The call was fine Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, but not the rule. Surely you've seen the touchdown that was before it wasn't for the Steelers. If not, here's the short version, and then we'll discuss the always expanding Hall of Fame for Bizarre Moments in Sports History.
This is an entry, by the way.
According to the refs and the NFL rulebook, Jesse James didn't "survive" the completion of the catch for the Steelers after he crossed the goal line inside of the final 30 seconds against the New England Patriots. Instead of Pittsburgh taking a 31-27 lead with the extra point for a likely victory, the Patriots won 27-24 to surge past the Steelers and everybody else in the AFC for home-field advantage until the Super Bowl.
Suddenly, TouchdownGate is a candidate for the front entrance of that bizarre hall of fame, and I'll give you my top five inductees. Each has ties to me. Since I bleed blue and gold for Notre Dame as a native of South Bend, Ind., I could mention a bunch of them involving the Fighting Irish. The list spans from The Phantom Clip that negated Rocket Ismail's game-winning punt return against Colorado in the 1991 Orange Bowl to USC's illegal Bush Push during a 2005 thriller at Notre Dame Stadium, but I won't go there.
I'll settle on these …
No. 5: The Illegitimate Reception
As a beat writer covering the Oakland Raiders for the San Francisco Examiner during the early- to mid-1980s, I heard more than a few references around Northern California to what really is called The Immaculate Reception. Back then, less than a decade after one of the most discussed NFL plays ever, Bay Area folks remained bitter.
The players, the fans and THE guy … Al Davis.
Even though the Raiders won Super Bowls after the regular seasons of 1976, 1980 and 1983, Davis knew as the perfectionist owner that his silver and black empire should have grabbed several more. Mostly, they knew they could have been the Steelers of the 1970s (four Super Bowl championships) if The Illegitimate Reception, to hear them tell it, didn't stop the Raiders' steady rise toward greatness exactly 45 years ago this week. That's when the Steelers became the Steelers of yore courtesy of Franco Harris tight-roping his way down the sidelines of old Three Rivers Stadium for a game-winning touchdown over the Raiders in a 1972 playoff game.
So much for the easy part.
The hard part is determining whether The Immaculate Reception was allowed under that set of NFL rules. You can't go by the replays, because if you're a Steelers fan, they show the ball zipping off of Raiders safety Jack Tatum before reaching Harris (legal). If you pull for the Raiders, the replays show the ball touching the Steelers' John Fuqua or the ground (both illegal at the time) along the way to Harris transforming his franchise from a perennial loser into one of the NFL's greatest dynasties.
The ball never hit Tatum.
No. 4: "THE BAND IS ON THE FIELD!"
I'm guessing 2017 is the anniversary for goofy things in sports. For this one, we'll go back 35 years, when I covered the Raiders while also doing stories for the Examiner on the surging San Francisco 49ers of Joe Montana and Bill Walsh. I had the choice of taking an off day on Saturday, Nov. 20, 1982 or joining the paper's coverage for The Big Game in Berkeley between a couple of mediocre teams in Stanford and Cal.
I took the off day.
With Stanford leading in the finals seconds, Cal took the last kickoff of the game and started to lateral like crazy. There were one, two, three, four, five of them as the Bears rushed down the field, but before they could reach the end zone, they had to charge past, over and through the Stanford band that left the sidelines to perform in anticipation of a Cardinal victory. The thing is, two of those (ahem) laterals resembled forward passes, but we'll never know for sure. As was the case when Franco caught that ball out of the air, those days lacked the cameras of now that give you every angle possible.
Here's the rest of the story: The football gods gave me a reprieve. Eighteen years after missing that Cal-Stanford finish, I was there in Nashville for the Music City Miracle. It involved an AFC wild-card game between the visiting Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, and the home team triumphed at the end after scoring on a kickoff return featuring a handoff and a lateral.
There were lots of cameras this time, along with replay.
The lateral was good. Barely.
No. 3: Jeffrey Maier
Yep, I was in the press box of old Yankee Stadium in October of 1996 for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. During the bottom of the eighth, Derek Jeter lofted a fly ball that kept drifting with Baltimore Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco toward the right-field wall. Tarasco looked up to make the catch, and the ball landed in the glove.
Not Tarasco's glove.
A 12-year-old kid named Jeffrey Maier reached over the fence to make the catch, but instead of fan interference, it was ruled a home run. The Yankees eventually won the game, and they later took the pennant while racing toward the first of five World Series titles in 14 seasons.
The next day, I watched Game 2 of the ALCS from the right-field bleachers to see if any future Jeffrey Maiers would emerge. Cops were everywhere, and they even kept Flavor Flav and his huge clock from wandering behind the right-field wall with the rest of us, because he didn't have a ticket. He pleaded his case through a wire fence separating the bleachers from the rest of the stands. Since that didn't work, those in the bleacher chanted loudly and often, "Free Flavor Fla! Free Flavor Flav! Free Flavor Flav."
That also didn't work.
No. 2: Evander Holyfield, period
No athlete ever has encountered more crazy things than Evander Holyfield, and I was there for all of them. Literally. So I'll make this a collective one, starting with the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
After Holyfield managed three knockouts during his previous bouts in that Olympics as a light heavyweight, he raced toward a gold medal after flooring his overmatched opponent from New Zealand with a left hook. It happened right in front of me, and I prepared to write about the growth of greatness before my very eyes. Then, out of nowhere, the referee claimed Holyfield's punch came after the break and to the head, so he was disqualified. Not only didn't he receive gold, but he dropped to bronze as the packed house of Americans booed from that point through the remaining fights of the day.
Little did I know I would spend the next few decades chronicling Evander sticking and moving with the wild and the weird. I was there for Fan Man, when a guy parachuted into the ring from the Las Vegas sky during one of Holyfield's fights with Riddick Bowe. I was there when he retired in the spring of 1994 after he was diagnosed with a heart problem, and I was there when he returned to boxing after he said he was healed by watching evangelist Benny Hinn on TV. I also was there when Mike Tyson tried to bite off part of his ears.
Come to think of it, this should be No. 1.
Except . . .
No. 1: Did this really happen?
OK, I'm biased with what I'm about to say, because nobody was more of a Big Red Machine fan than me. I devoured those Cincinnati Reds of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and the rest. With Baseball Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson leading the way, the core of the Machine grabbed more games during the 1970s than anybody, and that included four National League pennants, five division titles and two World Series championships.
I still need therapy over Game 1 of the 1970 World Series.
Let's return to a 3-3 tie for the Reds in the bottom of the sixth inning at Riverfront Stadium against the equally potent Baltimore Orioles. With one out, Tommy Helms at first and Bernie Carbo at third, Ty Cline bounced a high chopper just inside of fair territory. Orioles catcher Elrod Hendricks moved in a flash to grab the ball only a few feet away, but Carbo tried to score. Soon afterward, home plate umpire Ken Burkhart said the Reds baserunner was out after Hendricks spun around to apply the tag.
Except for one thing, and it's rather huge.
Hendricks' mitt was empty.
If you look at a photo from Sports Illustrated to the right, you'll see Hendricks holding the ball high in his right hand while lunging to his left toward Carbo with that empty mitt. Oh, it gets worse. In that same photo, you'll see Carbo, then Hendricks and then Burkhart, knocked to his knees with his back to the play while positioned between Hendricks and the pitcher's mound. As Burkhart glanced over his right shoulder, you could tell he couldn't see anything of consequence (well, at all) regarding the play, but he called Carbo out anyway. The Orioles had momentum for the game and for the World Series.
I know. I know. Carbo didn't touch home plate until he returned to argue the call with Sparky, but so much for small details.