“Hail Mary, full of grace!” goes the prayer. On any given Sunday, that phrase means two entirely different things depending on whether you spend your morning in the pews or your afternoon in the bleachers.
The origin of football’s Hail Mary can be traced back to a Sunday afternoon in 1975. I’m willing to bet the prayer goes back a little further. If it weren’t for the famous Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Roger Staubach, the phrase never would have entered the public lexicon. Now, it has taken on a new kind of reverence.
Roger Staubach aka Captain America had a legendary career
Staubach is known by many names. Captain America. Roger the Dodger. Captain Comeback. Every one of those nicknames was well-earned.
Staubach played for the Dallas Cowboys from 1969 until 1979. He is considered by many to be the greatest quarterback in Dallas history.
Staubach played college ball for the Naval Academy. He won the Heisman trophy in 1963 and is considered one of the greatest college football players ever. His professional football career took a small detour, however, when he was deployed to Vietnam following graduation.
Staubach practiced his leadership skills in the Navy. During his deployment, he supervised numerous enlisted men as a naval officer. But football was never far away. He was drafted by Dallas in the 10th round of the 1964 draft as a “future pick,” securing him a place once his tour of duty was complete.
Once he hit the field in Dallas, he led the Cowboys to four Super Bowls, including two Super Bowl wins. Over the course of a decade-long career, he amassed 22,700 yards and 153 touchdowns and retired as one of the most prolific Cowboys players ever.
The history of the ‘Hail Mary’ in football
One of Roger Staubach’s biggest contributions came in the 1975 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings. There were only 32 seconds left in regulation. The Cowboys were on the Vikings’ home turf, and they were favored to win.
The Cowboys were down 14-10, and the clock was running out. The Vikings’ defense had shut down Staubach on the first two plays of the drive. In short, to wax biblical, the end was nigh.
Staubach called a huddle before the third down and laid out a simple plan: they’d start in the shotgun, and everybody except Drew Pearson, his favorite receiver, would block. Staubach instructed Pearson to run a long in-route, and he’d… just find him. It was barely a plan.
The desperate play worked though. Pearson only had to contend with one defender. Staubach faked a throw, flicking the safety off, and then delivered it to Pearson’s general vicinity. It was underthrown, but somehow Pearson caught it against his hip for a touchdown.
Later in the locker room, Staubach was asked what went through his mind before the play. According to the Cowboys’ website he said, “When I closed my eyes I said a Hail Mary. I could have said Our Father, Glory Be, The Apostles Creed.” And thus, the Hail Mary was formally born.
A common phrase in the NFL today
Although Roger Staubach’s legendary 1975 pass is considered the most famous Hail Mary, it was hardly the first or the last. The phrase can be traced back to Notre Dame football in 1922, according to ABC, but it was not commonly used until the Cowboys made it famous. Now, the phrase is everywhere.
There have been dozens of Hail Mary passes since Staubach retired. Some of the more dramatic plays in modern history include Aaron Rodgers’ game-winner against Detroit in 2015, or Andy Dalton’s 2013 game-winner against the Ravens.
In fact, the Hail Mary has transcended football altogether to become a common cultural phrase. Anytime someone does something amazing based on nothing more than a wing and a prayer, we call it a Hail Mary. All thanks to a little blind faith on a random Sunday in 1975.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference