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Jim O’Brien: Frenchy Fuqua reveals his secret insight into Immaculate Reflection

September 30, 2012
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Jim O’Brien: Frenchy Fuqua reveals his secret insight into Immaculate Reflection:

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

John “Frenchy” Fuqua is a legendary figure in Steelers’ football history.  He was also known as “The Count” for wearing fancy capes with his eye-catching clothing ensembles, for having gold fish in his clear plastic high heels, and for high stepping on the football field, in the locker room and at the infamous Aurora Club, an after-hours joint in The Hill District that was frequented by Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood, Glen “Pine” Edwards and visited on occasion by Moon Mullins and Ray Mansfield.

Fuqua had some fashion face-offs with Greenwood to the merriment of all in the locker room from time to time to determine who was “the best-dressed” Steelers’ player.

Fuqua was the Steelers’ leading rusher for two seasons, 1970 and 1971, and held the record for most yards rushing in one game, with 218 at Philadelphia on December 20, 1970, until it was broken by Willie Parker with 223 against the Browns at Heinz Field on December 7, 2006.  Fuqua went 85 yards for a touchdown against the Eagles, the third longest run in Steelers’ history.

He rushed for nearly 3,000 yards in his seven seasons (1970-76) with the Steelers.  He worked in the circulation department of The Detroit News in his latter days with the Steelers and on a full-time basis when his ball-playing career came to an end.

Fuqua also gained fame as the middle man in “The Immaculate Reception,” which was voted the No. 1 play in pro football history even though it was a broken play and then some.

Terry Bradshaw was throwing a pass down the middle of the field to Fuqua, one of the team’s most sure-handed receivers, when Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders collided with Fuqua, knocking the ball back upfield where Franco Harris found it and grasped it at his shoe tops and raced for a touchdown in the AFC playoffs on December 23, 1972.

Tatum was one of the fiercest, hard-hitting cornerbacks in the NFL at the time.  He was responsible for dealing the blow that crippled Patriots’ receiver Darryl Stingley, and he hit Lynn Swann and John Stallworth a few hard shots when they ran crossing patterns against the Raiders.

Chuck Noll once blasted the likes of Tatum and some of his teammates as being members of “a criminal element” in the NFL.

The Steelers beat the Raiders 13-7.  It was the Steelers’ first victory in a playoff in the team’s history.

It was a fourth and ten call at the Steelers’ 40-yard line with 22 seconds left to play, and the Steelers trailing, 7-6.  Bradshaw ducked a strong rush, but was flattened as he let the ball go and had no idea what happened afterward.  A lot of people who were at Three Rivers Stadium that day still don’t know exactly what happened.  Many fans were staring disconsolately at their shoe tops, believing the game was lost.

The game was not shown on Pittsburgh television because it was not a sellout.

Art Rooney Sr., the owner of the Steelers, did not see “The Immaculate Reception.”  He was on the elevator heading for the team locker room to console his players after a valiant effort.

“Frenchy likes to be coy about it,” said Terry Bradshaw in his book, Looking Deep, in writing about what he termed the pivotal play in the team’s history.  “The glory days for the Steelers were still two years ahead, but we buried our past that day.

“If Frenchy did touch the ball first, then the play was voided.  In those days, it was illegal for a ball to be touched first by another offensive player.  John Madden and the Raiders felt they got shafted, and Madden is still mad as hell about it.

“Frenchy doesn’t want to say and is either going to take his secret to the grave, or write a book about it himself some day.”

It’s one of the most famous and frequently aired sequences in sports history, yet Fuqua is often a forgotten figure in it.  He teases people about whether he or Tatum touched the ball first.  If he alone had touched it the ensuing catch and run by Harris would have been nullified by NFL rules in use at the time.  Back then, the ball could not be touched simultaneously by two teammates on the receiving end.  Today it can be.

Fred Swearingen didn’t signal a touchdown right away.  He checked a sideline video to help him make the call.  There wasn’t any official review of plays at that time.  Thus instant reply was born.  All TDs are now reviewed by the officials upstairs in the stadiums.

