It was an exciting play by anyone’s standards, especially for television audiences. The game was already a classic 7-6 slugfest featuring John Madden and Chuck Noll on the sidelines, and Terry Bradshaw, Kenny Stabler, George Blanda, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Joe Greene, Jim Otto, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount on the field. It was 4th and 10, 22 seconds left on the clock, with the Steelers down by a single point and stalling on their own 40 yard line. Folks at home saw Terry Bradshaw elude two rushers and heave a desperation pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua, only to have feared-hitter Jack Tatum level the intended receiver. The ball was knocked out of view.
Then Harris flashed into the frame, a defender trailing him. He had made a shoestring catch of the deflection and was running down the sideline. The only player capable of stopping him–Jimmy Warren–was caught so off-guard that he was two steps late in taking what would’ve been a makeable tackling angle. Harris stiff-armed Warren and stepped into the endzone to win the game.
The play’s controversy came from a now-stricken rule: at the time, receivers couldn’t catch mid-air balls that had deflected off a teammate. If the ball had touched Fuqua before Harris’ catch, the play would be dead by rule; if it had instead bounced off Tatum, it would’ve been a live ball. The refs ruled on the side of the Steelers and history was made.
Not surprisingly, there’s debate to this day as to who the ball actually hit. A woozy Fuqua told listeners after the game that the ball had struck his chest. John Madden says he still can’t figure out what happened, and has sworn off making comments about the play. While today’s high-speed/hi-def cameras and instant replay might’ve made a conclusive statement, the grainy footage of yesteryear doesn’t clearly show who caused the deflection, and never shows if Harris caught the ball without it touching the turf. Some have likened NBC’s footage of the play to a sports version of the Zapruder film.
The deflection has been the biggest source of contention–not even the Raiders argue much that Harris failed to make a clean catch. The clearest indicator of who caused the deflection is the speed at which the ball bounced away. Carnegie Mellon physicist John Fetkovich determined that only Tatum, who was rushing full-speed towards the in-flight ball, could’ve deflected it so forcefully. That’s good enough for me, though I imagine even decades after the fact more than a few Raiders fans unconvinced.