There was something immaculate about the start of the sprint through the 1970s that crowned the Pittsburgh Steelers the team of the decade.
That would be the “Immaculate Reception” – a play that delivered the Steelers the first playoff victory in the 39-year history of the franchise.
Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham visits the Talk of Fame Network this week as part of our “5 Games” series of podcasts highlighting five significant games in his career. Tony Dungy, Willie Lanier and Tom Flores have previously been featured on the “5 Games” podcast.
The first stop in Ham’s five games is the Immaculate Reception game, Pittsburgh’s 13-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC semifinals thanks to a 60-yard touchdown reception by Franco Harris on fourth-and 10 in the closing seconds. That play remains shrouded in controversy almost 50 years later – did the deflected pass bounce off Oakland safety Jack Tatum or Pittsburgh running back Frenchy Fuqua?
Ham didn’t see the play live. He recalled sitting on the Pittsburgh bench at the time cutting the tape off his cleats in anticipation of a 7-6 loss. But he recalls seeing the winning touchdown pass over and over and over again on tape.
“I will always say it was a good catch,” Ham said. “If you run that play back frame-by-frame — and I’m sure a lot of people have – that is a close one to call. In today’s day and age, it would be the call-on-the-field stands. It was such a close, close call. That is still very difficult to see whether in fact Tatum hit that ball or not.”
It was so close a call that it took officials better than 15 minutes to study replays and determine that the play was in fact a touchdown.
“With all the euphoria on the field, I didn’t think the officials would have the guts to call that an incomplete pass or a deflection,” Ham said. “Self-preservation is our most natural instinct and I think the referees on that play decided that was the case.”
Ham went on to become one of the game’s greatest linebackers, earning a spot on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. But he almost didn’t make it to Pittsburgh. Ham revealed the two teams that told him they would draft him in the first round of the 1971 NFL draft – but did not, allowing him to slide to the Steelers in the second round. Ham also talks about how the NFL draft paved the path to the franchise’s dynasty, the light bulb going on that season for what would become the Steel Curtain defensive unit and what that victory over the Raiders told the Steelers about themselves.
“It told us we were on our way, that the arrow was pointing up for this team and this franchise to win a game like that,” Ham said. “It set the tone for this football team and gave us the confidence you need to have in winning a playoff game. It gave us that kind of experience for a young football team to carry forward. We always felt the arrow was pointing up.”
In the next podcast, we’ll talk with Ham about the most significant game by the Steelers in the 1970 decade – their 1974 AFC championship game victory in Oakland over the Raiders. Subscribe to our podcast and listen for free at @ iTunes or VokalNow.com