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|Date||December 28, 1975|
|Announcers||Gary Bender and Johnny Unitas|
A Hail Mary pass is a very long forward pass in American football, made in desperation with only a small chance of success, especially at or near the end of a half. The term became widespread after a December 28, 1975 NFL playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings, when Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach (a Roman Catholic) said about his game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson, "I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary." Previous to this play, a last-second desperation pass had been called several names, most notably the "Alley-Oop".
The expression goes back at least to the 1930s, being used publicly in that decade by two former members of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen, Elmer Layden and Jim Crowley. Originally meaning any sort of desperation play, a "Hail Mary" gradually came to denote a long, low-probability pass attempted at the end of a half when a team is too far from the end zone to execute a more conventional play, and that it took divine intervention for it to happen. For more than forty years use of the term was largely confined to Notre Dame and other Catholic universities.
Crowley often told the story of an October 28, 1922, game between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech in which the Fighting Irish players said Hail Mary prayers together before scoring each of the touchdowns, winning the game 13 to 3. According to Crowley, it was one of the team’s linemen, Noble Kizer (a Presbyterian), who suggested praying before the first touchdown, which occurred on a fourth and goal play at the Tech 6-yard line during the second quarter. Quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, another of the Horsemen, threw a quick pass over the middle to Paul Castner for the score. The ritual was repeated before a third and goal play, again at Tech’s six, in the fourth quarter. This time Stuhldreher ran for a touchdown, which sealed the win for Notre Dame. After the game, Kizer exclaimed to Crowley, “Say, that Hail Mary is the best play we’ve got.” Crowley related this story many times in public speeches beginning in the 1930s.
On November 2, 1935, with 32 seconds left in the so-called "Game of the Century" between Ohio State and Notre Dame, Irish halfback Bill Shakespeare found receiver Wayne Millner for a 19-yard, game-winning touchdown. Notre Dame head coach Elmer Layden (who had played in the 1922 Georgia Tech game) afterwards called it a “Hail Mary” play.
An early appearance of the term was in an Associated Press story about the upcoming 1941 Orange Bowl between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Georgetown Hoyas. The piece appeared in several newspapers including the December 31, 1940 Daytona Beach Morning Journal under the headline, "Orange Bowl: [Georgetown] Hoyas Put Faith in 'Hail Mary' Pass"). As the article explained, "A ‘hail Mary’ pass, in the talk of the Washington eleven, is one that is thrown with a prayer because the odds against completion are big."
During an NBC broadcast in 1963, Staubach, then a Navy quarterback, described a pass play during his team’s victory over Michigan that year as a “Hail Mary play.” He scrambled to escape a pass rush, nearly getting sacked 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage before completing a desperation pass for a one-yard gain.
|Date||December 28, 1975|
|Announcers||Gary Bender and Johnny Unitas|
The Cowboys started the game-winning drive with the ball on their own 15-yard line, trailing 14–10 with 1:50 left in the game. After a spectacular catch by Pearson on fourth and 17 brought the Cowboys to midfield with just 37 seconds left, Staubach then tried to hit running back Preston Pearson with a short pass over the middle, but the ball fell incomplete. Then, on second down with 32 seconds remaining, Staubach again lined up in the shotgun formation, took the snap, and pump-faked left toward Golden Richards in an effort to confuse future Hall of Fame free safety Paul Krause. Drew Pearson, who had run about 15 yards downfield, took two steps to his left attempting to misdirect All-Pro cornerback Nate Wright, then cut back to his right and ran hard down the right sideline ahead of Wright.
