Hail Mary pass

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Roger Staubach, the thrower of the game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson during a December 28, 1975, NFL playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings. Staubach cowboys qb.jpg
Roger Staubach, the thrower of the game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson during a December 28, 1975, NFL playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings.

A Hail Mary pass is a very long forward pass in American football, typically made in desperation, with great difficulty of achieving a completion. Due to the small chance of success, it makes reference to the Catholic Hail Mary prayer for help. [1]


The expression goes back at least to the 1930s, when it was used publicly by two former members of Notre Dame Fighting Irish football'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, typically of the "alley-oop" variety, 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 40 years, use of the term was largely confined to Notre Dame and other Catholic universities. [1]

The term became widespread after a December 28, 1975, National Football League playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings, when Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach said about his game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson, "I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary." [2]


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, before winning the game 13–3. 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 Georgia 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 Georgia Tech’s 6-yard line, 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. [1]

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. [1]

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. [1]


Arguably the most memorable and replayed Hail Mary pass came on November 23, 1984, in a game now known as "Hail Flutie". [3] Boston College was losing to Miami (FL) with six seconds left 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 the five-foot-nine-inch Flutie could not 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. [4] 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. [5]

Other noteworthy examples include:

In other fields

The term "Hail Mary" is sometimes used to refer to any last-ditch effort with little chance of success.

In military uses, General Norman Schwarzkopf described his strategy during the Persian Gulf War to bypass the bulk of Iraqi forces in Kuwait by attacking in a wide left sweep through their rear as a "Hail Mary" plan. This usage, however, did not refer to the plan's chances of success but to the movement of Coalition forces to the left side of the front lines prior to the attack, which reflected the formation for a Hail Mary pass in which all the offensive team's wide receivers line up on one side of the line of scrimmage. [20] [21]

Various legal actions attempting to overturn Donald Trump's defeat in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in particular the Texas v. Pennsylvania Supreme Court lawsuit, were described as "Hail Marys". [22] [23]

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. [24]

In computer security, a "Hail Mary attack" will throw every exploit it has against a system to see whether any of them work. [25]

See also

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  20. Schwarzkopf's Strategy
  21. Operation Desert Sabre
  22. The Trump legal team's latest voter fraud Hail Mary, Washington Post, November 9, 2020.
  23. Trump Asks Supreme Court To Let Him Join Widely Scorned Texas Election Lawsuit, npr.org, December 9, 2020.
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