American Football Database

A Hail Mary pass or Hail Mary route in American football is any very long forward pass made in desperation with only a small chance of success, especially at or near the end of a half.

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. For more than forty years use of the term was largely confined to Notre Dame and other Catholic universities.[1]

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


The former Notre Dame halfback 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.[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, appearing 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, Roger 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]

Staubach to Pearson, 1975

The Hail Mary
1234 Total
DAL 00710 17
MIN 0707 14
Date December 28, 1975
Stadium Metropolitan Stadium
Location Bloomington, Minnesota
Referee Chuck Heberling
Network CBS
Announcers Gary Bender and Johnny Unitas

The term "Hail Mary pass" was introduced into the modern-day lexicon by the sporting press to characterize the famous Staubach-to-Pearson pass. It stemmed from a post-game interview with Staubach who described his desperation by referencing the term from his Catholic faith.

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 (no relation to Drew) with a short pass over the middle, but the ball fell incomplete. Then, with 32 seconds remaining Staubach again lined up in the shotgun formation, took the snap, pump-faked left, then turned to his right and unloaded a desperation pass to Drew Pearson who was being covered by All-Pro cornerback Nate Wright. Wright fell down, allowing Pearson to make the catch by trapping the ball 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."


As Pearson strode into the end zone for the score, free safety Paul Krause complained to field judge Armen Terzian that an 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 the Vikings defense as a penalty.[citation needed] More debris was thrown from the stands by angry Vikings fans, enraged that no penalty was called on Dallas.

Defensive tackle Alan Page argued 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, a Corby's whiskey bottle was thrown by a spectator, striking referee Armen Terzian in the head at Minnesota's own 10-yard line, creating a large forehead gash and rendering him unconscious.[citation needed] Terzian had to wear a bandage, later requiring 11 stitches, as he walked off the field and was replaced by substitute official Charley Musser for the final two plays.


The term "Hail Mary pass" was used by Roger Staubach following the game in a post-game interview. Previous to this play, a last-second desperation pass had been called several names, most notably the "Alley-Oop". Staubach, who had been hit immediately after throwing the ball and didn't see its ending, was asked about the play and 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." Staubach told reporters "I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary". This was among the plays by Roger Staubach that enhanced his fame and legend as noted in NFL Hall of Fame Archives.[2]

Shortly after the game concluded, Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton was informed that his father, Dallas Tarkenton, had died of a heart attack during the third quarter while watching the game on television at his Savannah, Georgia, home.


There is no one setup, although many teams may have a "Hail Mary" type play in their playbooks. More often such plays are called a "post" or a "fly," although most plays in football playbooks have numerical tags as opposed to names. Generally there is no standard "Hail Mary Play."

A play is more often called "Hail Mary" after the fact, that is if and after it has worked out against all odds and resulted in a score in the final moments. It is more a descriptive term of a sports moment, as opposed to a planned play.

Although such plays have low percentage chance of completion, there is likely some type of long pass play in every playbook at the professional and college level. Such a "long ball" "post" pass can occur with four or five wide receivers in the singleback formation or with four or five wide receivers in the standard or shotgun formation. Generally, three or more eligible receivers are lined up on the short side of the field and all run a fly pattern. The running backs, if in the play, may be kept in to block. Sometimes the team running a post will not even have a running back in the backfield, instead choosing to use every possible eligible receiver (five of them) to run a pass route, hoping to spread out the defense and give the quarterback more passing options. The quarterback throws towards a receiver, making the decision as to which one within 2–2.5 seconds of getting the snap. The Hail Mary pass does not always need to be completed to move the ball for the offense. It may succeed in drawing a pass interference penalty on the defense (a strong possibility with so many receivers running deep routes for the defense to cover), which gives the offense the ability to run another play with better field position in all situations (since the game cannot end on a defensive penalty, even if there is no time left on the clock). In college it may not help much as pass interference is only a spot foul up to 15 yards, while in the NFL, it is a spot foul no matter where it occurs, with the ball placed at the 1 yard line if the infraction occurs in the end zone.


The standard defense against the Hail Mary pass is the prevent defense.

The first priority is to ensure the defensive backs are in zone coverage, and that they keep the receivers well in front of them until the ball is thrown. Second, generally no more than four defensive linemen rush the quarterback, with all the linebackers dropping back to prevent a shorter pass. In many cases, the defense will remove some of its linebackers and linemen and replace them with extra defensive backs, in order to help compensate when the opposing team brings in extra receivers, leading to there being five or six defensive backs on the field instead of the usual four, generally known as the nickel and dime packages, respectively. Once the ball gets down field, the primary role of the defensive back is to knock the ball to the ground, thus ending the play, and preventing something such as an offensive player stripping the ball, a tipped pass resulting in a reception, or a fumble that could happen if the defensive player intercepted the ball.

Occasionally, especially in college football, offensive players (usually wide receivers) will be put in on defense to defend a Hail Mary. Hail Mary passes are most successful when the defense is in the wrong alignment. If the defense is in man-to-man coverage, and a receiver manages to break coverage by getting further down field than the nearest defensive back, the chance of success is greatly improved.


In the 1980 Holiday Bowl, BYU was down 45–25 with 4 minutes left in the game. Quarterback Jim McMahon spearheaded a last-gasp come-from-behind victory, capping the comeback with a successful Hail Mary pass to tight end Clay Brown as time expired that tied the game; Kurt Gunther's extra point gave BYU its first-ever bowl win, defeating SMU 46–45. This game is known among BYU fans as the "Miracle Bowl".

Another Hail Mary pass came in a 1984 game between Boston College and Miami (FL). With just 6 seconds left on the clock, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie threw what was by then commonly called a Hail Mary pass, which succeeded primarily because Miami's secondary stood on the goal line to keep the receivers in front of them, and failed to cover a post route being run by Gerard Phelan. Miami's defense was based on the assumption that Flutie wasn't able to 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.[3] A connecting road in Natick, where Flutie played for the high school, has been named "Flutie Pass".

Other examples include a 64-yard pass from Colorado QB Kordell Stewart to WR Michael Westbrook to beat Michigan on 24 September 1994 (Stewart's pass traveled 73 yards in the air, from the Colorado 26 to the opposite 1 yard line, was tipped, then caught by Westbrook 4 yards deep in the endzone), the Bluegrass Miracle, a Hail Mary pass by LSU Tigers QB Marcus Randall with 2 seconds to go in the Kentucky-LSU game on 9 November 2002, and "Rocket", a Hail Mary pass by Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins to wide receiver Keith Nichol to beat Wisconsin on 22 October 2011.

In other fields

The term "Hail Mary pass" has become generalized to refer to any last-ditch effort with little chance of success.

In basketball, A "Hail Mary shot" or "Hail Mary throw" is a shot thrown from a place far away from the basket (e.g. behind the half court line.)

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[4]

In 1991, Norman Schwarzkopf (Desert Storm commander) likened his strategy of flanking Iraqi defenders (by sending his forces in a westward direction to get behind them) to a Hail Mary play.[5]

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,[6] and later, to his attempt to win Pennsylvania and "toss-up" states in order to win the election.[7]

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.

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