I am a San Francisco 49ers Fan and have an interest in NFL history. I remember vividly December 23, 1972.
The date was December 23, 1972. The Vietnam War was still raging and the remnants of the Flower Power Movement still existed in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco.
But on this day in the San Francisco Bay Area, the air was filled with anticipation. Christmas was only two days away, and to add to the excitement, the two Bay Area football teams (San Francisco 49ers and Oakland (Now Las Vegas) Raiders) had divisional playoff games. But when the Bay Area awoke on that fateful day, they had no idea that both teams would suffer excruciating losses, the effects of which can still be felt to this very day.
The lineup had the Raiders playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh while the 49ers would host the Dallas Cowboys.
Oakland Raiders vs Pittsburgh Steelers
The game between the Raiders and Steelers was a matchup of teams with very different histories. The Steelers had not been in a playoff game since 1947 and this was only their second playoff game in the team’s history, which began in 1933. However, in 1972, the Steelers, under their new Coach Chuck Noll, had assembled a group of young players that would form the core of the Steelers Dynasty of the 1970s.
Conversely, the Raiders had been perennial playoff participants in the old American Football League (AFL) in the late 60s, going to the Super Bowl in 1967 and reaching the AFL Championship Game in 1968 and 1969. They would again reach the championship game in 1970, which was the first year of the merger of the National Football League (NFL) and AFL. The Raiders, however, were not yet able to quite get over the hump and win a Super Bowl.
As the game began, it quickly turned into a defensive struggle with the Steelers “Steel Curtain” defense shutting out the Raiders into the fourth quarter. The Steelers were only able to muster two field goals themselves and held a slim 6-0 lead. With less than two minutes to go, a young Kenny Stabler ran 30 yards to score the first touchdown of the game and give the Raiders a 7-6 lead.
The Steelers had a little more than a minute left to try and move into field goal range against a defense that had been tough all day. The Steelers soon faced a fourth and long with just a few seconds left in the game. The play that occurred next is considered by most to be the most famous play in NFL history.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw went back to pass and as the rush began to close in, he threw a desperation pass toward John Fuqua. As the ball got to Fuqua, so did Raider safety Jack Tatum. The ball, Tatum, and Fuqua all collided together, causing the ball to be deflected back toward the line of scrimmage. Rookie running back Franco Harris caught the ball a few inches above the ground in full stride and proceeded to run the remaining 40 plus yards into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
The improbability of this play occurring when it did cannot be overstated. If this play would have occurred in the first quarter of a regular season game, it would still have been remembered as one of the most bizarre plays in National Football League (NFL) history. But for this play to occur not just in a playoff game, not just in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, not just in the last two minutes of a playoff game, and not just on first, second, or third down of a final desperation drive, but on fourth down made this play almost mythical in nature. The name that the play was eventually called, “The Immaculate Reception,” likens the play to a miracle.
Under current NFL rules, the play clearly would have been legal. However, the play was further complicated by a rule that existed in the NFL at that time, which prohibited a forward pass from being touched by two consecutive offensive players. So if the ball had been last touched by Jack Tatum before being caught by Franco Harris, it would have been legal. However, had John Fuqua touched the ball last, it would not have been a legal play.
Shortly after the play occurred, chaos reigned at Three Rivers Stadium. It seemed that no one, including the referees, were able to comprehend what had occurred, and more importantly, whether the play was legal. As Raiders head coach John Madden said in the book Madden by Bryan Burwell:
“My argument was the officials didn’t call anything, they didn’t say or call it a touchdown. They didn’t say it wasn’t a touchdown. They didn’t say a thing. Instead they went and had a conference”.
After the officials had a lengthy conference and called upstairs to the supervisor of officials, they called it a touchdown. For the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh, it was utter jubilation, but for the Raiders, it was a living nightmare. The game had been taken from them in the most unimaginable way.
Looking back at this game, it was significant to the Raiders past, present, and future in a number of ways. As far as the past, the game represented the most painful loss in a series of playoff losses that the Raiders had endured over the previous five years. For the present and immediate future, the game signified the beginning of a bitter rivalry between the Raiders and the Steelers during the decade of the 70s, when the two teams would vie for NFL superiority. The teams would meet in the playoffs five times during the decade of the 70s.
But maybe the most significant impact the game had on the Raiders was the lasting memory of “The Immaculate Reception.” Over the years, it has been replayed from every possible angle, utilizing every available camera. ESPN did a documentary in 2017 called Immaculate Reception- A Football Life, where they revealed the NBC broadcast footage of the play which had somehow gone missing for approximately 25 years. However, despite all the investigations, there has never been a conclusive photo that would reveal whether or not the play was legal. As a result, the Raiders have never really been able to have closure regarding the play.
