The Immaculate Reception / Mike Wagner: Despair, and then ...
Former Steelers player Mike Wagner talks about the Immaculate Reception.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wagner.
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A football helmet can serve as more than a device to protect a player's head. Unlike those on old GIs, you cannot cook stew in one, but you can sit on it on the sideline.
It's an uncomfortable seat, and that was OK with safety Mike Wagner and other Steelers defenders because that -- and worse -- matched their mood after they allowed the only touchdown of the game to trail the Oakland Raiders, 7-6, with 1:13 remaining at Three Rivers Stadium.
"We had just given up that touchdown to Kenny Stabler in a hard-fought game," Wagner said of the Oakland quarterback's 30-yard scramble for the score. "We went down and sat on our helmets there as our offense was trying to see if we could score a touchdown to come back."
There was hope then on the Steelers sideline?
"No, no," Wagner said firmly, recalling that he sat next to a young linebacker also in his second season, Jack Ham. "It didn't look like it was going to go our way. I was sitting there pulling tape off my wrists and my shoes."
That is the universal signal that a player's day is done.
"And all of a sudden, this play develops and there goes Franco, and the place was just bedlam, absolute bedlam," Wagner said.
Like everyone else on the Steelers sideline along with some fans from the stands, Wagner ran into the end zone to congratulate Franco Harris.
"There was just this crush of people on the field," Wagner said.
He saw the officials huddle up and he walked over and sat in the dugout behind the Steelers bench. After what he estimated to be 10 or 15 minutes, the officials ruled a touchdown and then they had to get the people off the field because there were five seconds left in the game. And then he remembered something else.
"We had to go back into the game! The defense had to go back into the game."
Wagner had one big problem with that. In the excitement after what would become known as the Immaculate Reception, the strong safety had left his seat.
"I didn't pick my helmet up when Franco went in and scored. So I don't have a helmet. I had to go in the game, I go 'holy cow!' I think I grabbed Gerry Mullins' helmet or something. I said, 'Give me a helmet.' I know it didn't fit me very well."
It was too big; Wagner's head was swimming in that helmet. He would have been better off without one.
"I said, 'Geez, if they throw the ball my way and my helmet's spinning around and I screw this all up, it's going to be a terrible story at the end.' "
The Raiders did throw one final pass, incomplete, and this time the game truly was over. Wagner, by the way, got his helmet back. While the Steelers were celebrating in their jubilant locker room, a security guard walked up to him and handed it to him. The guard told Wagner a fan had it and was trying to leave the stadium with it.
Forty years later, Wagner recalls the sting from the play that drove him and what would a few years later be known as the Steel Curtain defense to sit on their helmets in dejection.
"We were in a blitz. When you're in blitz coverage, everyone's locked on man receivers. All the routes were to the offense's right. We lost containment.
"Stabler, who is left-handed, is backing out and sliding left. He never runs. All of a sudden, he starts running. We're coached not to turn around. We know the ball's going somewhere else. By the time I figured it out, I was probably halfway across the other side of the field. Kenny was running down toward the sideline.
"If you look at the replay, I probably could have clotheslined him as he crossed the end zone but just didn't get there."
Thinking of how the game ultimately was won and what might have been if one defender -- just one -- had gotten to Stabler before he reached the end zone, Wagner said, "It was probably a good thing we didn't tackle him on the 1-yard line."
First Published September 30, 2012 12:00 am