A family's immaculate connection to 'The Immaculate Reception'
Updated: Dec 31, 2022
IN A FRIENDSHIP spanning five decades, you’d think you know just about all there is to know about someone. That’s how I felt about Joe Davin, among my very closest friends on the planet.
But I learned something new this week, something remarkable, when the death of Pittsburgh Steelers legend Franco Harris prompted my long-time friend to open up about a family connection to “The Immaculate Reception.’’
For the uninitiated, “The Immaculate Reception” is the nickname of the greatest play in NFL history. With 22 seconds left, a fourth-down pass from Terry Bradshaw deflected off a defenseman and into the hands of Harris, who miraculously snagged the ball inches from the ground and ran 60 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
You’re probably seeing references to it all over social media this week, not just because Dec. 23 is the game’s 50th anniversary but because Harris passed away overnight Dec. 20.
The Steelers had been planning a weekend of celebrations, with players from that 1972 team reuniting in Pittsburgh for festivities that instead have become sober memorials to Harris.
Back to my friend Joe…
He’s part of a tight circle of friends, five 1982 Bethel Park High School graduates, who have gone our separate ways over the years but still keep in touch, if not in person then by phone. In recent years, we connect via texts, usually during Steelers or Penguins games.
Since Franco Harris was considered family to just about everyone in Steelers Nation, even those who never met the man, his death prompted our latest group text:
“So sad,” wrote Mark.
“I can't believe it,’’ wrote Denny.
Then, Joe sent this one:
“Just horrible. My brother-in-law Craig just flew in yesterday for 3 days of festivities….was supposed to have dinner with Franco’s family on Friday…Just shocking.’’
Joe and I are, for all intents and purposes, brothers from another mother, a bond sealed in 1980 as sophomores sharing not only the same first name but similar interests in our high school in suburban Pittsburgh’s South Hills.
If we weren’t sitting in class or eating lunch in the cafeteria together, we were chasing girls, going to movies, attending rock concerts (Styx, Billy Joel and Journey come to mind), riding the trolley to Pirates games and occasionally sneaking beer into the South Park woods (maybe a little more than occasionally).
We grew tight with each others’ families, although getting to know all of our respective siblings was a challenge: Each of our Roman Catholic families have seven kids with a wide range of ages. Among the Davins, Joe was the baby, his sister Kathleen the oldest.
I’m not sure if I ever met Kathleen. She and her husband, Craig, moved to Oregon in 1975 after he retired from football after two seasons with the Steelers and two with the New England Patriots. (A leg injury, suffered during a 1974 Monday Night Football game, forced his retirement.)
Over the years, Joe would mention “my brother-in-law Craig’’ now and then and how he used to play for the Steelers, which I found impressive even though I enjoyed baseball more than football. I never pressed him for details, and if I asked what his last name was, it never resonated with me like Bradshaw, (“Mean” Joe) Greene, (Jack) Lambert or even (Roy) Gerela.
But earlier this week, as we mourned Franco in our group text, Joe sent a link to a recent article in Steelers.com, the team website. “A bit of background from a different perspective re: bro-in-law Craig,’’ he wrote above the link to the story by Teresa Varley.
Under the headline “A Mistake That Turned out to be Immaculate,’’ Craig Hanneman gave a candid interview and described the dubious but pivotal role he played in “The Immaculate Reception.’’
He was a 23-year-old rookie defensive lineman on Dec. 23, 1972, when he was sent onto the field with 2 minutes left and the Steelers ahead 6-0. He’s not sure why he was put in the game — maybe some of the starters were getting tired? — but he had one assignment: Put pressure on Oakland Raiders quarterback Kenny Stabler.
When Hanneman arrived at the line, linebacker Andy Russell called a stunt, a maneuver in which a pair of defensive lineman swap places to slip past blockers and get to the quarterback.
But when the ball was snapped, everything went wrong. Hanneman got past the blockers but Stabler eluded him and ran 30 yards for a touchdown that gave Oakland a 7-6 lead.
Stunned and dejected, Hanneman returned to the sidelines at Three Rivers Stadium, sure that he’d just ruined what would have been Pittsburgh’s first playoff win.