“I always have to tell that story,” said Fuqua when he was in attendance at a gala dinner on the eve of Andy Russell’s annual celebrity golf outing in mid-May of 2012.  “I tell them everything that happened, except who touched the ball and how.  Jack Tatum had to hit for it to have been a legitimate reception by Franco.  But let’s not beat around the bush.  Jack didn’t touch it.  It’s the only secret I have left in my life.

“That pass was coming to me from the get-go.  Ron Shanklin and I had led the team in receiving (with 49 catches apiece) the previous season, and I was considered one of our most sure-handed receivers.”

According to game reports, post-game commentary and Bradshaw’s book, however, rookie receiver Barry Pearson was the primary receiver on that final play.  But that was other people’s version of the story, not Fuqua’s.

“When Bradshaw went to the sideline to confer with the coaches before that play, I watched those blue eyes from the sideline to the huddle, and I knew he was going to throw the ball to me.  Bradshaw eyed me all the way back to the huddle,” offered Fuqua.

“If the timing had worked out, and the pass protection hadn’t broken down – Otis Sistrunk nearly got Terry – I was wide open.  I’d have gotten to the end zone or to the sideline, and Roy Gerela would have had an easy kick for a field goal to win it.  I could have been the hero.

“But Bradshaw had to duck under and away from the rush – he ran to the right – and in the meantime Tatum left one of our wide receivers, Barry Pearson, and came up to cover me.  The ball came my way.  The ball was tipped (ricocheted really) and Franco caught it and ran away with hundreds of thousands of dollars I’d have made on that play.  It took 1.8 seconds for the ball to go from my hands to Franco’s hands.

“I’ve watched that play a hundred times.  I have it on tape at home.  Tatum wasn’t near me, at first, when I went into my hook.  I was around their 30-yard line, and I’d have taken an angle, and we’d have been, at the least, in a position where Roy couldn’t miss it (a field goal try).

“Franco should have been nowhere around that ball.  But some players just have a nose for it.  A guy like him is always at the right place at the right time.  I’m glad he was.”

Head coach Chuck Noll had said, “Franco made that play because he never quit on the play.  He kept running; he kept hustling.  Good things happen to those who hustle.”

John Madden, the Raiders’ coach, was protesting on the other sideline.  Madden claimed that Fuqua, not Tatum, had touched the ball and the pass should have been ruled incomplete, having bounced from one offensive player to another.

“It’s so disappointing,” Madden said, “to come down to a whole season and have it end like this.”

Fuqua begs to differ, of course.  “That play is shown on TV at least three times a year,” he said, “and my boss at the newspaper always gave me a nod at the office the next day to acknowledge it.  But what would have happened if Frenchy Fuqua caught the ball?  But I was always a team player, and always thought in the team concept.  If I had scored, though, I’d have given the reporters a better story than Franco.  The controversy is what made that play.”

Franco Harris was at the head of the table at a quarterly meeting of the Champions Committee that oversees the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center in July of 2012 when “the Immaculate Reception” was being screened to be part of an introductory film of highlights in Pittsburgh sports.

He asked if it could be shown again, with the accompanying music up louder.  He watched it with his chin resting on his hand as if he had never seen it before.  “Make sure you catch the ball this time,” I warned him.

He smiled.  “It’s more dramatic with the sound up,” he told everyone at the table.

Later, I asked him how many times he has watched that sequence.  “Jim, I can’t tell you that,” he said.  I swear he was blushing.

“What would have happened if you had dropped the ball?” I asked.

“I’d have been famous one way or another,” he said.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame will stage its first off-campus exhibition at the HeinzHistoryCenter starting this Saturday, Oct. 6.  It is called “Gridiron Glory” and it will contain some Steelers’ artifacts as well as over 100 items on loan from the Hall of Fame in Canton.  It’s worth a visit to The Strip.

Pittsburgh sports author Jim O’Brien will have a new book coming out Oct. 15 called Immaculate Reflections.  For more information contact Jim at jimmyo64@gmail.com or visit his website at www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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One Comment leave one →
  1. dan herrmann permalink
    October 12, 2012 3:37 pm

    Correction-
    The Steelers sold out every home game from the middle of the season in 1972. (other than replacement games).
    The NFL Contract and the blackout rules were in effect to get people to buy seats for the game. The stadium was sold out, it was blacked out like all home games in 1972.
    Crazy but true. If you were not at the game you listened to WTAE and Jack Fleming.

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