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Hail Mary passes remain most exciting plays in football

Cowboys' 1975 Staubach-to-Pearson prayer to beat Vikings in playoffs was pass that coined 'Hail Mary' play

It's the most exciting play in football, and it rarely works.

It's the "Hail Mary" pass, a term coined 39 years ago Sunday, when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach heaved a 50-yard, desperation pass for Drew Pearson with 24 seconds left in an NFL divisional playoff game at Minnesota.

Although the ball seemed to hang in the air for ages, the pass was slightly underthrown, allowing Pearson to turn and catch it on his hip as a Vikings defender fell at his feet near the three-yard line. Pearson took a long step across the goal line, and the Cowboys miraculously came away with a 17-14 victory.

Staubach, a devout Catholic, later confided that he said a Hail Mary prayer after releasing the ball, hence the play's nickname that now transcends sports and is used as a metaphor for last-gasp attempts in all sorts of situations.

"It's crossed over into all parts of life," Pearson said. "You hear it in church, you hear it in business, you hear it in sports, community life, charity life. What it is is there are Hail Mary moments in people's lives. We all have them, when our backs are against the wall and you don't know where that rent's going to come from, or the kid needs braces, or the car needs fixing.

"For some reason, some way, somehow, we find a way to overcome those moments. We all catch a Hail Mary to do it."

But Pearson caught the original one. It's not as if teams didn't attempt desperation passes before 1975; they did, but it was Staubach who introduced the term.

Hail Marys in the NFL are infrequent, and sometimes years go by without a successful one. New Orleans almost pulled one off at the end of regulation against San Francisco this season, but Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was flagged for offensive pass interference. The would-be, 47-yard touchdown play was waved off, and the 49ers won in overtime, 27-24.

Afterward, a dejected Graham talked about the play that might have been.

"It's interesting, you know, how guys grab me everywhere on the field and I put literally two fingers on somebody and you make that kind of call," he said. "That's why I switched. That's why I left basketball, so I could stop being penalized for hitting people."

But that's the reality of the Hail Mary — everything, most of all the football, has to fall perfectly into place.

That's what happened 30 years ago on the most famous Hail Mary in history, when Doug Flutie of Boston College scrambled back and away from University of Miami defenders and, with no time on the clock, heaved a 48-yard touchdown pass to Gerard Phelan for a 47-45 victory. Flutie had to drop back so far, the ball traveled 65 yards.

The memories of that game, deemed the "Miracle in Miami," remain strikingly crisp to Phelan, now a Boston-based salesman for a financial printer.

"The thing that's most vivid to me is the instant with which the ball arrived," Phelan said by phone. "Everybody jumped up in front of me to defend it. I was expecting it to get tipped. So I was getting in line to get a tip, and if it came free I was going to be in the way. I jumped up and an arm moved to the right, and a head moved to the left, and the ball came between the two.

"It really just hit me in the lower part of the facemask and neck. I sort of fell back as it hit me to absorb the shock, and the ball traveled down my body so fast. I tried to get my elbows together in my lap and my knees together. It was all in an instant."

To this day, Phelan said, he's constantly asked about the play by people who recognize his name. He said everyone seems to remember where they were when they watched it unfold, and often — because it happened the day after Thanksgiving — those people were surrounded by family.

"I guess I'm the poster child of never give up," he said. "You've got to do the best you can right up until the end, because it might turn out good."

Or, if you're on the other end of a Hail Mary, it might turn out very, very bad. Toi Cook remembers being in that position. It came during a 1987 wild-card game against the visiting Vikings, the first playoff game in Saints history.

Cook, a rookie defensive back from Stanford, was sidelined because of a shoulder injury and watched in frustration as Minnesota's Wade Wilson threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Hassan Jones on the final play of the first half. The Vikings were already well on their way to a 44-10 victory, but that touchdown was the quintessential mood killer.

"It was so loud before the game, it was like Mardi Gras times 100," Cook recalled. "But after that Hail Mary, you could hear a mouse peeing on cotton."

Hell hath no fury like a fan base whose team just got torched by a Hail Mary. In October, a 46-yard Hail Mary touchdown by Arizona State's Jaelen Strong on the final play of a shocking, 38-34 victory over USC. A week earlier, USC scored on a Hail Mary of its own, a 48-yard touchdown pass from Cody Kessler to Darreus Rogers at the end of the first half against Oregon State.

But the game-winning Arizona State touchdown transformed the Los Angeles Coliseum into the L.A. Mausoleum.

"As a fan watching USC this year, I wanted to jump out of my bedroom window when I saw that," said retired all-pro tackle Tony Boselli, a former Trojans standout.

"There's nothing worse than being on the sideline as an offensive player, and the other team's doing a Hail Mary," Boselli said. "Because you know the chances are it's not going to work. But you're thinking, 'My goodness, don't let this be the one time that it happens.' You've played the whole game, and then the reality of it comes down to this one play, kind of a fluke play, and it's a hard way to lose, that's for sure."

Boselli has been on the winning side too. He was the anchor of Jacksonville's offensive line in 1996, when Mark Brunell threw a 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Jimmy Smith in the first half of a game against New England, and almost pulled off a second Hail Mary at the end of regulation but the receiver was ruled down at the one-yard line with no time left. The Jaguars lost that game in overtime, 28-25.

"As a lineman on a Hail Mary, the last thing I want to do is have this game end in a sack and not even give us a chance," Boselli said. "So it's like, you go out there and realize you're going to hold on as long as you can, and before you get beat, tackle the guy."

Retired NFL tight end Christian Fauria has been both an offensive and defensive player on Hail Marys, as the Patriots used to line him up as a deep safety to break up any of those low-percentage deep balls.

"It's a lot like being a center fielder," Fauria said. "You can't over-pursue it. You have to be able to judge the trajectory of the ball and the timing of your jump, not be overanxious. That's what happens. A lot of guys try to catch it and then they drop it and it gets tipped, or two guys on defense go up for it and they tip it. All you want to do is knock that ball down into the dirt.

"It should never happen. They should never be able to complete that play. But they do."

Then again, maybe successful Hail Marys get a little help from above. Charlie Waters laughs about that when he thinks about that Staubach-to-Pearson touchdown. Waters was a safety for the Cowboys, and he and his fellow defenders feel as if they had a role in its success too, even though they were merely spectators.

"I was on the sideline," Waters said. "[Linebacker] Dave Edwards was such a superstitious guy, he has us stand up and walk in the direction the offense was moving, behind the line of coaches. It was like a stream of defensive players walking along the sidelines. Dave was probably chanting some sort of mystical chant. But we all glanced over there when it happened and we thought it was us — we thought that was why it worked!"

Waters still has a picture of that play hanging in his office. In it, he said, there are maybe three Cowboys fans in the stands with arms raised and about 300 Vikings fans with an unmistakably stunned gaze.

Their stupor said it all: Oh, Hail no.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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