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Cowboys’ Drew Pearson shares inside info on original ‘Hail Mary’ touchdown pass

Drew Pearson runs past fallen Vikings cornerback Nate Wright for the winning score in 1975 playoff game.
Drew Pearson runs past fallen Vikings cornerback Nate Wright for the winning score in 1975 playoff game. The play was described as a ‘Hail Mary’ by quarterback Roger Staubach.
(Associated Press)

The NFL is celebrating its 100th season, and there are many behind-the-scenes stories still to be told. Over the course of this season, Farmer has been pulling back the curtain and telling some of those, through the eyes of the players and coaches who lived them.

It wasn’t just an unforgettable catch that Drew Pearson made 44 years ago but also a moment that found its way into the cultural lexicon.

Pearson, a star receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, caught the original “Hail Mary” — or the first last-gasp deep ball referred to as one — with 24 seconds left in an NFL divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings. The grainy footage of that 50-yard touchdown on a frigid day at Metropolitan Stadium only tells part of the story.

Pearson tells the rest:

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We were the wild-card team that year. Back then, they only selected one wild-card team to make the playoffs in the conference. We had to play the team with the best record: the Minnesota Vikings. No one gave us much of a chance.

We got to town and it was snowing and overcast, dark and dreary. We got up the next morning and it was the same way. That atmosphere lent to the aura of that particular day. If we had been playing in Miami or somewhere, I don’t think it would have meant the same thing.

It was the last game in NFL history where both teams were lined up on the same sideline. That was really weird. You could only go to the 50-yard line, and couldn’t see way down to the opposite end of the field. Because of NFL rules, we weren’t allowed to have heaters on our sideline because Minnesota didn’t want heaters. Back in the day, we called that gamesmanship. Today, we call it cheating.

It was a tough, physical football game. Knock-down, drag-out, no one was doing anything much on offense. Defense was totally dominating the game. The field wasn’t slick, but it was muddy. It was a slow, plodding turf. That made it difficult to get upfield and run routes. The big decision before the game was whether to wear short or long cleats

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We were behind at halftime, 7-0, tied the game in the third quarter, and took a 10-7 lead in the fourth.

We’re down by four as the clock was winding down, so we had to score a touchdown.

Two plays before the Hail Mary, we had a fourth-and-17 situation at our 25. Roger Staubach told me to run a post-corner, again on [cornerback] Nate Wright’s side, and he hit me for 22 yards and a first down. Nate ran me out of bounds and I slid into a snowbank. That’s when a security guard came over and kicked me in the ribs. You don’t feel it at the time. You’ve got the momentum, the adrenaline, you just got this first down. But later we saw on film that this security guard came over and kicked me.

Funny thing about that. I went up to Minnesota to do an autograph signing. They had to pay me a lot of money to go up there. I wasn’t going into enemy territory for nothing. I sit down at the table, and sitting next to me is the security guard who kicked me. He’s got his uniform on, the security hat. He had trading cards, 8 x 10 pictures. He’s one of the most famous people in Minnesota.

Back to the game. In the huddle right before the Hail Mary, Roger says, “We’ve got to take some shots to the end zone.” He tells me to line up on the right side on a turn-in takeoff on Wright. The only other guy he told to go out on the play was Golden Richards to run that post pattern on the left side, to hold [Vikings safety] Paul Krause over there so I’d be man on Nate.

I ran a turn-in takeoff. When I came out of the break, Nate and I were neck and neck. Again, I knew I had that one more gear to shift into if Roger threw it out there. But it was underthrown, because by the time he came back after pumping Golden, I was way down the field.

Because it was underthrown, I was able to see that and use that swim move that receivers use to get inside position on a defensive back. In doing that, the ball hit my hands and it went through my hands and stuck between my elbow and my hip. I look down and I’m on the five-yard line and I kind of backed into the end zone for the touchdown.

After I caught the ball, somebody threw a whiskey bottle out of the stands and hit the official on the sideline. Hit him in the head and knocked him out. Even when I caught the ball, I saw an orange object out of the corner of my eye. I thought it might be a flag, but it was an orange somebody threw from the stands. It was pandemonium.

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I didn’t keep the ball. I had envisioned myself catching the winning touchdown in the game, and I told myself that if I do, I’m going to throw the ball into the stands. Because it was on national TV, it’s a playoff game, and that was really taboo in the NFL back in the day because you got fined $150. I ended up throwing it over the stands and the scoreboard, and into the parking lot. I haven’t seen that ball since.

Now, the “Hail Mary” part. After the game, reporters were all asking Roger what happened on the play. He said, “I threw the ball as far as I could, I closed my eyes, and I said a Hail Mary.” The next day, the Dallas Times Herald headline said “Cowboys Win by a Hail Mary.” And, bam, that’s when it took off from there.


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