Football’s version of the Zapruder film

After yesterday’s exciting win over Dallas, with rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger becoming the first Steelers QB to win in Dallas since 1982, it would seem Steelers fans couldn’t be happier.

But the good news keeps coming. Physics shows that the officials’ ruling on the field regarding the Immaculate Reception was correct:

Fetkovich, an emeritus professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon University, certainly believes in Newton, the English mathematician who formulated the laws of gravity and motion three centuries ago. But the die-hard Steelers fan had long suspected game officials might have blown the call on the most famous play in football.

“For a long time, I believed that the Steelers stole one,” he said of that Dec. 23, 1972, playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders.

His mind began to change almost seven years ago, however, when a New York Daily News sportswriter, Hank Gola, sent him a tape of the play and asked him to analyze it for a story marking the play’s 25th anniversary.

He didn’t have much time before Gola’s deadline. But when he closely watched the NFL Films tape, he thought he could make a strong case using the laws of physics that Terry Bradshaw’s desperation pass had bounced off Raider free safety Jack Tatum before landing in the hands of Steelers running back Franco Harris. Harris would run the ball in for the winning touchdown.

Even after Gola filed his story, Fetkovich remained fascinated and kept studying the play. He even did some experiments by bouncing a football off the wall of his O’Hara garage. Again, the evidence convinced him that the ball had bounced off Tatum —- the call on the field —- and not off Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua, which would have made Harris’ catch illegal under NFL rules at the time.

“It’s absolutely clear in my mind that the correct call was made,” he said last week.

And then it turns out that all the experiments weren’t necessary anyway. From the addendum to the above article:

Both Gay and Fetkovich studied the Immaculate Reception using the familiar, if incomplete, version by NFL Films. But readers of the Oct. 4 article about Gay’s book, such as Vince Palamara of Mt. Lebanon, noted that NBC’s superior video of the 1972 playoff game was replayed during the telecast of the 1998 AFC Championship game.

The replay generated little comment in most newspapers, but Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News called it “football’s version of the Zapruder film,” noting it clearly showed the ball hitting Tatum.

(The October 4 article is also available online.)