“I had prostate cancer three years ago and I’m currently cancer free,” he said. “I played in 1970 at 206 and I weigh 199, and I still try to pump a little iron. And I haven’t got any gray hair on my head. I want you to write that.”
That was the ace John “Frenchy” Fuqua had up his sleeve when the Detroit native hosted the world the week his Pittsburgh Steelers played in Super Bowl XL. Frenchy went to the parties and toasted the old boys; he went to the game and toasted the new boys.
“I’m still recuperating from it,” he said. “I’m getting too old. I haven’t partied and had a chance to see that many people in a long time, but it was just fantastic. And I told the guys, especially Andy Russell, they had to do something with all that gray hair.”
Fuqua wasn’t one of the Super Steelers of the Seventies. He didn’t start for any of those championship teams. But he remains a legend because of one play. So, what about it Frenchy? What about the Immaculate Reception?
“All I can tell you is that it was immaculate,” he said with a laugh.
Fuqua, of course, was the intended receiver when the Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-6 on fourth down and 10 from their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the 1972 NFL playoffs. We’ll let Jack Fleming call it:
“Terry Bradshaw back at the controls, and Bradshaw back and looking again, and Bradshaw running out of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to, fires it downfield, and there’s a collision, and -- it’s caught out of the air! The ball is pulled in by Franco Harris! Harris is going for a touchdown for Pittsburgh!”
It’s the greatest play in NFL history. The Raiders contend it’s the greatest heist in NFL history. They argue the ball hit Fuqua at the Oakland 35, where he, Jack Tatum and the ball intersected before it bounced back to Harris. Back in 1972, two offensive players couldn’t touch a forward pass. Fuqua declined comment on whether it touched him after the game, just as he declines comment more than 33 years later.
“People have tried everything to get it out of me,” he said. “Most say ‘I’m going to buy you beer until you tell me,’ but what happens is they wind up telling me their life story before we’re done.
“I don’t know. It really goes back to a promise I made to the Chief years and years ago. At the time I planned to tell the story, but it became a lot more intimate to me when I lost him. The first 10 years went by and I hadn’t told anybody, then 15 years, then I started getting offered money, and I passed up some pretty good deals as a matter of fact. If there’s anything the Frenchman’s going to hold in his heart, and hold to his word, that’s what it is. And every anniversary Franco and I call each other up to wish each other happy anniversary.”
Fuqua said Art Rooney “made the NFL experience for me.” Fuqua was traded by the New York Giants to the Steelers, along with middle linebacker Henry Davis, for quarterback Dick Shiner on April 30, 1970. That’s when Fuqua went from owner Wellington Mara to Rooney.
“They were probably two of the most impressive and loving and God-fearing men on this planet,” Fuqua said. “Mr. Rooney was just a quiet guy with a cigar, but when he spoke to you it was like a word from the wise. He never said anything bad to you, and even when no one in that locker room would speak to you after a bad game the Chief would come up and say something nice and that would make you want to try that much harder the next Sunday.”
Fuqua set a team record in the 1970 finale by rushing for 218 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles. He ripped off a 72-yard touchdown run on the Steelers’ first play and later ran 85 yards on a trap sprung by right guard Bruce Van Dyke and left tackle Jon Kolb. The total was the best in the NFL that season and it remains a Steelers record. Fuqua said he went into the game with back spasms and team doctors tried to persuade him not to play.
“They put all this hot stuff on my back and wrapped me up. I went through the pre-game workouts and kept moving because I couldn’t let it stiffen up on me. The first play of the game I went for a long touchdown and I said, wow, it felt good, didn’t hurt. I came to the sideline and (Ralph) Berlin said ‘I’m a great trainer, aren’t I?’ I laughed and I kicked up and down the sideline, went back out there and stayed active.
“The great temperature – it might’ve been closer to 70 -- that day was a factor. And I remember on the next big run I broke through the line and got frightened because there wasn’t nothing but daylight in front of me. Now, I’m not the fastest guy, but I’m proud of the fact that once I’m in the clear I’ve never been caught from behind. I just took off for the end zone.”