Staubach then turned to his right and unloaded a pass to Pearson, but the pass was underthrown due to pressure from the Vikings defense and the hard pump fake. Pearson backed up slightly as the ball reached his area; there was contact between Wright and Pearson, then Wright fell down, allowing Pearson to make the catch by trapping the ball with his right elbow against his right hip at the 5-yard line with his back to the end zone. He then turned and scored standing up with 24 seconds left. Pearson said later that he thought he had dropped the ball only to find it pinned against his hip and then "I just waltzed right into the end zone." With the extra point, Dallas went up by a field goal, 17–14, which was the final score. In response to Wright's claim that he was pushed, Pearson said, "I used that swim move that receivers use to get inside position on defensive backs. There was contact with Nate Wright, but there was no deliberate push."
Metropolitan Stadium went silent, then debris began to rain down on the field. Krause and Wright complained to field judge Armen Terzian that a pass interference penalty on Pearson should have been called. An orange, thrown by a spectator in the stands, whizzed by Pearson at the goal line. The orange is visible on NFL Films footage of the play and was initially confused by some as a penalty flag and was also misinterpreted by some players on the Vikings defense as a penalty. More debris was thrown from the stands by angry Vikings fans, enraged that no penalty was called on Dallas.
Defensive tackle Alan Page argued vigorously with officials and was assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the ensuing kickoff. On Minnesota's next possession with 14 seconds left to play, on second down at their own 10-yard line, a full Jack Daniel's whiskey bottle was thrown by a spectator. The bottle struck field judge Terzian in the head, creating a large forehead gash and rendering him unconscious. Cowboys strong safety Charlie Waters, who was in the Dallas huddle standing very close to Terzian, recounted that he thought the official had been shot. Terzian had to wear a compression bandage as he walked off the field; the wound caused a concussion and required 11 stitches. Terzian was replaced by substitute official Charley Musser for the final two plays.
Staubach, who had been hit immediately after throwing the ball, was still lying on the ground and didn't see Pearson catch the ball. When he was asked about the play later in the locker room, he said, "You mean [Pearson] caught the ball and ran in for the touchdown? It was just a Hail Mary pass; a very, very lucky play." Though he joked with reporters that he prayed as he threw the ball, Staubach never actually did so.
Shortly after the game concluded, Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton was informed that his father, Rev. Dallas Tarkenton, had died of a heart attack during the third quarter while watching the game on television at his Savannah, Georgia, home.
Arguably the most memorable and replayed Hail Mary pass came on November 23, 1984 in a game now known as "Hail Flutie." Boston College was losing to Miami (FL) with 6 seconds left on the clock when their quarterback Doug Flutie threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Gerard Phelan, succeeding primarily because Miami's secondary stood on the goal line to keep the receivers in front of them without covering a post route behind them. Miami's defense was based on the assumption that Flutie couldn't throw the ball as far as the end zone, but Flutie hit Phelan in stride against a flatfooted defense a yard deep in the end zone. To commemorate the play, a statue of Flutie in his Hail Mary passing pose was unveiled outside Alumni Stadium at Boston College on November 7, 2008. 
Other noteworthy examples include:
The term "Hail Mary pass" has become generalized to refer to any last-ditch effort with little chance of success.
There are similar usages in other fields, such as a "Hail Mary shot" in photography where the photographer holds the view finder of an SLR camera far from his eye (so unable to compose the picture), usually high above his head, and takes a shot. This is often used in crowded situations.
During the 2008 United States presidential election, Senator Chuck Schumer criticized John McCain's vice presidential pick, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, by calling it a "Hail Mary pass". The term was also applied to his decision to suspend his campaign, and later, to his attempt to win Pennsylvania and "toss-up" states in order to win the election.
In the 1996 movie Executive Decision, commander in charge Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis (Steven Seagal) describes the severity of a possible mission to Pentagon officials as "Hail Mary". This phrase eventually employed as the code name of the mission, denoting to its last-chance nature.
In the 2010 movie Extraordinary Measures, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford) uses the phrase during his conversation with John Crowley (Brendan Fraser) referring to chance of approval for sibling trial (a clinical trial) of an enzyme developed for treatment of Pompe, from which John Crowley's two children suffer.