A young teenage boy strolled up to Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James on Saturday and, before posing for a photo, he had to tell James something he’s heard hundreds of times the past two months.
“It was a catch,” he told James.
The Penn State alum smiled and then nodded, before his 6-foot-7 frame leaned down for another picture, as part of the Nittany Lions’ annual Thon Explorers program, where football players and staff help show Four Diamonds families around the Lasch Football Building.
James said over the weekend, with a wry smile, that he hasn’t been able to escape talk about the catch that wasn’t a catch. He couldn’t escape it Saturday, not in front of Steelers fans who still hadn’t passed their driver’s exams, and certainly not in front of the media.
“It was a pain at first,” James said, “but now I’m kind of used to it.”
The “catch,” of course, refers to James’ 10-yard over-the-middle reception that was made with 33 seconds left in the Dec. 17 game against the New England Patriots. James caught it about a yard short of the end zone, reached out and extended the football past the goal line, allowing it to hit the ground. Officials reversed the touchdown call after seeing the ball move, and Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception two plays later. The Steelers lost 27-24.
“It’s brought up all the time,” James said. “Anytime you talk football, it’s going to be brought up — especially the weeks that followed it. There were a bunch of controversial calls, and it kept going. It’s just the way that happened.”
James is as synonymous with that call as the outlaw Jesse James is associated with gunfights. Many have referred to it as the “Jesse James play,” one that epitomizes the problem with the NFL’s catch rule. Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was forced to address that play, and the bigger issue, and said it would be brought up with the competition committee this offseason.
For James, it was a play that took him a while to get over. In fact, he said, he didn’t feel relief until the morning after the Super Bowl.
“I don’t feel like I gave them a Super Bowl with that,” James added, referring to the Patriots. “So I’m over it now, but it’s going to be a topic of conversation until the rule gets changed — or it doesn’t.”
Although the loss to the Pats came in the regular season, it still had an indelible impact on the postseason. A Pittsburgh win would’ve given the Steelers the top seed in the AFC, meaning they would’ve taken on the Tennessee Titans instead of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round. It also would’ve secured homefield advantage.
But, dressed in a gray Penn State T-shirt, James didn’t sound angry or bitter about his NFL experience. Sure, he’ll hear about the “Jesse James play” just about everywhere — “I hear random guys talking at the bar about it right next to me,” he said with a smile — but he’s since come to terms with that.
“Yeah, it’s a controversial play and being in the center of it in a negative way is not great,” he said. “But it is what it is.”