The Debate goes on

Pittsburgh Press photo

Amidst all the pandemonium as fans engulfed Franco Harris, the officials had to decide whether the play was legal or not because of the rule at the time.

The NFL rule stated that once an offensive player touches a pass, he is the only offensive player eligible to catch the pass. However, if a defensive player touches the pass “first, or simultaneously with or subsequent to its having been touched by only one offensive player, then all offensive players become and remain eligible” to catch the pass. The rule was rescinded in 1978.

Dan Rooney describes what happened after the touchdown in his book, “My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL.”

“Just then the press box phone rings. It’s on the wall right where I’m standing, so I answer it. It’s Jim Boston, our man on the field, calling from the baseball dugout. He tells me he’s got Fred Swearingen (the referee) standing right next to him. Boston says Swearingen wants to talk to Art McNally, the supervisor of officials.

Dan Rooney calls McNally over to the phone and in answer to a question from the referee replies, ‘Well, you have to call what you saw. You have to make the call. Talk to your people and make the call.’

The officials are huddled on the 30-yard line. I know the rule: If the ball bounced off Tatum before Harris caught it, then the play stands and it’s a touchdown. If the ball bounced off Frenchy, then it’s incomplete.

Finally, Swearingen steps away from the other officials and raise his arms to signal a touchdown. The press box goes wild, papers fly, reporters yell at each other and I run for the elevator to the locker room.”


“Santa Finds Steeler Fans Early,” read the front page headline in the next day’s (Christmas day) edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The newspaper suggested that Steeler fans would forever believe in Santa Claus.

It was a wild scene as men with infants in arms, young girls, and thousands of boys and young men of all ages ran over the field, jumping and hugging each other.


In a reference to his love of horse racing, the Post-Gazette said that Art Rooney won the biggest photo finish of his life but didn’t see it happen. The “Prez” had headed for the dressing room with the situation apparently hopeless to console his players.

“It seems unfair,” John Madden said, not just once, but he repeats it seven times. “How can you lose like that? We know it’s fourth down, their last play and that freak thing happens. What do you say about a thing like that?” 

Jack Tatum, who had gloriously batted two passes away in the last series only to knock the big one into Franco Harris’ low scoop, sits in a pitiful corner with George Atkinson and Willie Brown. “I didn’t touch the ball,” Tatum says. “And if it touches him (Fuqua), it’s an illegal pass.”

Atkinson, tearful, still in full kit long after his teammates had showered, “We fight for four ****ing quarters and this happens.“ Brown pleads, “C’mon, take your stuff off base.”  

(From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Christmas Eve edition 1972)        


Oakland’s Coach Madden never got over the call.

“In the history of football, when a guy crosses the goal line, it’s either a touchdown or it’s not,” Madden said when asked about the play during a 1980s interview. “They didn’t know if it was a touchdown.”

“I went out, they said, ‘Get away, we don’t know what happened.’ So now, the referee leaves the huddle and he goes over to the dugout, on the Pittsburgh Steelers side, and gets on the phone, and he makes a call to someone. Then he hangs up, and then he walks out the middle of the field and signals touchdown, some five or ten minutes later. They said that they didn’t look at replay, they didn’t do anything. I still don’t know who they made the phone call to because they won’t admit it…that question has never been answered to this day.”

While the Raiders had suffered several painful playoff losses prior to that game, Madden’s son, Joe, said that his father’s loss in Pittsburgh was on an entirely different level.

And when you fly into Pittsburgh there is the permanent reminder of the most memorable moment in NFL hisoty just before you take the escalator to the People Mover.