In 1975, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach popularized the term "Hail Mary" to describe his miracle, winning touchdown pass to fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Drew Pearson in a playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings. Hail Mary thus became ingrained in the American sports lexicon, but the term was used decades earlier.
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In a game against Georgia Tech in 1922, Notre Dame players literally said a “Hail Mary” prayer in the huddle before scoring a 6-yard touchdown. It worked, so they did it again before scoring another 6-yard touchdown. Afterward, Notre Dame offensive lineman Noble Kizer declared: “Say, that Hail Mary play is the best play we’ve got!”
Perhaps the term would have vanished were it not for Elmer Layden, who played fullback in that 1922 game for The Fighting Irish and coached Notre Dame against Ohio State in 1935. With 32 seconds left, Notre Dame completed a 19-yard pass for the winning touchdown. Layden, recalling that victory against Georgia Tech, called it “a Hail Mary play.”
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The term reappeared six years later, when Georgetown played Mississippi State in the 1941 Orange Bowl. An Associated Press preview story mentioned that the “Hoyas put faith in the Hail Mary pass.” The story matter of factly offered this definition: “A Hail Mary pass, in the talk of the (Georgetown) 11, is one that is thrown with a prayer because the odds against completion are big.”
Notre Dame and Georgetown are affiliated with the Catholic Church, so the Hail Mary was familiar to every player and coach who said the prayer as penance after giving confession. The U.S. Naval Academy, of course, is not affiliated with any faith, but its quarterback, Staubach, is Catholic.
After a victory over Michigan in 1963, Staubach—who won the Heisman Trophy that season—described a touchdown as “a Hail Mary play.” Twelve years later, the term stuck, fueled by newspaper sports sections and widespread use on television.
Roger Staubach uses 'Hail Mary' at U.S. Naval Academy
On December 28, 1975, Staubach's Cowboys played against the Vikings in a divisional playoff game at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota. With the Vikings ahead, 14-10, the Cowboys had the ball with just 24 seconds left at midfield. Their season appeared over.
Coach Tom Landry, another Pro Football Hall of Famer, called for a long pass. “The chances on a play like that,” Pearson told reporters after the game, “are slim and none.”
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“It was a Hail Mary pass,” Staubach told reporters afterward. "I just threw it up there as far as I could."
Staubach’s 50-yard prayer was answered, but not without a bit of deviltry. His high, arcing ball came down near the 5-yard-line. Pearson, sprinting toward the end zone, adjusted his route to account for the underthrown ball. No one told Minnesota cornerback Nate Wright and safety Paul Krause. When Wright moved toward the falling football, Pearson collided with him.
Wright fell, prompting Krause to yell at the officials that they should call pass interference on Pearson. Meanwhile, the collision almost caused Pearson to drop the ball. Instead, he trapped it between his arm and his thigh, tucked it away, and ran into the end zone for the winning touchdown.
"I see this orange thing coming down and I thought it could be a penalty flag for pass interference either way," Pearson told reporters afterward. "But it was just an orange."
Pearson: 'It was unbelievable, tremendous, fantastic'
Vikings fans, already celebrating an apparent victory, turned surly. One fan threw an empty whiskey bottle that struck field judge Armen Terzian in the forehead, causing a gash. For the Cowboys, the play was an instant classic.
"Our only hope was to throw and hope for a miracle," Landry told reporters afterward.
After Pearson’s catch answered Staubach’s prayer, the Hail Mary emerged from college football obscurity and found a place in standard football terminology.
Newspaper sports sections the next day focused on the controversy about whether pass interference should have been called on the play. But "Hail Mary" found its way into headlines in the Philadelphia Daily News ("'Hail Mary' Pass Blesses Dallas") and Miami News ("Cowboys had no prayer until 'Hail Mary' pass").
Most Hail Mary passes aren't completed because of the degree of difficulty, but scores of long heaves have been. In one of the most famous Hail Mary plays, Doug Flutie—who went on to win the Heisman Trophy—completed a 48-yard pass to Gerard Phelan in 1984 with seconds left to give Boston College a stunning victory over the University of Miami. Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers has three successful Hail Marys to his credit.
Pearson and Staubach—who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985—have talked about their Hail Mary in hundreds of interviews since, but it never gets old. "It was the most thrilling catch of my career,” Pearson, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021, said after the 1975 playoff game. “It was unbelievable, tremendous, fantastic. What more can I say?”