In the decades before 22-year-old rookie Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception—considered the greatest play in NFL history—the Pittsburgh Steelers were mostly awful. From its inception in 1933 to 1971, the team posted seven winning records and no playoff victories. 

"They were a poem that didn't rhyme," says Bill Hillgrove, the team's longtime radio play-by-play broadcaster. "Hapless, helpless and hopeless," says Pro Football Hall of Fame sportswriter and NFL historian Ray Didinger. 

In the 1960s, the Steelers bottomed out with records of 2-12 (1965), 4-9-1 (1967), 2-11-1 (1968) and 1-13 (1969). 

Then, on December 23, 1972, Harris—backed by an "army" that included one of the world's most famous entertainers—dramatically altered the sad Steelers narrative with a miraculous, and controversial, touchdown catch.

'Franco's Italian Army' Inducts Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra was inducted into Franco Harris' Italian Army in 1972.
Bettman Archives via Getty Images
Frank Sinatra was inducted into Franco Harris' Italian Army in 1972.

After a disastrous 1969 season under 37-year-old rookie head coach Chuck Noll, the Steelers won five games in 1970 and six the next season. By 1971, the roster included defensive tackle Joe Greene, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, cornerback Mel Blount and linebacker Jack Ham—all future Hall of Famers. 

But the Steelers sought a running back to take pressure off Bradshaw.

In the 1972 draft, Pittsburgh wanted to fill the major hole in the first round but was conflicted on whom to select. Art Rooney Jr., the personnel director and son of the Steelers' owner, wanted Penn State's Harris. But Noll wanted Robert Newhouse, a stocky University of Houston running back. Rooney Jr. won out.

On February 1, 1972, Pittsburgh drafted Harris, a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder, with the 13th pick in the first round. In the next day's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, sports editor Al Abrams wrote: "[Harris] could be a good target for Terry Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty in the passing department, a matter that won't be overlooked."

In 1972, Harris rushed for 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns, won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and captivated Steelers faithful everywhere. Local fans Al Vento and Tony Stagno formed "Franco's Italian Army" to cheer Harris, the product of an African American father and Italian American mother. 

At home games, the army wore World War II helmet liners, drank Italian wine from goblets and feasted on homemade Italian cuisine in the stands. 

In mid-December, on the cusp of clinching their first playoff appearance since 1947, the Steelers were in California preparing for a game against the San Diego Chargers. In a swanky restaurant in Palm Springs, Myron Cope—the team's colorful radio broadcaster and a Pittsburgh TV sportscaster—was dining with colleagues. In walked Frank Sinatra, Ol' Blue Eyes himself.

On a mission to induct Sinatra into Harris' army, Cope scrawled a note on a cocktail napkin to the renowned singer. "We are a bunch of newspaper and Steelers front office bums out here with the Steelers," Cope recalled writing. "I'm sure you heard of Franco's Italian Army. I hope I'm not disturbing you, but I would like to invite you to practice tomorrow to induct you as a 1-star general."

Sinatra accepted.

At practice, while members of the army watched from the side, Noll waved his rookie star over to meet with Sinatra. Army members passed around wine, cheese and prosciutto. Everyone kissed The Chairman of the Board. "Like kissing God," said five-star general Stagno. Sinatra was officially inducted into the army. 

Days later, the Steelers beat the Chargers to cap an 11-3 regular season and clinch their first playoff berth in 25 years.

December 23, 1972: The 'Immaculate Reception' Game

Pittsburgh Steelers fans mobbed rookie Franco Harris after he scored on the "Immaculate Reception."
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Pittsburgh Steelers fans mobbed rookie Franco Harris after he scored on the 'Immaculate Reception.'

At Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh on December 23, 1972, the Steelers met the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the playoffs. Led by their bold, Brooklyn-born owner Al Davis, the Raiders were formidable on offense. The Steelers' offense, meanwhile, relied on a grind-it-out approach led by Bradshaw and Harris. Both teams featured punishing defenses.

"When you walked off the field, you knew you had been in a game," Oakland coach John Madden told NFL Films years later about the defenses. "You didn't go dancing that night." 

Late into the fourth quarter, the Steelers led, 6-0, on field goals by Roy Gerela. With 1 minute and 17 seconds left, Oakland quarterback Kenny "The Snake" Stabler ran 30 yards for tying score. The extra point by 45-year-old George Blanda gave Oakland the lead.

On its final possession, Pittsburgh faced a fourth and 10 from its 40-yard line with 22 seconds left and no timeouts. Pittsburgh radio play-by-play man Jack Fleming described what happened next:

"Bradshaw's running out of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to ... He fires it downfield, and there's a collision! It's caught out of the air! The ball is pulled in by Franco Harris! Harris is going for a touchdown for Pittsburgh!"

At Oakland's 35-yard line, Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum had crashed into Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua, apparently hitting the football, which ricocheted toward Harris, who caught it inches off the turf and ran down the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh won, 13-7.

The miraculous score touched off the most raucous celebration by Pittsburgh fans since 1960 when a ninth-inning home run by the Pirates' Bill Mazeroski won the World Series. After a call to the press box—the NFL did not adopt instant replay until more than a decade later—officials kept the original touchdown call. The play remains controversial—if the ball had hit Fuqua last, the touchdown would have been declared an incomplete pass according to NFL rules at the time.

"That's a helluva damn game that has to go down to someone up in the press box," Madden told reporters afterward.

"A dream play," Harris called the Christmas miracle.

"History would have had it no other way," Phil Musick of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote for the next day's newspaper. "And after 40 endless years of spilling salt and breaking mirrors and walking under ladders, the Steelers were smiled upon by a benevolent fate."

In the Steelers' locker room, a telegram was delivered to Harris.

"Go Steelers Go," it read.

It was signed: "Colonel Francis Sinatra."

Who Named the 'Immaculate Reception'?

In 1972, Franco Harris was backed by an Italian Army of fans.
Ross Lewis/Getty Images
In 1972, rookie running back Franco Harris was backed by 'Franco's Italian Army,' a rabid group of fans. Here, they cheer Harris at the Immaculate Reception game on December 23, 1972.

Among the 50,350 in attendance at Three Rivers Stadium was Michael Ord, an ardent Steelers fan. After the game, he and his girlfriend went to a bar to celebrate. Then he got an idea.

"Growing up Catholic," Ord recalled in an NFL Films documentary on the play, "I remember the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and I thought, 'Damn.' So, I climbed up on the table, and like you do in an old fire hall wedding, you know you have a spoon, and I banged on the glass.

"I would like to, from this day on ... refer to this day as the feast of the Immaculate Reception. And the place went bonkers."

Levosky called Cope in his newsroom and suggested the name. Cope loved it, said it on the air, and it stuck.

Winning stuck with the Steelers, too. Although Pittsburgh lost the next week to the eventual Super Bowl champion Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers went on to win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. In 1990, Harris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.