About That Franco Harris “Immaculate Reception,” the Greatest NFL Play of All Time

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Patrick Gray headlined “About That ‘Immaculate Reception'”:

It’s been half a century since professional-football fans were treated to one of the wildest finishes in the sport’s history. Yet few fans fully understand the religious undertones behind what is now known as the “Immaculate Reception.”

On Dec. 23, 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers were trailing the Oakland Raiders 7-6 with 22 seconds left in their first-round playoff matchup. Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass on fourth down and 10. Barely avoiding a sack, he flung a desperation pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua halfway down the field. Oakland safety Jack “The Assassin” Tatum arrived as the pass reached Mr. Fuqua. His bruising hit sent the ball caroming 10 yards back. That’s when Steeler fullback Franco Harris scooped it out of the air right before it hit the turf and, without breaking stride, ran the remaining 60 yards for the winning touchdown. A local announcer dubbed it the “Immaculate Reception.”

The name stuck, and the memory of those wild seconds remains alive to this day. A statue of Harris, who died Tuesday at 72, greets travelers at Pittsburgh International Airport. I can even recall the play being featured decades ago in a commercial for Popeye’s Chicken. (Alas, this memory from my childhood is nowhere to be found on the internet.) A few years ago the NFL Network ranked the Immaculate Reception as the greatest play of all time.

Most will recognize the name as a play on the Immaculate Conception but may not understand what this phrase means in Roman Catholic teaching. It isn’t a reference to Christmas or even to the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ origins, of which the Virgin Mary was informed nine months earlier by the angel Gabriel, an episode called the Annunciation.

Rather, the Immaculate Conception deals with the birth of Mary herself. Pope Pius IX formally defined the doctrine in 1854, stating that Mary, “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ . . . was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.” The Catholic Church celebrates it as a feast day on Dec. 8. It is hard to imagine anyone connecting this doctrine to the world of sports, if only because so few people would catch the allusion, much less appreciate the subtle theological distinction between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth.

That Mary’s own birth was extraordinary isn’t explicit in the New Testament. Yet it can be seen at a very early stage in the history of the church. The “Protevangelium of James,” a document not included in the Bible but popular among Christians in the second century, describes the wonder of her parents, Joachim and Anne, when their prayers are answered by the arrival of an auspicious child after years of barrenness. The Quran likewise describes Mary’s birth as a providential event.

Whatever one makes of this ancient narrative, its author and audience were reflecting on the implications of their beliefs and values. For Catholics, it is key that the special status of Mary derives from her role in the life of Jesus. The full significance of the baby she would bear was surely unknown to her. Parents of all times and places can relate, even if their children won’t grow up to save the world. Accepting that there are things we can’t anticipate, control or understand is a lesson better learned sooner than too late.

For the Steelers, the Immaculate Reception would portend the unexpected birth of a dynasty. They would go on to win four Super Bowls in a six-year stretch after four decades of postseason futility. Their chief rivals through the end of the 1970s were the Dallas Cowboys. That team was led by Roger Staubach, whose last-gasp touchdown pass to Drew Pearson three years later would popularize the “Hail Mary,” so named for the prayer he whispered before the snap.

In Catholic tradition, St. Jude is the official patron of desperate causes. That’s why he’s the namesake for the renowned pediatric cancer research hospital. But on the gridiron on Sunday afternoons, it appears Mother Mary is the miracle worker.

Patrick Gray is a professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., and editor of “The Cambridge Companion to the New Testament.”

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