Hail Mary (Pass)

Origin of the Term

In the 1920’s Notre Dame was losing to Georgia Tech. One of their linemen, Noble Kizer, a Presbyterian, suggested praying a Hail Mary. They did and scored on the next play. Ironically, the Hail Mary is a traditional Catholic prayer, not normally recited by Protestants, but that didn’t stop Noble Kizer. Notre Dame repeated this later in the game, scored another touchdown and went on to victory. Notre Dame halfback Jim Crowley told this story in later years indicating that Kizer thought that ‘The Hail Mary is the best play we’ve got’.

The ‘Hail Mary’ is one of the most thrilling football plays. There are only a few seconds left in the game, your team is behind, and has a long way to go to score. The only chance is a desperation long pass into the end zone hoping that a miracle, or divine intervention, occurs and your player catches it for the victory.

The term was popularized by Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Roger Staubach in 1975. There were only a few seconds left, Dallas was losing a playoff game to Minnesota 14 – 10 with the ball on the 50-yard line. His completed TD pass won the game 17 – 14. After the game, Staubach was asked what he was thinking, and he replied, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”

The most Famous Hail Mary Pass

In November 1984 top 20 ranked Boston College (BC) played against the prior year’s national champion, Miami. The game featured two future NFL quarterbacks, BC’s Doug Flutie and Miami’s Bernie Kosar.  The game was a thriller, played in the rain. Down 41 – 38 with under four minutes to play, Miami faced 3rd and 21 from its own 10 yard. Kosar narrowly avoided a sack and completed a 20-yard pass. Miami made the fourth and 1 attempt and went on to score what was thought to be the game winning score. Miami was now up 45 – 41 with only 28 seconds to go.

After the kickoff, Flutie completed two quick passes to move BC to Miami’s 48-yard line with 6 seconds to go. Time for one last play. Flutie was flushed from the pocket and from his own 37-yard line threw the ball 63 yards into the end zone. Amazingly, the ball fell into BC receiver Gerald Phalen’s hands untouched by any defenders. There was a strong wind against Flutie and apparently the defense did not think he could throw it that far.

The game is considered one of the most memorable in sports.

It was a bad stretch for Miami. Two weeks prior, Miami had a 31-0 lead against Maryland at half time. They lost 42 – 40 as Maryland performed one of the largest comebacks in College Football history. Maryland’s backup QB, Frank Reich, came into the game after halftime and threw 6 TD passes. Reich seemed to have a knack for comebacks. In the 1993 NFL playoffs, playing for Buffalo, he started in place of injured Jim Kelly. Down 38 – 3 at half time, Reich threw four TD passes in the second half to lead Buffalo to a 41 – 38 victory over Houston.

Hail Mary Specialist

‘Tipped ball’, ‘jump ball’ and ‘boxing out’ are key components of a successful Hail Mary. The offensive players try to keep the defenders from the ball by boxing them out. They hope to win a jump ball or tip it to one of their other players. To improve their chances on a Hail Mary, a football team should put on their roster a basketball player, a good rebounder. Take Steven Adams, 7-foot, 255-pound center for the NBA’s Oklahoma Thunder. He is one of the top rebounders in the league, certainly knows how to box out opponents, out jump others to snag the ball and when to tip the ball to a teammate if he can’t capture the rebound.  As a Maori from New Zealand, he probably played rugby and is used to fighting for the ball in rough conditions. Your typical 6-foot, 200-pound defensive back would not have a chance at defending a Hail Mary pass against someone like Steve Adams.

You may think this suggestion is a joke, but consider Morris Stroud, a 6-10 College basketball center from the late 1960’s. The Kansas City Chiefs football team drafted him despite his limited college football experience. One of his jobs was to stand under the goal posts and jump to deflect field goal attempts before they crossed through the posts. The NFL subsequently outlawed ‘goal tending’ in what is informally known as the Stroud rule. Stroud also was a tight end and is the tallest player in NFL history to score a touchdown. By coincidence the shortest player ever to score a touchdown in the NFL, 5-foot, 5-inch Noland Smith, also played for the Chiefs. So that’s the long and short of it.

Skill or Luck

The success rate on Hail Mary’s is quite low, probably less than 5%. You need a QB who can throw the ball a long way into the end zone, but most NFL QB’s, whatever the rest of their skills, can do so. Once in the air players from both teams congregate around its landing point. Usually the defenders knock it down, but on rare occasions the ball ends up in the offensive teams’ hands. Seems like a lucky play to me.

However, one QB completed three Hail Mary’s in a little over a year. Skill or luck? In one, against Detroit, he scrambled left, then unleashed a 61-yard pass for a game winning TD as time expired. It is the longest completed Hail Mary pass in NFL history. A few weeks later, in the playoffs against Arizona, his team was down a TD with under a minute left and the ball on his own 4-yard line. First, he scrambled left and completed a miraculous 60-yard bomb. Then with 5 seconds left he again scrambled left and with a defender in his face, falling backward, he threw the ball over 50 yards in the air to complete the Hail Mary and tie the game. It seems anti-climatic to mention this, but the Arizona won in overtime. Finally, in the next season, this mysterious QB faced the Giants in the playoffs and completed a Hail Mary. But it was at halftime and his team ended up winning an easy victory running away with it in the second half.

I’m not going to reveal the name of this QB other than to indicate that he is the current starting QB for some NFL team that plays somewhere in northern Wisconsin.

Conclusion

Even failed Hail Mary’s are dramatic. In the 2018 Super Bowl, down 41 – 33, Tom Brady’s Hail Mary attempt for New England bounced off several players before hitting the ground as time expired. In the 2015 Super Bowl down 21 – 17, Brady’s Hail Mary again hit a few players. Tight end Gronkowski dove for the ball, but it fell a few feet away from him. This year, against New England, down 38 – 31 with 1 second left, Chicago Bears QB Mitch Trubisky scrambled to his left and threw the ball 62 yards in the air with a defender in his face. Kevin White caught it! Game tying Hail Mary? Nope. The ball was caught on the 1-yard line and Kevin White was tackled there. However, I believe the Bears will not need to try any more Hail Mary’s the rest of the season, because they’ll always be winning. I’m sure of it.