The Steelers had one more chance but with just 1:13 to play and the ball on their own 20-yard line, it seemed futile. Bradshaw drove the offense 20 yards on two passes, then threw three incompletions. Now, there were 22 seconds on the clock and the Steelers were facing a fourth-and-10 at their own 40-yard line.
Under pressure, Bradshaw threw a pass in the direction of fullback John “Frenchy” Fuqua. As the ball arrived, Fuqua collided with Raiders' safety Jack Tatum. The ball ricocheted off Tatum and back into the air.
Harris, as if running from out of nowhere, scooped the ball before it could hit turf and took off running 60 yards for the winning touchdown.
Steelers fans went wild. Hanneman breathed a sigh of relief.
The Steelers lost their next playoff game to the Miami Dolphins (who would go on to complete their perfect season by winning the Super Bowl). But the Steelers would go on to win Super Bowls in 1975, ‘76, ‘79 and ‘80, a dynasty sparked by the so-called “Immaculate Reception,’’ a play that would not have happened if not for Hanneman’s misfortune.
Although the missed tackle is well known among Steelers Nation diehards, it was news to me when I read the Steelers.com story earlier this week, which I found curious. In all the times we hung out over the years, at bars, living rooms and each others’ weddings, I don’t recall Joe ever mentioning his brother-in-law’s role in that legendary game.
I picked up the phone and, instead of a text, I dialed up Joe.
“I’ve shared that story over the years with you guys,’’ he insisted.
Joe said he probably mentioned it to us after a few beers. If he did, I told him, that's something I would have remembered. He also said his siblings have always considered it a delicate topic because “it has always stung a bit for Craig,’’ who felt like he’d let the team down.
Out of respect for Craig, the Davin siblings rarely broach the topic around him, Joe said.
For a long time, the same was true for the Steelers.
In a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, Hanneman said no one on the team mentioned the missed tackle to him, not that day in 1972 and not until about 2012 — ”kind of like one of those things you just don't talk about at the dinner table.’’
Joe remembers his brother-in-law offering brief reflections of the game on family visits to Bethel Park. But it’s “not the kind of thing you bring up a lot,’’ Joe said.
"Now, 50 years later and seeing my brother in law so eloquently answering those questions in that (Steelers.com) interview, that sealed the deal like, OK, he's finally talking about it.’’
To the Davins, Hanneman represents so much more than just one play in a football game in 1972.
“To me, that is a blip in his life,’’ Joe said. “We love hearing more about his Mount Everest stories.’’
That’s right. Not only did Craig Hanneman climb Mount Everest in 2012 — he is believed to be the first North American athlete to scale the world’s highest peak — he has also scaled the highest mountains on each of the seven continents, a feat he started around the age of 50.
He scaled the last three summits after he was diagnosed in 2016 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable neurodegenerative disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
As he fought ALS, Hanneman was the sole caregiver for his wife Kathleen, who battled ovarian cancer until she died in 2020.
“He has done so many incredible things in his life,’’ Joe said. “He has gone on to raise three kids. He was a great husband and caregiver to my sister.
"To me, that is what I consider better than anything in the world, something we will always remember him for, not this one play. We are very proud of him and everything he has accomplished. I consider him a fourth brother.’’
Joe and his family were thrilled to catch up this week with Hanneman, 73, who returned to Pittsburgh for the “Immaculate Reception” events that have turned into Franco Harris memorials.
He visited his wife’s grave at Queen of Heaven Cemetery (where my mother is buried) and spent time with his in-laws in Bethel Park. He also enjoyed a laugh today when Joe told him how his closest friends were surprised to finally learn, 50 years later, about his role in the greatest play in NFL history.
As if he needs any reminders about it.
On his way to the baggage area at Pittsburgh International Airport, after arriving for the weekend's events, Hanneman passed the iconic statue of Franco Harris making the “Immaculate Reception.’’
The statue, a popular photo stop for thousands of visitors over the years, stands next to one of George Washington.
When Harris died, I posted on Facebook a photo of my daughter standing next to the Franco statue in 2010. The photo prompted another Bethel Park High School friend, Chris Beckwith, to comment about the time he ended up on an airport tram with Harris.
“Asked him if it was strange seeing himself on the landing between the escalator banks,’’ Chris wrote. “He laughed and said he did not think he deserved to be standing next to George Washington.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.