Since the Raiders aren’t playing in the Super Bowl come February 7, 2010, it's time for another Raider history lesson. Listen up and I’ll tell how we lost a most famous game to the zebras.
“There’s no zebras in the NFL,” you say? “There’s bears, lions, seahawks, falcons…but no zebras!?” Oh yes my friends, you know there are zebras. The name "zebra" comes from the Old Portuguese word zevra which means "wild ass."
A whole bunch of them appear at every NFL game. And most Raiders fans have complained bitterly about the zebras costing us games. And there was no more bitter complaint than the game I’m going to remind you of. I think you’ve heard of that game. Its known today as the “Immaculate Reception.” But what you may not have heard of or maybe forgotten about is that the Steelers didn’t win that game—the zebras did. Here’s the low down.
This was an AFC playoff game. It wasn’t just a regular season game. This was for all the chips. You lose, you’re out. No chance then for the Super Bowl. It was Raiders vs. Steelers, December 23, 1972 at the Steelers’ home, Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburg, PA. Remember this, it plays a role.
It was a hard fought, low scoring game. Raiders fans watching on TV and those that could make it to the game in Pittsburg were relaxing ‘cause there’s only 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter and Raiders are ahead 7-6. Alright! So many of these historic games we were behind and had to overcome a deficit to get to the win. Here, we were relaxing, but we shouldn’t have.
The Steelers have the ball, fourth down on their own 40-yard line. More reason for us Raiders to relax because they’re in their own territory and our defense has been doing great. Terry Bradshaw calls signals, RB Frenchy Fuqua goes downfield, he’s about to haul in Terry’s pass (he was a good passer, you recall). But, just as the ball gets to Frenchy, our outstanding safety Jack Tatum hits him so hard that the ball flies 15 yards back toward the Steelers. Their FB Franco Harris is running full tilt down the field and grabs the ball in stride. He eludes the few Raiders defenders in the vicinity and runs 60 yards for the touchdown. This is the Immaculate Reception.
However, there was an NFL rule at that time, that a forward pass could not be touched by more than one offensive player; to be legal, if a second offensive player catches the ball, a defender would have to touch it. The replay camera does not show crystal clear that Frenchy touched the ball—it could possibly have been hit only by Jack Tatum.
However, to all us Raider Fans glued to the TV set and sitting in the stands at Three River Stadium, it was crystal clear: Frenchy did touch the ball and then Jack Tatum “touched” him, causing the ball to fly back to Franco. Clearly an illegal forward pass under the rule, as the TV announcers reminded us over and over.
The zebras huddled and talked it over. They were not unanimous on what had happened. John Madden, the excitable Raiders’ head coach, is jumping up and down on the sideline reminding the zebras about the NFL rule. The head zebra called time for further review, walked over to the sideline to the replay booth and got on the telephone. What happened then is “the rest of the story.”
Some people said that the head zebra, Fred Swearingen, called upstairs to Art McNally the NFL zebra supervisor. But I’m here to tell you that the call Fred placed was to the head of security for Three Rivers Stadium. Zebra says, “Did you see what just happened?” “Yeah, I saw it,” the security guy says. Zebra says, “What I want to know is, if I rule the pass was illegal and overturn the touchdown, do you have enough officers to get us officials safely out of the stadium?” “No,” security guy says, “There’ll be a riot. We’d have to call for backup. The cops couldn’t get here in time and us few security guys couldn’t protect you.”
Head zebra hangs up the phone, walks back onto the field, and throws both hands up in the air: “Touchdown.”
And that my friends, is how the zebras kicked the Raiders’ ass 13-7 December 23, 1972, Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburg, PA, as a result of the most famous, most controversial play in NFL history. A Steelers’ Christmas miracle and a bummer for the Silver & Black, the Immaculate Reception!