Fred Swearingen’s world had slowed down by 1998 and he was into a peaceful life in Carlsbad, Calif. His serene existence when we interviewed him then was an immense contrast to Dec. 23, 1972, when Swearingen was the man on the spot for perhaps the most memorable ending ever to an NFL game. The up-and-coming Pittsburgh Steelers were hosting the perennially powerful Oakland Raiders in a first-round AFC playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium. Some remember it to this day as a game for the ages, but in reality, it was a dull affair until the final 22 seconds when Steelers rookie running back Franco Harris made a catch that was later coined “The Immaculate Reception.”
Down 7-6 and facing a fourth-and-10 situation at their own 40 yardline, Pittsburgh’s third-year quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, took the snap, scrambled to his right and, with Raiders defensive end Horace Jones hot in pursuit, caught a glimpse of Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua by himself downfield. Raiders safety Jack Tatum, seeing Fuqua work himself open at about the same time as Bradshaw did, pulled away from the tight end he was covering and closed hard on his new target. At the precise moment Bradshaw’s pass arrived, Tatum violently collided with Fuqua and the ball ricocheted back toward midfield.
Meanwhile, Harris, whose assignment on the play was to pass-block the Raiders’ outside linebacker, instinctively ran downfield and into history. Without breaking stride, Harris made a shoestring catch of the pass at the Raiders’ 42 yardline and sprinted across the goalline with 15 seconds to play as trailing back judge Adrian Burk signaled touchdown.
Could the Steelers have pulled off the impossible?
At issue was the NFL’s now obsolete double-touch rule (it was changed in 1978), meaning the play boiled down to this: If Bradshaw’s pass made contact with Tatum after striking Fuqua, then it was still a live ball when it got to Harris. However, if Tatum did not make contact with the ball, Harris’ catch would have been illegal since the rules specified at the time that two offensive players could not touch the ball consecutively.
Stunned fans rushing onto the artificial turf thought it was a touchdown, but Swearingen couldn’t yet be certain. As referee, his responsibility during the play was to keep an eye on Bradshaw and watch for a roughing-the-passer infraction.
Because of his vantage point on the field, Swearingen did not immediately realize that the double-touch rule would be an issue. Once he became aware of the situation, though, he had to hope someone else on his crew had a decisive angle during the split-second impact between Fuqua and Tatum.
“It took some time to get the officials together because we were scattered all over the field,” said Swearingen, an NFL official from 1960-80. “When I got them all together, I polled them one by one.”
Head linesman Al Sabata, line judge Royal Cathcart and field judge Charlie Musser didn’t know who touched the ball last. “Pat Harder, the umpire, said, ‘I think the defense hit it.’ Adrian Burk, the back judge, said, ‘Well, I think the defense hit it, too,”‘ said Swearingen. “I asked them a direct question: ‘Are you sure?’ and they both said, ‘No.’ OK, so I’ve got three guys who said, ‘I don’t know’ and two who said, ‘I think.’ Of course, I didn’t see the play, so how am I going to make a decision?”
The play in question was over in seconds, but for Art McNally, then-NFL supervisor of officials, the ensuing conference between his officiating crew went on for what seemed like eternity. McNally, seated in the press box overlooking the Steelers sideline, grew restless as his officials continued to deliberate while a monumental game hung precariously in the balance. Finally, he decided to take advantage of a walkie-talkie system that was set up between the press box and the sidelines and radioed Bob Bostwick, who was a member of the Steelers’ staff.”
I said, ‘Bob, look, if I need information, I want you to contact the alternate official,’ who, by the way, was Fred Wyant,” McNally said. “I repeated it to him a second time. I said, ‘Let’s make it clear. If I need information, I’ll get back to you and ask you to get Fred Wyant.’ I said, ‘Don’t go after him unless I tell you!’ He said, ‘OK, fine.”‘
Just after McNally returned to his press box seat, he was astonished to see Swearingen walking to the sideline dugout, which was equipped with a telephone to the press box. In the confusion of the moment, Swearingen said he was led to believe by Steelers representatives that McNally was summoning him. McNally said he was told afterward that while the officials were deliberating, a decision was made to consult McNally, which Swearingen denies.
“I never heard that,” Swearingen said. “In fact, I don’t know if the crew realized that McNally was in the press box.”
Swearingen picked up the phone, which, he says, is his one regret to this day from that historic game.
The problem? Just after Swearingen emerged from the dugout, he raised his hands to signal touchdown, giving the impression that he made his ruling from the benefit of an instant replay in the press box (instant replay was still 14 years away from being implemented for the first time by the NFL).
“Art and I had no conversation about the play whatsoever,” Swearingen said. “If I remember right, Art said, ‘Everything’s all right. Let’s get them off the field and finish the game.’ That’s about all we talked about. I never even thought about instant replay, which I was accused of. Art was accused of watching the monitor and then making the call. That is not true at all.
“As the crew chief, I was supposed to back up (Burk’s touchdown) call after the conference and I did. I came back onto the field to confirm that we did, indeed, have a touchdown.”
McNally recalled his conversation with Swearingen this way: “The first thing Fred said was, ‘Two of my men ruled that the ball was touched by opposing players.’ I thought all he wanted to do was get verification of the rules, so when he said that, I said, ‘You’re fine. Go ahead. Everything is OK.’ That was the end of the conversation. For years later, the thinking was this was the first use of instant replay and it really wasn’t. Swearingen never asked me the pertinent question of, ‘What do you think of the play?”‘
That game would prove to be the beginning of the end of Swearingen’ s NFL career. He would not be assigned any playoff games for the next two seasons and his career came to an end following the 1980 season when his contract was not renewed. Swearingen said, “I asked McNally why (I wasn’t assigned playoff games in 1973 or ’74) and he said, ‘Because of all the controversy surrounding the Immaculate Reception game.”‘
McNally, denying there was anything held against Swearingen, said, “The system has always been the same. You are judged by what you do in any given year. If you don’t make too many mistakes, you’re going to be in the running for the playoffs and possibly even the Super Bowl. But you don’t go back and say, ‘A year ago, you did this or that, in which case we’re not going to put you in a playoff game.’ No way! I have never operated that way at all.”
When asked to evaluate his crew’s performance on that game, McNally singled out only one incident. “I thought that his coming to the sideline was wrong, that’s for sure,” said McNally, then 72 and living in Morristown, Pa., still an NFL associate supervisor. “But to this day, I always felt the correct decision was made. NBC showed the film clip the following Saturday or Sunday at another playoff game and they had a shot where I was convinced the ball did strike Tatum in the chest.”
What would Swearingen change from that day if he had it to do over?
“I would never have gone to the phone in the dugout,” he said. “I had never done that before and the only reason I did go into that dugout was this man said that Art wanted to talk to me.” Regardless of the varied perceptions and regrets of that historic game, it’s hard to imagine anything topping those final few seconds on Dec. 23, 1972.
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