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Who Threw the First “Hail Mary” Pass Ever?
Twitter: SportsDay Cowboys

Even if you aren’t a die-hard football fan, you know exactly what the Hail Mary pass is. In desperation time, the quarterback launches a prayer into the sky, hoping the football lands into the arms of someone wearing the same colored jersey. The Hail Mary is arguably the most heart-pounding play in sports, and heroes are born because of it from college football down to the high school ranks.

But like all great nicknames, someone deserves credit for coining the term. When it comes to the Hail Mary, the Hall-of-Fame quarterback of “America’s Team” was actually the originator of the phrase.

How the Hail Mary Pass Was Born

The 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff game pitted the Dallas Cowboys versus the Minnesota Vikings. Four seasons removed from the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory, the Cowboys reached the NFC playoffs as the wild card team with a 10-4 record. They traveled to Metropolitan Stadium to face the top-seeded Vikings, captained by 1975 NFL MVP Fran Tarkenton and the vaunted “Purple People Eater” defense led by Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees Alan Page, Carl Eller and Paul Krause.

Dallas trailed late in the fourth quarter, 14-10. With 32 seconds left in the game, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach prayed for a miracle. Taking the snap at his own 50-yard line, Staubach dropped back and hoisted a desperation pass downfield towards four-time All-Pro wide receiver Drew Pearson.

Miraculously, Pearson readjusted as the ball spiraled down at the 5-yard line. He caught it and crossed the goal line for a 50-yard touchdown as Minnesota’s Nate Wright stumbled behind him.

Dallas 17, Minnesota 14.

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Talking to reporters after the game, Staubach’s famous quote created the symbolic phrase we know and love today:

“I was a Catholic kid from Cincinnati, and [reporters] asked me what were you thinking about when you threw the ball, and I said, ‘When I closed my eyes, I said a Hail Mary.'”

The First Hail Mary: Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson

RELATED: The Best QBs in Dallas Cowboys History, Ranked

The comeback was complete, but that famous football was launched into the stands behind the end zone by an exuberant Pearson, who was actually fined $150 for doing so.

On the flip side, it’s important to note that you should never bring up the original Hail Mary pass to a Minnesota Vikings fan. Ever.

Believing Pearson interfered with Wright and the touchdown pass was illegitimate, outraged Vikings fans in Minneapolis littered the field with trash and oranges — Super Bowl X would be played at the Orange Bowl in Miami later that year, and fans came prepared to celebrate.

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However, the Lord shined on Tom Landry’s Cowboys that day. They torched the Los Angeles Rams by 30 points in the NFC Championship Game before meeting the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl X. Dallas’ magic ran out, however, as Pittsburgh captured its second-straight title in a 21-17 victory. Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann’s iconic catch in that football game earned him MVP honors.

The Cowboys returned to the big game during the 1977 season, defeating the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII to capture the franchise’s final title of those glory days.

We’ve seen dozens of Hail Mary wins — and even an Aaron Rodgers “Fail Mary” — but nothing will ever top the very first.

Other Origins & Notable Hail Mary Plays

Staubach is credited with making the term a widespread phenomenon, but the Hail Mary pass has origins way before that.

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When Notre Dame and Georgia Tech played each other in 1922, it’s said that Fighting Irish players said Hail Mary prayers before scoring touchdowns. The term was used publicly by former Notre Dame players Elmer Layden and Jim Crowley.

Crowley, in an Associated Press report, said that lineman Noble Kizer was the first to ask everyone to say a Hail Mary before the first touchdown in the second quarter. The team did it again in the fourth quarter, and it worked, leading Kizer to say “that Hail Mary is the best play we’ve got.”

The Hail Mary pass, of course, has been used throughout history since then.

There was the Ohio State-Notre Dame “Game of the Century” in 1935 that ended in a Bill Shakespeare-to-Wayne Millner game-winning touchdown. Elmer Layden, who played in that 1922 game, was Notre Dame’s head coach at the time.

In 1941, Georgetown used a Hail Mary pass against Mississippi State, and a headline from a local newspaper included the term “Hail Mary.”

More than 20 years later, Staubach — before his memorable Cowboys Hail Mary — beat Michigan when he played for Navy on a play he described as a “Hail Mary play.”

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Here are just a few more memorable examples of successful Hail Marys:

– 1980: BYU’s Jim McMahon’s 41-yard TD to tight end Clay Brown in “The Miracle Bowl” to beat SMU.

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– 1984: Boston College’s Doug Flutie’s 52-yard TD to Gerard Phelan to beat Miami in what became known as the “Hail Flutie” play.

– 1994: Colorado’s Kordell Stewart’s 64-yard TD to Michael Westbrook in the “Miracle at Michigan” to defeat Michigan.

– 2002: LSU’s Marcus Randall’s 74-yard TD to Devery Henderson in the “Bluegrass Miracle” to beat Kentucky.

– 2013: Auburn’s Nick Marshall’s 73-yard TD to Ricardo Louis in the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” to beat Georgia.

– 2013: Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton completes a game-tying 51-yard Hail Mary pass to A.J. Green, but they lose to the Baltimore Ravens in overtime.

– 2015: Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers’ 61-yard TD to Richard Rodgers in the “Miracle in Motown” to beat the Detroit Lions. Rodgers would complete another Hail Mary in the postseason that year against the Arizona Cardinals.

– 2017: Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers’ 42-yard TD to Randall Cobb on the last play before halftime against the New York Giants in a wildcard playoff game.

– 2020: Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray’s 43-yard TD to DeAndre Hopkins to beat the Buffalo Bills in Week 10.

Anyway you look at it, the Hail Mary is the ultimate forward pass in American football. Credit Roger Staubach for making it the famous play it is today.

This post was originally published on June 25, 2020.

MORE: The 20 Greatest Nicknames in NFL History, Ranked

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John Duffley About the author:
John joins the FanBuzz team with five years of experience freelancing as a sports writer for TheDupes.net and Football.com. A graduate of Penn State University, John currently lives and works in Austin, Texas. He is also a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).
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