There’s 0:03 seconds left on the clock. The offense has the ball at their own 48-yard line and are down by more than a field goal. There is no choice. They are out options. The next play is all or nothing. The defense pulls the pass rush and defends deep. The quarterback drops back, scrambles, waiting for his receivers to get near the goal. He heaves the ball high in the air with no real target, only trying to get the distance to reach the end zone. The defensive backs and receivers bunch up waiting for the ball to descend. A receiver improbably comes down with the ball. Touchdown!!! An amazing win on a last second Hail Mary!
It’s one of the most well known terms and iconic plays in sports. But how did a last second desperation play become known as a “Hail Mary”?
The Four Horsemen
Not surprisingly, the story starts at the confluence of Catholicism and Football; The University of Notre Dame.
The expression goes back at least to the 1924 Notre Dame backfield; the famed Four Horsemen. The Four Horsemen were Quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, Halfbacks Don Miller, and Jim Crowley, and Fullback Elmer Layden. Riding the talent of the perhaps most fabled quartet in college football history, Notre Dame established itself as a football powerhouse, losing only 2 games in the 3 years they were together.
Jim 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.
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, implying that it would take divine intervention for the play to succeed. For more than forty years use of the term was largely confined to Notre Dame and other Catholic universities.
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 Jesuit run 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.”
Staubach To Pearson: The Hail Mary
The play that really cemented the term in the popular culture however occurred December 28, 1975 in the Dallas Cowboy’s 17-14 playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings. With the Cowboys trailing with 0:32 to go and the ball at the 50-yard line, legendary Hall of Fame Quarterback Roger Staubach connected with Preston Pearson for game winning touchdown.
See the play here:
After the game, in the locker room, a reporter asked Staubach, a devout Catholic, what he was thinking during the play, and he replied, “I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” The next day, headlines read, “Hail Mary Pass Wins Game.” The national press ran with it, and the term has been part of popular sports culture ever since.
Here’s a video of Staubach recounting the play: