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Drew Pearson recalls the first Hail Mary pass

Cowboys' Drew Pearson was an NFL star, but is most remembered for first Hail Mary catch

Drew Pearson played 11 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, made three Pro Bowls, was a three-time All-Pro, and reeled in 489 career catches…

And all people ask about is The One.

That was Pearson's game-winning, 50-yard touchdown catch from Roger Staubach with 24 seconds left in an NFC divisional playoff game at Minnesota's Metropolitan Stadium on Dec. 28, 1975. The quarterback later disclosed that he said a Hail Mary prayer after letting the ball fly, hence the term "Hail Mary" was introduced into the cultural lexicon.

"I get asked almost every day about the Hail Mary," Pearson said by phone. "In some way, shape or form, people ask me about that. To this day, when I sign autographs I write 'Hail Mary always' or 'Hail Mary to you,' 'Hail Mary wishes,' things like that."

Just this week, Pearson spoke to the University of Illinois and Louisiana Tech football teams in preparation for Friday's Heart of Dallas Bowl, and told them the story of the Hail Mary. The players had no idea about the term's origin.

"They were sitting there with their mouths open, surprised that that's how it began," Pearson said. "They just thought it came out of the air somewhere."

And, in a sense, it did. Staubach's high-arching heave seemed to drop from the heavens, landing short of the goal line so that Pearson, being covered one on one by Nate Wright, had to rely more on his savvy than his blistering speed.

Pearson had gotten way downfield, though, because Staubach had pump-faked toward receiver Golden Richards on the other side in order to pull Vikings safety Paul Krause, the NFL's all-time interceptions leader, to Richards' side of the field. By the time Staubach pulled the ball back, Pearson had nearly reached the end zone.

"I had one more gear left," Pearson said. "If Roger had thrown it to the back of the end zone, I could have shifted into that last gear, done the toe dance in the back of the end zone, and walked away untouched."

Instead, he had to slow down, allowing Wright to pull even with him. The two tangled when the ball was in the air — to this day, Vikings fans swear Pearson pushed off — and then came a miraculous catch.

"As I looked back and saw the ball coming," Pearson said, "I saw it was going to be short, and then I did that swim move to get inside position. In doing that, I made contact with Nate, but there was no deliberate push. With that contact, he went down and I was able to swing my arms around.

"The ball hit my hands as I brought them around, and it went through my hands. I ended up catching the Hail Mary with my elbow and my hip. The ball slithered through my hands and stuck between my elbow and my hip. That adds to the mystique and aura of the Hail Mary."

When he crossed over into the end zone for the touchdown, he flung the ball over the scoreboard in celebration, winging it so far it landed in the parking lot. No one ever returned it.

"Someone probably thought it was just a kicking ball from pregame warmups," Pearson said.

Then again, Pearson doesn't need that memento. The Hail Mary will be with him for life.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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