It’s the Pittsburgh equivalent of “I caught a fish that was THIS big” that grows larger each time the story is told. Despite a Three Rivers Stadium capacity of 59,000, everyone who lived within the Pittsburgh city limits claims to have watched Franco Harris scoop the ball out of the air, run past the Oakland Raiders’ defense, and make the greatest play in NFL history.
Just months old in 1972, Tomlin doesn’t remember the play though he knows its meaning. And fans have kept him well-informed over the years.
“I was in Section 135 that day,” Tomlin joked via the team’s YouTube channel. “I was eight months old…surprisingly I probably met 75,000 people that were there that day. It’s just one of those beautiful things in the history of our game and it’s humbling to be in close proximity to it.”
The Immaculate Reception is the greatest play in football history – no arguably qualifier needed here – and it rung in a new Steelers’ era. Lovable losers no longer, though Pittsburgh didn’t hoist a Lombardi that year, it was the line in the sand that marked the old from the new. After decades of futility, Pittsburgh turned into champions, a dynasty in the 70s that won four Super Bowls and become a model of the NFL from there on out.
That game and moment will be celebrated this Saturday, a Christmas Eve game against the Raiders – now in Las Vegas – on the 50th year anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. To commemorate the moment, the Steelers will wear throwback jerseys and a special patch on their jersey. Though both teams have had underwhelming seasons, it’s a contest with everything on the line. The winner keeps playoff hopes alive. The loser sees their season mathematically end.
But panning out from that view, Tomlin knows how much Franco’s play meant to the franchise.
“The career that it spawned in Franco, a gold jacket career. What it did for them that season in terms of changing the trajectory of the season. What it’s done for this franchise. There’s many things that make it the play that it is. The most significant play in the history of our game.”
A nice moment for Tomlin who doesn’t often delve into football history during these press conferences the way Bill Belichick famously does. Tomlin is a history buff and undoubtedly appreciates the game but he’s generally focused on the present in these pressers so the chance to look back is cool to hear.
While Pittsburgh would go on to lose the following week to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, it vaulted the team into Super Bowl contention. After falling to the Raiders in 1973, the Steelers went on their first Super Bowl run in ’74, capturing their first of four Lombardi’s that decade. Even without the Immaculate Reception, the Steelers would’ve gone on to be a force.
But that play so neatly and clearly defined a moment, a changing of the guard, something that’s unlikely to happen again in sports’ history. One that should be celebrated every year but especially so Saturday night. And there’s nothing more Tomlin and the Steelers want to do but cap the night off with a win.
Maybe this time, Kenny Pickett will run around, heave down the middle of the field for Pat Freiermuth, have it hit off safety Duron Harmon, and the ball bounce back into Najee Harris’ arms to do the rest. You never know.