In the minutes before the insanity, the teenager alone in the Davis home in Piedmont had lost his sanity. The game was over, his beloved Raiders had won, and he was sprinting about the house yelling and screaming and bouncing on the furniture.

Exactly 40 years later, Mark Davis is the team's managing general partner and his childhood memory remains. He vividly recalls how those moments of unrestrained joy turned to overwhelming sorrow somehow quickly and slowly at once.

"I went absolutely berserk," he says. "I went from room to room, jumping on the beds, jumping on the couch.

"Then I came back down to watch, you know, the end of it. And all of a sudden ... it was like sudden death."

It certainly was for the Raiders' 1972 season. They had been buried by one final and incredibly shocking turn of events, the kind of play not seen before or since in the NFL.

Now commonly referred to as the "Immaculate Reception," the controversial play that Davis and millions of football fans can't forget took place on Dec. 23, 1972, and has a distinctive place in football lore. It occurred on the last play of the AFC Divisional playoff game between Oakland and Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium.

Of the many painful moments in Raiders history, none is more haunting or agonizing.

"It's something that lives on," Davis says. "And it's a dagger every time you see it."


Advertisement

Former Raiders safety George Atkinson, on the field that day, has spent the past 40 years referring to the play as the "Immaculate Deception."

Legendary John Madden, Oakland's head coach at the time, remains ticked off about it. Though he has in the past made clear his disgust with the call, when NFL Network approached him this year for an interview for the documentary "Immaculate Reception," part of the network's "A Football Life" series, the affable former coach declined.

"That play bothered me then, bothers me today and will bother me until the day I die," Madden told NFL Films 26 years ago.

"The Raiders can see it as a crime," episode producer Neil Zender recently told USA Today, "and the Steelers can see it as the hand of God."

With 22 seconds remaining and Oakland leading 7-6, Pittsburgh was facing fourth-and-10 from its 40-yard line. Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw faded back, escaped the clutches of defensive end Horace Jones and fired a pass downfield toward running back John "Frenchy" Fuqua.

As the pass reached Fuqua, Raiders safety Jack Tatum simultaneously slammed into the receiver. The ball, deflected by one or both players -- depending on whom you ask -- ricocheted back toward Steelers fullback Franco Harris, who was trailing the play. He scooped it up at the Oakland 42 and raced into the end zone.

Was it a touchdown? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Was the game over? Maybe. Maybe not.

"It took them so long to make a decision," Davis recalls, shaking his head at the memory.

Though Davis often did odd jobs on the Raiders sideline at selected games, home and away, he was a high school student and did not accompany the team on three-day road trips. He had the family home to himself on that day because his parents, team owner Al Davis and his wife, Carol, were attending the game in Pittsburgh.

So there was this kid, drained of jubilation, wondering what would become of the team he'd always considered a part of his family and the players he worshipped. He mourned along with Raiders throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

There were two pertinent questions in the wake of the play, and there was no clear answer either.

Did Tatum touch the ball? If he did, it might be a legal play. If not, it was an incomplete pass. The rules at the time did not allow "double touches," with the ball deflected directly from one offensive teammate to another.

Did Harris catch the ball? Some say he did, while others insist he trapped it. Game video from several cameras does not provide conclusive evidence.

When asked about it afterward, Harris claimed he didn't know. That Harris has not changed his story over the years only deepens the mystery.

There was at the time no instant replay, and certainly no official review. Referee Fred Swearingen halted the action and there was on-field discussion among the crew. Swearingen eventually walked away to phone the press box and speak with Art McNally, the supervisor of officials for the NFL.

Was Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano clipped, as many asserted? Were the officials concerned for their safety, as some Raiders insisted?

Sometime later, as much as 20 minutes according to witnesses, Swearingen signaled a touchdown. Pittsburgh had the lead and, well, the victory that sent it into the AFC Championship game.

The Raiders trudged off the field, as stunned and angry as the owner's son, who was more than 2,000 miles away and on the brink of tears.

Mark Davis also braced for the late-night return of his parents. Though his mother generally maintained a sense of perspective, his father was a notoriously driven football man who would not be satisfied by anything less than a Super Bowl title.

There was no epic blowup, relatively speaking.

"It was kind of the same as usual," Mark Davis says, "I don't know if it was any different after that game than many other times. With my dad, there was always the 'us-against-them' attitude, that we were getting screwed in any situation if there was a chance for it."

No, the pleasure was in Pittsburgh. It was then, still is now.

While the Raiders lament and denounce this moment in history -- Villapiano insists he was clipped but credits Harris for making a clean catch -- the Pittsburgh continuously celebrates it. The "Immaculate Reception" has been reenacted by the principals, complete with Harris jogging toward the end zone in a ball cap and street clothes. It's one of the main attractions at the Pittsburgh satellite of the Smithsonian Institution, film of the play running every five minutes, every day, every year.

At Pittsburgh International Airport, there are two large statues in the main terminal. One is of George Washington. The other is of Harris in the familiar pose, bent at the waist, gripping the ball above his shoe tops.

"I still believe we should have won that game," Davis says. "But when you go to the airport in Pittsburgh, you know they feel different.

"And the thing that kills me is it's replayed every year. Then you walk into the Pittsburgh airport and there's Franco catching the (expletive) ball. It doesn't go away."

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/1montepoole.