Staubach, Pearson discuss genesis of 'Hail Mary' pass
12:15 AM CST on Sunday, January 17, 2010
By BARRY HORN / The Dallas Morning News
Roger Staubach reckons he could have told the world, "I closed my eyes and said a Glory Be." Or maybe he could have declared that he recited the Lord's Prayer. But in the jubilant Cowboys locker room, in the dank bowels of Minnesota's Metropolitan Stadium, history says he pulled from his memory bank another prayer he learned as a boy.
It was minutes after Staubach had thrown a desperation 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson in a 1975 playoff game, giving the Cowboys a 17-14 win over the Vikings. America's sportswriters clamored for words of wisdom.
Exactly what was he thinking when he threw the pass, inquiring minds wanted to know.
The quarterback known as "Captain Comeback" for his late-game heroics didn't disappoint. He offered a Hall of Fame locker room comeback destined to become the defining buzz phrase for future against-all-odds clock-beating attempts.
"I was kidding around with the writers," Staubach recalled last week. "Then they asked the question. I said, 'I got knocked down on the play. ... I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.' "
His former teachers at St. John the Evangelist Catholic grade school in Cincinnati, particularly Sister Sloan and Sister Paula Marie, would write to tell him they were so proud. In his time of need, their student had sought grace from his religion.
That Staubach got jostled and knocked to the turf by men who reveled in calling themselves Purple People Eaters is indisputable. But only one man knows exactly what went through the quarterback's mind at that very moment.
"What else could I tell the reporters? I intentionally underthrew the ball?" a laughing Staubach said as he relived the play last week.
The glory for the underthrown pass belongs to Staubach. The credit for ultimate success of the play, however, belongs to Pearson, who contorted himself and managed to latch onto the ball with his right elbow squeezed against his hip after it sailed through his hands.
Without that catch, there might have been no NFC Championship Game victory in Los Angeles the following week against the Rams – and no Super Bowl trip to Miami, where the Cowboys went on to lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-17.
Staubach and Pearson have relived the moment hundreds of times. The conversations heat up at milestone anniversaries. The years 1985, 1995 and 2000 brought much attention. Media historians might have started calling again later this year – around the play's 35th anniversary on Dec. 28.
But current events have thrown a slight curveball. The Cowboys visit the Vikings today in a divisional playoff game, 34 seasons after the Hail Mary.
During the waning minutes of the Cowboys' 34-14 first-round playoff victory over Philadelphia last weekend, Pearson turned to a luxury suite mate at Cowboys Stadium and told him to prepare for the latest resurrection of Hail Mary interest. Staubach nodded knowingly.
"The play never dies," Pearson said. "I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me and told me exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened. It has become part of American folklore.
"The most amazing thing is that when I first heard Roger's story, I didn't even know what a Hail Mary was," Pearson continued. "It was a great play, but there are a lot of great plays. It's the name that has kept it alive."
And then he paused.
"I guess," he concluded, "I'll always be the skinny-legged Baptist kid from South River, New Jersey, known for catching the Hail Mary."
Before the pass was indelibly stamped the Hail Mary, Staubach thought he had simply thrown an "alley-oop" or a "bomb" to Pearson on a cold, gray Minnesota winter afternoon.
The underdog Cowboys trailed the Vikings, who had just taken a 14-10 lead with 1:51 remaining.
"The game was like a heavyweight fight," Pearson said. "It was the most physical football game I ever played in."
Perhaps Pearson felt that way because he was spending most of his day blocking. The game was almost over and Staubach had thrown one pass his way before the final drive. It fell incomplete. Cowboys coach Tom Landry's game plan was to win with his running game and his defense.
"I was upset – pissed off, really," Pearson said. "I spent the second half loud-talking on the sideline so Coach Landry would hear me. He heard but he wasn't listening. I knew I could contribute given the chance."
The most important precursor to the Hail Mary was a fourth-and-16 pass Pearson caught two plays earlier as he was being knocked out of bounds by Vikings cornerback Nate Wright. The hometown crowd booed. Fans were sure Pearson had caught the pass out of bounds. An overzealous security guard along the sideline provided the exclamation point – a swift kick to Pearson's leg.
There were 37 seconds remaining.
Pearson thought he had one more play in him but needed to catch his breath. He asked Staubach to throw the next pass in someone else's direction. Staubach obliged with a short pass to running back Preston Pearson that fell incomplete.
There were 32 seconds remaining.
What came next was "a sandlot play not in the playbook," Drew Pearson said.
"Back in the huddle, Roger asked if I remembered a play we ran against the Redskins on Thanksgiving the previous year," Pearson recalled. "It was a turn-in-and-take-off."
A short floater
Staubach took the snap in the shotgun formation introduced by Landry that season, looked left and pumped hard as if he were going to throw the ball to the left side of the field. It was an effort to confuse free safety Paul Krause, a future Hall of Famer, for a fraction of a second. Staubach then pulled the ball back in, wound up and let it fly down the right side, in the general direction of Pearson.
But the hard pump had loosened Staubach's grip and the defensive rush limited his follow-through. The ball floated short.
Meanwhile, Pearson ran 15 yards downfield and took two steps to the left, hoping to momentarily misdirect Wright. When Pearson had Wright just where he wanted him, he cut back right and streaked downfield ahead of his defender.
But Pearson's apparent advantage became his disadvantage. The pass was underthrown. Pearson calculated the geometry, pulled up and reached back. There was contact. Wright fell to the turf. Krause, who had to take a step to avoid his fallen teammate, arrived too late. Pearson rambled into the end zone for the game-winning score.
"The ball went right through my hands," Pearson said. "But I managed to slow it up enough that it stuck between my right hip and elbow."
As Pearson made his way to the end zone, he saw an orange object fly past him. He thought it was a penalty flag. As the orange object rolled on the turf, Pearson realized it wasn't a flag but an actual orange.
The Vikings tried to make a case that Pearson pushed off Wright and should have been penalized for pass interference. Krause, now a county commissioner in suburban Minneapolis, and defensive end Alan Page, now a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, pleaded their case. There was no replay for officials to agonize over. No appeal. When a flag was finally thrown, it was against Minnesota. Page was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.
"All I remember then was how quiet the stadium got," Pearson said.
Some 50 yards back upfield, Staubach, still on the ground, was keenly aware of the same eerie silence.
"I said, 'Oh my God, maybe Drew caught the ball.' "
The legend continues
Several years ago, Staubach spoke at the University of Minnesota business school. Yes, the attendees wanted to hear from a successful Dallas real estate entrepreneur, but they really wanted to hear from the former Cowboys quarterback.
"Anytime I meet anyone from Minnesota, all they want to do is talk about the Hail Mary," Staubach said. "They all suggest – well, more than suggest – that Drew should have been penalized for pass interference. My response to them is the same as my response always: 'There is no evidence of that.' "
Drew Pearson has made his business mark in the apparel trade. Some years back, he acquired trademark rights to "Hail Mary" for caps and shirts. He said he did it not for economic gain but "to keep the memory of the play alive."
He often flew North to visit the factory that produced the merchandise. The reception was always chilly. It wasn't that Pearson was a particularly tough boss or that he appeared aloof.
The employees in the Hopkins, Minn., factory just couldn't forgive or forget the Hail Mary that happened 15 miles down the road at long-ago-demolished Metropolitan Stadium.
"You know," Pearson said, "we never sold very many caps in Minnesota, anyway."
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