Okay, this feels a little wrong, since it’s not about baseball. But it started when I was checking out Bill James’s website the other day, and there are a few other baseball connections, so hear me out.
Bill made an offhand comment about how the phrase “Hail Mary,” used to describe a last-second desperation heave, wasn’t current until Doug Flutie’s famous throw in 1984. I knew that was wrong, since I remember it from my childhood in the 1970s. A few commenters on the site pointed out that it was used to describe Roger Staubach’s 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson with 24 seconds left that beat the Vikings in a playoff game on December 28, 1975.
Checking up on it, it was easy to find the Associated Press story about the game, which quoted Staubach: “I guess you’d call it a Hail Mary pass. You throw it up and pray he catches it.” Another AP story the day after, about the Vikings’ claims that Pearson had committed pass interference on the play, said that “Staubach, a Catholic, called the bomb to Pearson a ‘Hail Mary’ pass…” So the AP felt it had to quote Staubach explaining the phrase, and point out that he was Catholic. This says to me that it wasn’t in general circulation at that point, or at least the AP didn’t think it was. (By the way, Fran Tarkenton’s father died of a heart attack while watching the game.)
On the other hand, I’ve found several instances in the seventies before the Drew Pearson play. Franco Harris’s 1972 “Immaculate Reception” was referred to in print at the time as a “Hail Mary” throw from Terry Bradshaw. (In fact, I’d always assumed that “Immaculate Reception” was coined as a kind of play on the “Hail Mary” concept.) After a Villanova/University of Toledo game on September 18, 1971, the Villanova coach, former NFL player Lou Ferry, said of the 57-yard-pass that set up Toledo’s winning field goal, “We pressured him. It was just a Hail Mary pass. The kid just leaped up and caught it. We were in a prevent defense. We couldn’t have done anything else.”
The pass extended Toledo’s winning streak to 25, best in the nation at the time. Villanova, of course, is a Catholic university. The Toledo passer, Chuck Ealey, was an African-American quarterback who (you guessed it) wound up in the CFL.
So others used the term in the 1970s, prior to the 1975 Vikings/Cowboys game. Staubach himself had used it a number of times, going back to his Navy days. In an NBC broadcast in 1963, Staubach called a pass he’d completed for Navy in a 26-13 win over Michigan “a Hail Mary play.” He was actually nearly sacked 20 years behind the line of scrimmage, but managed to find his fullback for what turned out to be a one-yard gain. Note that this doesn’t quite fit our current idea of a “Hail Mary”—it wasn’t specifically an attempt to go for the end zone, which I think is what we assume today. For Staubach in ’63, it could apparently apply to any desperation pass.
But Staubach did not coin the term. Let’s walk it back through the years:
October 13, 1959: A scout for Yale named Fritz Barzilauskas, a former Yale and NFL player, was quoted in the Hartford Courant talking about “a spectacular 65-yard heave…with only 24 seconds left” that enabled Cornell to beat Harvard the previous Saturday: “They call it their Martin Luther play,” Barzilauskas said. “The same thing at Notre Dame would be called the Hail Mary pass.” (Now, I wonder why that didn’t catch on?)
December 31, 1940: An AP article about the upcoming Orange Bowl (Georgetown vs. Mississippi State), said this about Hoyas’ quarterback Joe McFadden: “McFadden—a great actor in the huddle—is willing to call any play from a straight line buck to a ‘Hail Mary’ pass with never a thought of the second-guessers. 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.” Now we have three Catholic schools (Villanova, Georgetown, and Notre Dame) and one famous Catholic player (Staubach) implicated in the spread of the term.
November 2, 1935: Notre Dame, down 13 to 0 to Ohio State at Columbus, came roaring back in the fourth quarter, led by quarterback Andy Pilney (later a minor league outfielder who appeared in two games with the Braves in 1936), to score two touchdowns, making it 13 to 12. They got the ball back with minutes left. Pilney shook off six tacklers in a twisting, 32-yard run to the Buckeyes’ 19 before the Buckeyes finally brought him down, injuring him in the process. He had to be stretchered off, with the halfback, Bill Shakespeare (“The Merchant of Menace”), taking over for him. His first pass was dropped by an Ohio State defender. On the next play the fullback took the snap and handed off to Shakespeare for what looked like a reverse, but as Shakespeare rolled right, pursued by the Buckeyes pass rush, he suddenly stopped dead and heaved the ball into the end zone—where it slipped through the outstretched arms of an Ohio State defender and into the clutches of Irish receiver Wayne Millner for the game-winning touchdown with just 32 seconds left. There was still time for Notre Dame to miss the extra point and kick off, and for Ohio State to run two futile plays, before the game ended, 18 to 13 Notre Dame.
Bill Shakespeare to Wayne Millner: the original Hail Mary combination?
This, of course, was the original “Game of the Century.” A few weeks afterward, the Irish coach, Elmer Layden, was reported to have said that Shakespeare’s pass was a “Hail Mary” play that Notre Dame kept in its arsenal. (I found this in Edward J. Neil’s column in the Florence (S.C.) Morning News, December 2, 1935.)
Elmer Layden, as you may know, had been one of the famed “Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame’s backfield in the early 1920s, along with Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, and Sleepy Jim Crowley. Crowley, as it happens, leads to the next stop on our walk backwards.