The fact that there has never been clear evidence of the legality of the play probably only adds to its mystique. But for a number of Raiders who were there that day, the play will never really be accepted. In the book Madden, John Madden states:
“I maintain that the ball is on Fuqua’s arm and it flew out when Tatum hit him from behind. I still say Tatum doesn’t touch it”
In the NFL Films documentary, Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, who was guarding Harris on the play, indicated he believed that Fuqua touched the ball last. Safety George Atkinson and cornerback Willie Brown also said they believed the play was illegal. Former Raiders owner Al Davis, who died four decades after the play, was still convinced it was illegal at the time of his death.
I think anybody in the Raiders organization and any Raiders fan who witnessed this game would concur that it was the toughest loss in franchise history.
Dallas Cowboys vs San Francisco 49ers
Although the Raiders and 49ers have distinctly different fan bases, in 1972 there were quite a number of people who were fans of both teams. Those fans were trying to digest what had just occurred in the Raiders/Steelers game and at the same time focus on the upcoming 49ers/Cowboys game.
This matchup involved the Cowboys, who were regular playoff participants in the late 60s and early 70s and had just won the Super Bowl the previous year. The 49ers franchise, which began in 1946, had only two postseason appearances until 1970. The 49ers won the Western Conference three years in a row between 1970 and 1972. The 49ers and Cowboys had played in the National Football Conference (NFC) Championship Game the previous two years and the Cowboys had won both times. So for the 49ers, this game represented a chance to get some retribution for those two losses.
The game began with an electric start for the 49ers as Vic Washington returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. The 49ers would build up a 21-3 lead in the first half and 28-13 lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Craig Morton had started at quarterback for the Cowboys, but late in the third quarter, coach Tom Landry turned to a young Roger Staubach.
Energized under Staubach, the Cowboys would get a field goal and then a touchdown to bring the score to 28-23 with approximately a minute and half left. Having burned their time outs, the only chance Dallas had to get the ball back was an on-side kick. This on-side kick is certainly not as famous as the “Immaculate Reception,” but for 49ers fans who witnessed the play, it was something that they wouldn't soon forget.
The on-side kick would be fumbled by Preston Riley and recovered by Dallas. Dallas would then march down the field and score the go ahead touchdown. The 49ers still had a little time but were unable to move the ball into field goal range. For 49ers fans like myself, it was devastating. To lose like that and to lose to Dallas for a third straight year was rubbing salt in an open wound.
Looking back, this game was significant in a number ways. First, it signaled the end of a three-year reign for the 49ers in the NFC West. After this game, the 49ers would enter a period of decline that would last the rest of the decade. It is hard to know how much that game had to do with their decline, but it likely had some effect on it.
The game also launched the great career of Roger Staubach as the undisputed starting quarterback for the Cowboys and signaled the end for the long time 49ers quarterback John Brodie, who would retire after the following season.
For the 49ers players, organization, and fans, this game forever created a dislike for and rivalry with Dallas. I suspect that the rivalry was elevated on the Dallas side nine years later when the 49ers beat Dallas in the NFC Championship Game in the game best known for Dwight Clark's catch. The 49ers would go on to become the dominant team in the NFL during the 1980s after the Cowboys had been the dominant team, at least in the National Football Conference (NFC), during the 1970s.
The Cowboys/49ers rivalry, which was chronicled in the 2015 NFL Films Documentary A Tale of Two Cities, is sort of a unique rivalry, maybe akin to the Celtics/Lakers rivalry. They aren’t in the same division where they would play each other often like the Yankees and Red Sox or Packers and Bears. Their not geographically near each other like the Cubs and White Sox or Jets and Giants. They are just two teams that have tended to be good at the same time and have met in the postseason in big games.
After playing in three straight playoff games in the early 70s, they would play again in the NFC Championship Game in 1981. Then in the early 90s, they would play in three straight NFC Championship Games (1992-1994). The Cowboys and 49ers have played each other in six NFC Championship Games since the merger of the AFL and NFL in 1970. The most times any two other teams have faced each other in a championship game (AFC or NFC) since 1970 is three.
Since January 1995 the Cowboys and 49ers have not met in the postseason. However, I believe that this rivalry is not dead, it is just in hibernation until the next postseason matchup. But you can trace the roots of the rivalry to that infamous “Dark Day by the Bay.”