‘Hail Mary’ pass reception defines Pearson

By Tom Hersom
Updated: August 17, 2008

OKLAHOMA — Roger Staubach threw and Drew Pearson caught the first “Hail Mary” in sports history — but, of course, no one knew it at the time.

It happened in an NFC semifinal-round game Dec. 28, 1975, in Bloomington, Minn. Dallas trailed Minnesota 14-10 with 24 seconds left. The eight-point underdog Cowboys faced second-and-19 with 36 seconds to go when Staubach threw a game-winning, 50-yard touchdown pass to Pearson. He scored with :24 left.

“The greatest play in my career has to be the ‘Hail Mary’ I caught,” said Pearson, a former University of Tulsa wide receiver who will be inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame on Monday night. “We went in as a tremendous underdog against a very good Minnesota Viking team.”

After the game, Staubach said, “It was just a Hail Mary pass; a very, very lucky play.” The quarterback told reporters that he closed his eyes, threw the ball as hard as he could, and said a Hail Mary prayer.

Since then, every last-second, pass out of desperation has been called a “Hail Mary” play.

The Cowboys became NFC champions the following week, winning at Los Angeles. But they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-17 in Super Bowl X.

On the “Hail Mary” play, Staubach lined up in the shotgun formation, took the snap, pump-faked left, then pivoted to his right and threw a desperation pass to Pearson, who was covered by cornerback Nate Wright. Staubach was hit as he threw and didn’t see the catch.

As the football fell toward the turf, thrown a little bit short, Pearson turned and caught the ball by trapping it against his right hip at the five-yard line.

He then ran into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

“Now I’m pretty much defined by that play,” Pearson said. “It’s a pretty big play in NFL history and it’s still the biggest play in Dallas Cowboys history.”Almost forgotten now is what Staubach and Pearson had done two plays earlier — with Dallas facing fourth-and-17 and elimination from the playoffs. Pearson, though out of bounds, caught a 25-yard pass to keep the drive going. Officials ruled Wright had pushed Pearson out.

Those two plays added to Pearson’s reputation as a clutch receiver. In his 11-year NFL career he played in three Super Bowls, winning one, and seven NFC championship games.

“In being part of that, sometimes I had to step out as an individual and make some plays to help the team win. And I was very fortunate to do that on a number of occasions, because I had a quarterback in Roger Staubach, and later in Danny White, who believed in me, that I could make those plays in those situations. And I had a coach in Tom Landry who believed in me and called my number.”

When Pearson signed with Tulsa, he was a quarterback from South River, N.J. He switched to receiver in his junior season and caught 33 passes for a run-oriented team. He received the TU President’s Award as the team’s “best spirited and most unselfish” player.

He signed with Dallas as an undrafted free agent and caught 489 passes with 50 touchdowns. A three-time Pro Bowler, he was selected for the NFL All-Decade Team of the ’70s.

At Monday night’s banquet he will be presented by basketball great Marques Haynes. Pearson was married to Haynes’ oldest daughter, Marsha.

“He’s a real champ, I’ll tell you that,” Haynes said of Pearson. “You talk about a guy who could be a role model for other ballplayers or other athletes or other people, period, it’s Drew Pearson.”

And, yes, Haynes remembers the “Hail Mary” catch. On the road with the Harlem Globetrotters, he and his wife of 33 years, Joan, watched it from an airport.

“I was waiting for my wife to come in from New York,” Haynes said. “After she came in, we went back to the bar, where guys were sitting around, watching the game. Drew caught the pass and my wife jumped up and started shouting. All the guys in that bar, man, they turned around and started looking at us. I had to quiet her down. I said, “Wait a minute, girl, let’s get out of here.’ She was yelling “Go ahead, Drew!’ and all that stuff.”