The NFL’s Greatest Day (McFarland, 2019)
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Few lists of greatest NFL plays are complete without a mention of the ‘Immaculate Reception’, the Franco Harris touchdown catch that gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a last second home playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders. Trailing 7-6 with 22 seconds left in the 1972 Divisional round, Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw made a desperate throw to running back Frenchy Fuqua that deflected off Raiders safety Jack Tatum and wound up in the hands of Harris.
Less discussed is the other playoff game that day, December 23, 1972, between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. Down 28-13 at the end of the third quarter in San Francisco, the Cowboys replaced starting QB Craig Morton with Roger Staubach and scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win. An onside kick recovery and a touchdown with 52 seconds remaining ensured a second incredible finish in one afternoon.
It was, argues Brad Schultz, the greatest day in NFL history. He explains the background to both games, details how the games themselves unfolded and looks at the aftermath. Ironically, after such remarkable comebacks, both teams lost in their respective championship games.
It’s strange how little has been written about the Cowboys-49ers game. The only significant account I could find was in Jeff Meyers’ Great Teams, Great Years: Dallas Cowboys. As Schultz says, it’s been overshadowed by the game played earlier that day, which has been covered at length.
You could probably assemble a book about the Immaculate Reception purely by anthologising everything that’s been written about it. Kevin Cook’s The Last Headbangers has a chapter on it, as do Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work and Peter Richmond’s Badasses. You’ll also find it covered in Michael MacCambridge’s Chuck Noll and Bryan Burwell’s Madden, among others.
Nevertheless, Schultz does find some new ground to cover. Anyone who’s read about the 1970s Steelers knows about Franco’s Italian Army but while recounting that story Schultz has a section on Frank Sinatra visiting the Steelers in practice, which I hadn’t heard. He also has a good chapter on Jim Baker who has the ball with which Harris scored. At least, he probably does. It’s impossible to verify.
The NFL’s Greatest Day is at its best when Schultz zooms-in on these details. The chapter on Preston Riley, the 49ers receiver who couldn’t hold the onside kick, allowing the Cowboys to recover it for their winning drive. He never stopped blaming himself.
Where it’s less successful is when Schultz is providing background that is better read elsewhere, such as the chapter on the Steelers under Art Rooney senior, which races from the 1930s up to the 1972 season. Other chapters wander unnecessarily into the future. The one on the Cowboys-49ers rivalry, for example, covers games the teams played in the 1990s.
This would be fine in a longer book but The NFL’s Greatest Day is just 164 pages, so these digressions leave it feeling overly broad. The Raiders-Steelers game itself is covered in just 16 pages, most of which is devoted to the Immaculate Reception and the question of whether the ball bounced off Fuqua or Tatum. If it was the former then the rules at the time would have ruled out the touchdown because two players of the same team were not allowed to consecutively touch a forward pass.
That whole section is worth reading; to this day the only person who knows for sure who touched the ball is Fuqua and he’s not saying. But it would have been interesting to read more depth on the game itself. The first half is dismissed as “a parade of incompletions, defensive stops and punts” and covered in barely a page. A book focused solely on two games should discuss them in more detail.
Fans of the teams involved in the games will find this a quick, informative read that may fill in some gaps in their knowledge. Those with a particular interest in the NFL of the 1970s should also take a look.
Photo: Arvind Grover