that happen and I said, 'No." I'm saying to myself, 'No, that's incomplete,' " said Otto, who also said he had a clear view of the epic Dec. 23, 1972 play from where he stood on the sideline. "It bounced off Fuqua's chest, and Franco is not allowed to pick it up and run with it."
With the Steelers down, 7-6, with 22 seconds left and facing fourth-and-10 at their own 40, Terry Bradshaw desperately threw the ball downfield to Fuqua, a Steelers running back who was closely covered by Jack Tatum. Fuqua and Tatum collided as the ball arrived, and it careened back to Harris, a rookie running back who scooped it up from his shoe tops and completed a winning, 60-yard touchdown reception.
Under NFL rules at the time, had only Fuqua touched the ball before it got to Harris, the play would have been dead. But the officials ruled it a touchdown, meaning they believed it had hit Tatum.
"It was right in front of me," said Otto, 74, who lives in Auburn, Calif., outside Sacramento. "I was watching everything happen. And, yes, indeed I saw it pop off [Fuqua's] chest ... You could hear it, the pads right here. 'Whack!' "
Otto heard plenty more after that. He said there was nearly a 15-minute delay after Harris had crossed the goal line before the officials sorted out matters and finally signaled touchdown.
During that time, Otto looked into the stands. He feared for his safety, hearing what the fans were yelling and how they were acting.
"They had been drinking Ballantine all day," said Otto, referring to a once-popular beer. "They were pretty crazed."
So Otto plotted an escape route just in case the officials were to rule Harris' touchdown didn't count.
"There was a little step," Otto said. "The bleachers were [a few feet] off the ground. There were like two steps down to the ground. And I looked around and I saw I could get underneath there ... If the officials had scored it incomplete, that's where I'd have went because the field would have been inundated with Steelers fans and someone would have really gotten hurt ... But it didn't happen that way. We lost a game that we should have won."
So instead of Oakland moving on to face Miami in the AFC championship, it was the Steelers. They lost, 21-17, to the Dolphins, who went on to complete an undefeated season with a win against Washington in Super Bowl VII.
But Otto, whose team ended Miami's 18-game winning streak in '73, believes the Raiders would have beaten the Dolphins in '72 had they gotten past the Steelers. For a long time, the defeat rankled Otto, who completed a 15-year playing career in '74 without having won a Super Bowl.
"It was very sad," Otto said. "Emotionally, I was very upset. And I was upset for over a month after. I was upset for years."
Otto said it was similar with Oakland owner Al Davis, even though his Raiders went on to win three Super Bowl titles over the next dozen years. Otto said Davis, who died in '11, never got over the '72 loss.
The Raiders also got a tough call against them in the AFC championship in January '02, when the "Tuck Rule" on instant replay determined New England quarterback Tom Brady should have been called for an incompletion rather than a fumble. So which of the plays irritated Davis more?
"I would say the Immaculate Reception," Otto said.
After that game, Otto went to a bar at the Pittsburgh airport before the Raiders flew back to California. Some Steelers players, including Harris and running back Rocky Bleier, arrived and attempted to speak with Otto in a conciliatory manner.
"I couldn't talk to them," Otto said.
"I was actually crying in my beer. I was really upset."
Otto, though, doesn't hold any grudges against Steelers players. He called Harris, whom he regularly sees at Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, a "good guy."
Otto also has no problem with Fuqua. But he's not counting on Fuqua making a definitive statement on the Immaculate Reception.
"He's no dummy,"Otto said. "He's not going to say, 'Yeah, the ball went off me.' "
First Published October 7, 2012 12:00 am