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Immaculate Reception still has 'a life of its own'

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
The famed ball used in Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception. Senator John Heinz History Center

Minutes after the most dramatic football event ever in Pittsburgh, Jim Baker was hustling his way Downtown with a sense of history in his head while Franco Harris was looking one week ahead.

Meanwhile, hours later, Sharon Levosky helped coin the phrase Immaculate Reception, which has become as much a part of NFL lexicon as it is a Pittsburgh catchphrase.

Saturday, they all will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Play With a Name in an event at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

Besides appearances by ex-Pittsburgh Steelers Harris, John “Frenchy” Fuqua, Mike Wagner, Rocky Bleier and Andy Russell, the event also will feature a new NFL Films documentary on the play.

“What is surprising is that it has taken on a life of its own,” says Harris, a fullback from Penn State who capped off his rookie-of-the-year season with the play that let the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Oakland Raiders, 13-7, in a playoff game.

“It has become one of those things where everybody remembers where they were, who they were with, what they were doing,” he says.

Rather than thinking about the significance of the event then, Harris says, the players were more focused on the next game, which the team would lose to the Miami Dolphins, 21-17.

Baker, an insurance agent from West Mifflin, scooped up the football from the play after Roy Gerela kicked the extra point. He has been offered as much as $125,000 for it, but still keeps it, alternating it in two vaults at undisclosed locations.

But for now it is part of the “Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame” exhibit at the history center until Jan. 6.

The story of Baker and the capture of the ball is indicative of how much pro football has changed since Dec. 23, 1972. Then, as Harris scooped up a deflected ball and raced toward the end zone, hundreds of fan flooded the field at Three Rivers Stadium, an action modern security would combat rigorously.

“We were standing there as the referees discussed the play, and then they just pushed us back so the extra point could take place,” Baker says. “And we moved back because they kept telling us there could be a penalty if we didn't.”

The ball bounced to the right side of the end zone, Baker says, and he joined the scramble for the ball. He was 26 at the time and credits his success to his physical aptitude as a runner and ex-wrestler.

At that time, the play simply was a glorious end to a season that turned the Steelers away from being lovable losers for decades. Hours later, though, it had a name.

Levosky, now from Swissvale, was at the game with her then-boyfriend, Michael Ord. They stopped at a Downtown bar to celebrate after the game and Ord, at one point, announced to everyone Dec. 23 would forever be the “Feast of the Immaculate Reception” in Pittsburgh.

It was word play with a Roman Catholic feast on Dec. 8. Levosky says she had a little concern for that reason about spreading the name, but nonetheless wanted to help celebrate the day, so she called TV and radio host Myron Cope to tell him about it.

“My dad always said ‘No matter what you say, you are always going to offend someone',” she says.

The name stuck and the play has become NFL lore, even if many skeptics insist the ball bounced off Fuqua, making the reception illegal.

Harris says the nay-saying has become a part of the whole life of the play.

“When you start discussing that era from 1972 to 1979, the six championship games and four Super Bowls, you automatically go back to the beginning, and that play is what started it,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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