It’s the third-longest run in team history. The Steelers haven’t had a 200-yard rusher since.
“I thought my guy Willie Parker was going to break it this year,” Fuqua said. “Before him, I thought Berry Foster would break it.”
Fuqua is also remembered for his outrageous outfits, which he said were encouraged by the Chief.
“I’d say here’s what I’m going to wear this coming Sunday. He’d say ‘What is it Frenchy?’ And I’d tell him, well, I’m going to have a musketeer hat and this and that and he’d say, ‘Well I think you look grand. Knock ’em out kid.’ And that was all the okay I needed. As long as I got the okay from the Chief I knew I’d knock everyone out that Sunday.”
Fuqua’s boldest outfits included glass heels with the goldfish. He’d met a manufacturer during a Dapper Dan banquet, but the man lost Fuqua’s number.
“I got home from practice one night, and I’m in the bathroom and my wife at that time said, ‘Frenchy, they’re talking about you on TV. Come in here.’ The man had sent four pairs to the station and they said ‘Frenchy, you’ve really outdone yourself this time. Come on down and get them.’ That’s how it started off, but there was one thing: They were 10½ and I wore a size 11 triple E. I had a wide foot and they killed me. The first time I wore them they were great but after 40 minutes my feet were killing me. So I wouldn’t wear them until I got to wherever it was I was speaking, and it worked well except if I was out for an hour the fish would die. There wasn’t enough water. I had all type of people come up with ideas and they never worked. I tried hoses in my pants, put tubes down there. Nothing worked.”
These days, Fuqua wears a more conservative shoe. He’s worked in the Detroit newspaper business as a circulation manger since he retired from the game.
“I wear suits instead of fantastic outfits,” he said. “I tried to hang on all the way till my 40s but eventually I started busting out of them, or the zipper wouldn’t come up, and I couldn’t stand the boys laughing at me a couple of times, so I just said okay, and slowly but surely my tastes became more conservative.”
Fuqua led the Steelers in rushing in 1970 (691) and 1971 (625) and tied Ron Shanklin for the team lead with 49 receptions in 1971. He was leading the team in rushing in the second half of the 1973 season when he broke his collarbone. Fuqua lost his job for good in November, 1974 when he broke his wrist and was replaced by Rocky Bleier. Fuqua was a spot starter in 1975 and 1976 and retired after spending 1977 on injured reserve.
Noll kept Fuqua as long as he could because of his versatility. Fuqua could play both running back positions and had great hands, which had been a weakness.
“We were a small black college in Baltimore (Morgan State) that ran the ball 95 percent of the time,” he said. “When I thought I might have an opportunity to come to the NFL, I talked to an alumnus and he told me to get silly putty, work it, go to bed with it, work it in both hands, and at night before bed throw the ball up 100 times and catch it. That guy was Leroy Kelly.”
It’s a trick Fuqua shared with his son, Derrion, who was Wayne State’s defensive MVP as a cornerback in 2005.
“They didn’t have the greatest football record, but more important, academic-wise, it’s one of the best schools in Michigan. I’m proud of him.”
Fuqua is also proud of his daughter Keylea and sons Ryan and John. Ryan was a star running back at Wesley College in the early 1990s and John played strong safety at Louisville until tearing up his knee as a senior.
Fuqua and his wife Shree planned to retire to Florida in 2006; three years after he’d learned he had prostate cancer.
“I’m kind of a health fanatic so I’d been getting my prostate checked since I was 47,” he said.
At the age of 56 Fuqua wanted to pass on the exam. It was cold and snowy and he was looking for an excuse to head to Florida early. Someone talked him into taking the extra few minutes with the doctor.
“I had a little spot,” he said. “We caught it early and had it removed. Two weeks later they had another scan, and that was probably the most trying time I’ve had in my life. I pulled through it, and three years later I only have to go once a year. I look back on it and I just push it to everyone: Get checked once a year. Start off now. You can have a great outcome if you get checked early.”
(Excerpted from the recently released book "Men of Steel" by Jim Wexell, from a March, 2006 interview.)