Clips of great pro football games of the past were being shown on the TV screen above the fireplace at Buckskill’s Winter Club on a recent Saturday morning when I, having caught sight of Franco Harris’s “Immaculate Reception,” began to demonstrate for the women behind the counter, who were nowhere near alive at the time, how he’d done it, on one foot, and what a delight it had been for suffering Steeler fans.
If they ever went to Pittsburgh, I said — not that there would ever be an overriding reason to do so — they’d see a statue of him in the act in the airport. I’m trying to think if there’s a statue capable of eliciting such joy from its devotees anywhere else in the world.
I remember hearing the play, considered the greatest in National Football League history, broadcast on the radio, returning from Christmas shopping down the river from Pittsburgh. Radios are wonderful at such moments — your mind’s eye is free, not tethered by what’s on a screen. “Twenty-two seconds to go. The Raiders lead 7-6. Ball at the Steelers’ 40. Fourth and 10 . . . Bradshaw drops back . . .”
Of course, there was nothing immaculate about it, at least insofar as tidiness was concerned. Frenchy Fuqua, the intended receiver, and an onrushing defender, Art Tatum, collided explosively as the ball descended, and the Hail Mary Terry Bradshaw had lofted bounced high in the air many yards backward. Into the outstretched hands of Harris, who scooped the ball up just before it hit the ground, and with all Pittsburgh cheering him on, ran the rest of the way for the AFC divisional championship touchdown.
Stunning, simply stunning.
As the referees tried to make sense of it all — had the ball bounced off Tatum’s shoulder pads? Off Fuqua’s head? — ecstatic fans, not to be gainsaid by the niceties of any professional football rules, and whose ranks had to be parted so the extra point could be kicked, forged en masse onto the field. I remember running into a hair salon in Sewickley just to make sure that I had heard what I thought I’d heard. Yes, yes, and yes. We had won, we had won, we had won.
It was as if the immaculate reception had been preordained.
When I go to delight, as I advised in this column two weeks ago, that’s one of the places I go.