December 23, 1972. Raiders: 7, Steelers: 6. Twenty-two seconds to play. Fourth and ten. The AFC Division championship on the line.
Sports aficionados know well this moment in NFL history. Suspended in time, this final play held captive the city of Pittsburgh, its hope in Steel City football on the line. Over the 40 years that have passed since the Immaculate Reception’s completion, countless replays have been shown and news stories told. Many, however, have overlooked a small army of Steeler fans bedecked in red, white, and green that deployed an Old World tactic to propel the Black and Gold to victory.
As Terry Bradshaw’s pass sailed through the air, caroming off of Raiders’ safety, Jack Tatum, and into the hands of Steelers’ Franco Harris, this army of Italian American Steeler fans knew what was behind the Immaculate Reception they had just witnessed.
Established in the fall of 1972, Franco’s Italian Army was the brainchild of East Liberty bakery owner Tony Stagno and his friend and fellow businessman,Al Vento. As devout Steeler fans throughout the early 1970s, Stagno and Vento decided to recruit an Italian “army of support” to enliven Three Rivers Stadium on game day. Once formed, this cohort of fans rallied support behind Franco Harris, the rookie fullback who shared their Italian heritage.
Throughout Harris’ breakout season, Franco’s Italian Army became infamous for its antics in the stands and on the field. Stationed at the 40 yard-line, the army brandished Italian flags, enjoyed wine and homemade Italian food, and successfully deployed military maneuvers to intimidate the Steelers’ foes. While on active duty, the army’s generals even went as far as to parade around the field in a military Jeep and a truck with a 105 mm howitzer in tow, all in support of their generalissimo, Franco Harris.
Aside from these customary tactics, Franco’s Italian Army armed itself with one final secret weapon, the malocchio (evil eye). According to Italian American culture, the malocchio was a curse that cast bad luck and misfortune on its recipient. Having grown up entrenched in the Italian American community of East Liberty, General Stagno equipped his army with a corno (an Italian horn) meant to protect the Steelers by thwarting the curse of the malocchio. Hidden inside this corno was a small ivory hunchback figurine that, according to legend, held the power to cast the malocchio on the Steelers’ foes.
Franco’s Italian Army was armed with this protective corno at the fateful game in late December 1972. In the seconds before Bradshaw queued up for the final play, the generals of Franco’s Italian Army brandished their weapon. However, just as they went to extract the hunchback to cast the malocchio on the Raiders, it fell to the ground. The generals scrambled to recover the figurine before all was lost. According to the generals’ recounting of the tale, just as Vento rescued the hunchback from the ground and handed it to Stagno, the ball fatefully bounced off of Tatum and into the hands of their commander-in-chief, Franco Harris. In the words of Al Vento,
We got the hunchback Italian that lives in that little horn, cornito. We had it the day that Franco Harris made the Immaculate Reception. Right when he caught the ball, right in front of the Italian Army. The Immaculate Reception, it was consummated there.
Whether the stuff of legend or something more, the tale of Franco’s Italian Army and the Immaculate Reception superstition live on today. The generals’ passionate support for and investment in the players of their era provides a glimpse into the devotion that typifies the Pittsburgh Steelers fan base today.
A piece of Franco’s Italian Army history has a permanent home at the Heinz History Center. In addition to the images highlighted here, the History Center has also collected oral history interviews and artifacts that preserve the story of Franco’s Italian Army. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, both the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum and the Thomas and Katherine Detre Library & Archives of the Heinz History Center have materials related to Franco’s Italian Army and the Immaculate Reception on display. In addition, the Detre Library & Archives has created an online exhibit that further highlights the history of Franco’s Italian Army.
Those interested in sharing in the legacy of the Immaculate Reception are welcome to join in the History Center’s 40th anniversary celebration of this infamous play! For more information on this special public event, click here. Also, there’s still time to enter the History Center’s #Francoing contest for a chance to win tickets to see the Steelers play the Bengals on December 23rd.