The Story of the Catch

The Oakland Raiders at the Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC Divisional Playoff Game December 23, 1972

THE SETTING

The Pittsburgh Steelers were known as perennial losers until they hired Chuck Noll as their head coach in 1969. Coach Noll started to build his team through the draft and slowly the pieces began to come together.

In 1972, the (11-3) Steelers won their first division title for a quarter of a century. They advanced to the playoffs for only the second time where they were hosts to the (10-3-1) Oakland Raiders.

THE GAME

From the opening kick-off, two good defensive teams stamped their authority on the way the game would play out. A scoreless first two quarters set the tone. Roy Gerela’s attempt at a 52-yard field goal was the only scoring opportunity offered to either team. Gerela’s kick fell short, matching the offenses on both sides.

With a 4th and 2 on Oakland’s 31, coach Noll decided to bypass the field goal attempt and put the ball into Frenchy Fuqua’s hands to extend the series. Oakland safety Jack Tatum came over the top and stopped Fuqua in his tracks. Fuqua had hit the proverbial brick wall and Oakland had the ball back.

Gerela eventually put the Steelers ahead five minutes into the second half with an 18-yard field goal. Both defenses were stifling any play making. With a scoring opportunity as rare as an oasis in the desert, Gerela added a 29-yard field goal with less than four minutes remaining. Gerela Gorillas were confident their kicker had given Pittsburgh their first ever playoff victory. 

In an attempt to put some life into his offense, Oakland’s Coach Madden replaced Daryle Lamonica with Ken Stabler at quarterback. Stabler continued to struggle until he found one moment of magic. With the Raiders stalled on the Steelers’ 30, Stabler saw the blitzing linebackers preparing for a pass. Stabler moved to his left to evade the blitz and saw an open field.

Stabler ran the 30 yards down the sideline for the touchdown that tied the game. The successful point after kick put Oakland a point in front with 1:13 remaining.

At this low point, Steeler fans must have thought that the knack of winning was something that was always going to elude their team. Art Rooney accepted his fate and began to make his way to the locker room so he could be there to console his players.

The game was blacked out in Pittsburgh so many fans had travelled to areas where they could watch the game on television. Sitting in bars and hotel rooms watching their black and gold meet their usual fate must have been painful.

THE PLAY

The once buoyant home fans were now silent as they accepted their fate. Coach Noll had to prepare his offense to recover from ecstasy to realism. With little time remaining, the primary aim was to get the team within Gerela’s field goal range.

Franco Harris and Fuqua were again the target men as the Steelers advanced the ball to their own 40-yard line for a first down. Bradshaw’s next two passes were well defended. On third down Bradshaw attempted to hit tight end John McMakin, but it was Tatum again who came to the Raiders’ rescue and prevented the completion.

The Steelers had one last chance with 0:22 left in the game.

On the Steelers’ sideline, rookie wide receiver Barry Pearson, who had not played a down all season, remained dutifully near Lionel Taylor, his position coach. “Lionel told me to go in for Shanklin,” Pearson later said.

“Someone gave me the play to take into Bradshaw. The plan was to just get a first down.” Asked if he was nervous, Pearson chuckled, stuck his tongue in his cheek, and asked back, “Why would I be nervous?”

The play – 66 circle option – had wide receiver Al Young run an out to the left, Fuqua, a curl over the middle and McMakin, a deep post. Pearson, the primary receiver, was to run underneath McMakin, about 12 yards deep and just past the big Steelers logo at midfield. Harris was in to block.

Fourth-and-10… Bradshaw takes the snap. Under pressure, as the pocket collapses, Bradshaw avoids tackles. He desperately searches for an open receiver knowing the Steelers season had come down to this one last play. Seeing Fuqua running forward, Bradshaw launched a quick pass, but Tatum in the backfield accelerated forward and slapped the ball away.

The ball was falling incomplete. Harris came from nowhere, scooped the ball up from his boot laces and continued to run for the score and into Pittsburgh legend.

That one play, that one bounce of the ball, that one spectacular retrieval by Harris took the Same Old Steelers and put them on the road to success.

No playoff wins, and no answered prayers until December 23rd 1972.

After that date; no longer chumps.

As Franco Harris crossed the goal line, mayhem descended onto the field. The stadium exploded as the fans came to terms with the result. At last, the Steelers had won a playoff game.

The stadium exploded into a standing, screaming, flag and banner waving mass of humanity. Thousands of fans leapt from their seats onto the field, surrounding their heroes as men in another age might have paid tribute to their gladiators.

The debate goes on