Q/A with producer of Immaculate Reception documentary: Intense feelings 40 years later; Madden declines interview

When Neil Zender tells people he is producing a documentary on the “Immaculate Reception,” the reaction usually is the same.

“It’s like Kennedy,” Zender said. “Everyone remembers where they were for the ‘Immaculate Reception.'”

Naturally, I tell Zender my story. I was 13-years-old on Dec. 23, 1972 and watched the game with my friend, Dale. He was a big Raiders fan, while I was beginning my infatuation with the Steelers. I recall going crazy when the ball miraculously fell in Franco Harris’ hands and he dashed in for the winning touchdown. It was one of my most profound memories as a young sports fan.

I’m sure you have yours, which is why tonight’s documentary A Football Life: The Immaculate Reception (NFL Network, 8 p.m. ET) figures to do a strong rating. Forty years later, the mystery over the most famous play in NFL history remains intense. Should it have been allowed to be touchdown, giving the Steelers a 13-7 victory?

Here’s the link to a preview.

Zender, the producer for NFL Films, and his crew cover all the angles. They dissect the footage, including some only recently discovered, and even try to incorporate physics into the equation.

The interviews with the old Steelers and Raiders show they still are fired up about the game 40 years later. However, one crucial person declined to be part of the film: Raiders coach John Madden.

Does the film produce a definitive answer about The Immaculate Reception? You’ll have to turn in.

Here’s my Q/A with Zender:

How did you approach this film?

I had insomnia one night. I was channel surfing and there was one of those shows about the Kennedy assassination. They were looking at the Zapruder film and still photos from all the different angles. I thought, ‘Why can’t we do that for the Immaculate Reception?’ Let’s try to figure out what happened.

How did the players react 40 years later?

The neat thing is to see how much this one play meant to so many people. Not just the players, but also the regular people.

Even the old Raiders got into it. Many of them have almost made a living talking about the play. It’s interesting. Even though the Raiders thought they were a victim of a great crime, it’s the Steelers players who are the first ones to point to all the suspicious things about the play. The fun for them is the mystery. They’d rather play up the mystery.

You have old footage of Madden talking about the play, but nothing new. Why did he decline to participate?

We talked to the coach several times. He felt he had talked about it plenty. I understood. How many people want to relive the worst day of their pro career? It still hurts too much for him.

What makes that play so special?

It couldn’t happen today. The great plays are dissected like autopsies. There are 50 gazillion cameras, and there would be all sorts of replays. The magic gets drowned out of it.

That didn’t exist back then. As a result, people project what they want to project on that play. It’s a pretty magical play. There are very few things left like that in life.


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