The Four Horsemen: Layden, Miller, Crowley, Stuhldreher
January 9, 1932: At an annual banquet of the American Football Coaches’ Association, Crowley “brought down the hall” with this story, according to the Associated Press:
“In 1922 Notre Dame had nine sophomores on the team that went to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech. In the first half Tech got a field goal and things looked pretty dark for us. In the third period Layden punted to Red Barron, who muffed. We recovered on the 20-yard line and tried three plays in vain. It was fourth down.
“It so happened that we had a Presbyterian on the team. He stopped play and said to us, ‘Boys, let’s have a Hail Mary’. Well, we prayed, and Layden soon went over for a touchdown.
“Believe it or not, the formula was repeated. Again Layden kicked, again Barron fumbled, again we tried three plays in vain. ‘Let’s have another Hail Mary’, said the Presbyterian. Well, again Layden went over for a touchdown.
“After the game I discussed the strange series of events with our Presbyterian. ‘Say, that Hail Mary is the best play we’ve got’, he exclaimed.”
(This account of Crowley’s remarks comes from an Associated Press column by Allan Gould called “Sport Slants,” which was reprinted in papers all across the country. The version I have is from the Portsmouth, Ohio, Sunday Times of January 10, 1932.)
Crowley, who went to become the head coach at Fordham, repeated this story (with variations) a number of times on the banquet circuit through the 1930s, the latest version I’ve seen being from 1939. So Elmer Layden, the Notre Dame coach in 1935 who (it was said) referred to Shakespeare’s game-winning pass as a “Hail Mary” play, was remembered by Crowley as having scored the two “Hail Mary” touchdowns in 1922. Note also that the story here is about the team evidently saying a few Hail Marys before each successful play. They are still desperation plays, of sorts, both occurring on fourth down, but not last-second plays, and he doesn’t even say whether they were passes or not. The point is the prayer, and the joke is both that a Presbyterian suggests it, and that he thinks this Catholic prayer is the “best play we’ve got.”
This leads us to our last stop.
October 28, 1922: Notre Dame traveled to Georgia to face favored Georgia Tech. Trailing 3 to 0 in the second quarter, Tech’s star, David “Red” Barron, fumbled a punt by the “south-hoofed” Paul Castner, Notre Dame halfback (and future White Sox lefthander), and the Irish (actually called the Ramblers then) recovered at Tech’s 22. Three running plays netted them a first down at the 11. Castner “rammed left tackle for one yard.” Crowley got four yards over right tackle. Then Castner was stopped for no gain, and the Ramblers faced fourth down on Tech’s six-yard line. The quarterback, Harry Stuhldreher, took the snap, faked a delayed handoff, then tossed the ball quickly over the middle to Castner for a touchdown. Castner added the extra point, and Notre Dame led, 7 to 3.
The Ramblers put the game out of reach in the early fourth quarter. On third down at Tech’s 6 (again), Stuhldreher “rammed center” and bulled his way through for a touchdown. Castner failed to convert, and the score was 13 to 3. Another fumble by Barron ended Tech’s next possession. They got the ball back once, but Barron was caught for an 8-yard loss, Tech punted, and Notre Dame was able to get a first down and run the clock out.
Nothing in any game account I’ve seen mentions anything about Hail Marys or prayers at all. It’s interesting that Edgar Layden, later credited by Crowley as scoring both touchdowns, didn’t; in fact, it seems he wasn’t on the field for either touchdown. But it makes sense that Crowley would retrospectively associate him with the game, as they substituted for each other throughout. Layden started, then Crowley subbed for him, then Layden came back in for Crowley late in the game.
Instead Harry Stuhldreher, another one of the Horsemen, was the key player here, throwing for one touchdown and scoring the other. The receiver who caught the first touchdown, Paul Castner, was not counted among the Horsemen, being two years ahead of them, but was regarded as the star of the 1922 team. And the Presbyterian who suggested the Hail Marys was evidently guard Noble Kizer.
Here’s a photo of what might be, in a sense, the first Hail Mary play, Paul Castner scoring for Notre Dame against Georgia Tech, October 28, 1922:
(Photograph by Francis E. Price for the Atlanta Constitution, October 29, 1922)
To sum up: the concept of a “Hail Mary” play originated in the Four Horsemen era of Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame team, and referred at first to the team literally saying Hail Marys before a play in a tight situation—not necessarily the final seconds of a half or a game, but on fourth down, say, or after a succession of failed plays while trailing. By 1935, or at the very latest 1940, it had come to connote specifically a low-percentage, probably long pass play attempted out of desperation or at least with nothing to lose. As late as the 1960s it seemed to have currency mostly at Catholic colleges or with Catholic players, and even in 1975 it still sometimes had to be explained to a general audience (and its Catholic origins noted). But Roger Staubach popularized it through the 1960s and 1970s, and it especially caught on after the 1975 win over the Vikings.
I’m not a football historian (to say the least), so there may well be vastly better versions of the etymology of the “Hail Mary” play somewhere. You’ll find a lot of the same games and other dates referenced in various Wikipedia articles and elsewhere online. I actually plunged into this research without bothering to crank up the Google, so I ended up just duplicating some of what’s readily available. But the above account fleshes out a number of these milestones, and adds a couple—plus the online accounts of the 1922 game I’ve found are drawn from Crowley’s erroneous memories in the 1930s, so I wanted to get an accurate account of the game online.