Friday, December 21, 2012

The Immaculate Reception and Genealogy

Happy 40th Anniversary to the Immaculate Reception!

Why does this matter to a genealogist?

It is a great example of why we must be cautious when people tell us that they saw an event, participated in a famous happening, or were there when...

The Immaculate Reception, football's most famous and most controversial play, occurred on December 23, 1972 (yes, this post is a bit early but I doubt we will be thinking business much by then!) in Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. With just 22 seconds left, in the game, the Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-6. The Steelers had the ball on their own 40 yard line, and it was fourth-and-10.

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the ball to the Raiders' 35-yard line, toward halfback John "Frenchy" Fuqua who collided with Raiders safety Jack Tatum just as the ball arrived. Fuqua was knocked to the ground, the ball went sailing backwards, and Steelers fullback Franco Harris scooped up the ball just before it hit the ground and ran it in for the touchdown that put the Steelers up 13-7.

You are still asking why this matters to you.

Three Rivers Stadium held, at its greatest capacity, 59,000 people. The game was blacked out on television in the Pittsburgh area so folks who weren't physically at Three Rivers Stadium could only hear it on the radio. If you lived in Pittsburgh you did not see the game on TV.

Yet today, if you ask a Pittsburgher about the Immaculate Reception, they will tell you they saw it. They saw it at Three Rivers, or they saw it on TV, nevermind that they couldn't possibly have seen it on TV.

Like so many other pivotal moments in a city's history, or a nation's history, or the world's history, everyone was there, everyone saw it. It mattered so much then and it continues to matter so much to the people of that area, in this case Pittsburgh, that people have convinced themselves that they witnessed this turning point event.

As a genealogist, that means we must be ever-vigilant when it comes to accepting information as fact without corroborating proof. Folks forget. People embellish tales. And some things are retold or replayed over and over so often that the myth or legend or belief become true in our minds. 

Until I did the research and learned that it was impossible for me to have seen the Immaculate Reception on TV, I would have told you with a straight face and pure heart that I watched that game with my Dad. I could even describe the victory dance he did as Franco scored the touchdown. The truth is, I have seen the Immaculate Reception replayed a thousand times or more, and it is so embedded in my memory after 40 years, that I honestly believed I saw the game that day.

No matter how convincing Grandpa's story of storming the beach at D-Day, no matter how many relatives can recount the tale of that founding ancestor who traveled here from Wales with his widowed mother, we need to find some corroborating evidence before we accept that story as true. You can find a hundred thousand people or more who will swear that they witnessed the Immaculate Reception that day in 1972. I am one of them.

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