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The expression goes back at least to the 1930s, in which decade it was widely used publicly by two former members of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen, Elmer Layden and Jim Crowley. Originally meaning any sort of desperation play, a "Hail Mary" gradually came to denote a long, low-probability pass, typically of the "alley-oop" variety, attempted at the end of a half when a team is too far from the end zone to execute a more conventional play, implying that it would take divine intervention for the play to succeed. For more than 40 years, use of the term was largely confined to Notre Dame and other Catholic universities.
Crowley often told the story of an October 28, 1922, game between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech in which the Fighting Irish players said Hail Mary prayers together before scoring each of the touchdowns, before winning the game 13-3. According to Crowley, it was one of the team's linemen, Noble Kizer (a Presbyterian), who suggested praying before the first touchdown, which occurred on a fourth and goal play at the Georgia Tech 6-yard line during the second quarter. Quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, another of the Horsemen, threw a quick pass over the middle to Paul Castner for the score. The ritual was repeated before a third and goal play, again at Georgia Tech's 6-yard line, in the fourth quarter. This time Stuhldreher ran for a touchdown, which sealed the win for Notre Dame. After the game, Kizer exclaimed to Crowley, "Say, that Hail Mary is the best play we've got." Crowley related this story many times in public speeches beginning in the 1930s.
An early appearance of the term was in an Associated Press story about the upcoming 1941 Orange Bowl between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Georgetown Hoyas. The piece appeared in several newspapers including the December 31, 1940, Daytona Beach Morning Journal under the headline, "Orange Bowl: [Georgetown] Hoyas Put Faith in 'Hail Mary' Pass". As the article explained, "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."
During an NBC broadcast in 1963, Staubach, then a Navy quarterback, described a pass play during his team's victory over Michigan that year as a "Hail Mary play". He scrambled to escape a pass rush, nearly getting sacked 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage before completing a desperation pass for a one-yard gain.
Arguably the most memorable and replayed Hail Mary pass came on November 23, 1984, in a game now known as "Hail Flutie".Boston College was losing to Miami (FL) with six seconds left when their quarterback Doug Flutie threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Gerard Phelan, succeeding primarily because Miami's secondary stood on the goal line to keep the receivers in front of them without covering a post route behind them. Miami's defense was based on the assumption that Flutie could not throw the ball as far as the end zone, but Flutie hit Phelan in stride against a flatfooted defense a yard deep in the end zone. To commemorate the play, a statue of Flutie in his Hail Mary passing pose was unveiled outside Alumni Stadium at Boston College on November 7, 2008.
September 24, 1994: Known as the "Miracle at Michigan", Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Westbrook to beat Michigan 27-26 (Stewart's pass traveled 73 yards in the air from the Colorado 26 to the opposite 1 yard line, was tipped by Blake Anderson, then caught by Westbrook 4 yards deep in the end zone).
October 31, 1999: The Cleveland Browns's first win after returning as an expansion team came on a Hail Mary against the New Orleans Saints, when Browns quarterback Tim Couch avoided the Saints pass rush and launched a 56 yard pass that was tipped up in the air and caught by receiver Kevin Johnson near the pylon for a 21-16 Browns victory.
December 8, 2002: Three years after his first Hail Mary, Tim Couch won another game with a game-ender against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Couch launched a 50 yard Hail Mary that was caught by Quincy Morgan, and the ensuing extra point gave the Browns a 21-20 win. Although he remains a hotly debated player due to being picked #1 overall in the 1999 NFL Draft and his injury-plagued career, Tim Couch remains the only NFL player to win two games on game-ending Hail Marys.
November 10, 2013: Sometimes a Hail Mary does not give a team a win. With the Baltimore Ravens leading 17-10 on the last play of their game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton launched a 51 yard Hail Mary to the end zone, where a Ravens player tipped the ball in the air directly to A.J. Green for a touchdown. Despite the wild game-tying score, the Ravens won the game in overtime, 20-17.
September 5, 2015: Known as the "Miracle at Memorial", Brigham Young University quarterback Tanner Mangum threw a 42-yard desperation pass to wide receiver Mitch Mathews as time expired to defeat Nebraska 33-28. This play snapped a string of 29 consecutive home opener victories for the Cornhuskers. Mangum, a freshman just two months removed from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was the backup to senior Taysom Hill, who had left the game earlier with a season-ending Lisfranc injury. This game was Mangum's first organized football game in nearly four years.
December 3, 2015: Known as the "Miracle in Motown", due to a defensive penalty on the Detroit Lions as the game clock ran out, the Green Bay Packers -- who had been trailing the entire game -- were given one additional play with no time left. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw a 61-yard touchdown pass, which was caught in the end zone by tight end Richard Rodgers to win the game 27-23. The ball left Aaron Rodgers' hand at Green Bay's 35-yard line and was caught a few yards into the end zone, making it the longest game-ending game-winning "Hail Mary pass" in the National Football League.
January 16, 2016: In the postseason after the Miracle in Motown, Aaron Rodgers completed a second Hail Mary pass. Faced with 4th and 20 on his own 4-yard line and a 20-13 deficit against the Arizona Cardinals in the final minute of the game, Rodgers threw a 60-yard completion to Jeff Janis. Then, on the final play of regulation, he completed a 41-yard touchdown pass to Janis, making Green Bay the first postseason team ever to score a game-tying touchdown on the final play of the 4th quarter. However, Arizona won the game in overtime.
September 10, 2016: After Oklahoma State football quarterback Mason Rudolph threw the ball up into the air as the clock ran out, it was ruled intentional grounding. Under college football rules, the game should have ended and Oklahoma State should have won the game. However, the officials (including Referee Tim O'Dey of the Mid-America Conference) gave Central Michigan an untimed down. Losing 24-27, Chippewas quarterback Cooper Rush threw a 49-yard Hail Mary to receiver Jesse Kroll who lateraled to Malik Fountain to run it into end zone winning the game 30-27.
October 1, 2016: After a 47-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining on the clock, a Georgia player took off his helmet, resulting in a 15-yard celebration penalty. The kickoff was returned to the Georgia 43-yard line, and on the final play, Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs threw a game-winning touchdown as time expired, to win 34-31.
January 8, 2017: In a wildcard playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants, Aaron Rodgers completed a 42-yard pass to Randall Cobb over the heads of a crowd of players from both teams on the last play before halftime. This gave Green Bay a 14-6 halftime lead and they went on to win 38-13.
The term "Hail Mary pass" has become generalized to refer to any last-ditch effort with little chance of success.
In basketball, a "Hail Mary shot" or "Hail Mary throw" is a shot thrown from a place far away from the basket (e.g., behind the half court line). It is typically attempted when there is not enough time left in the period to execute a more traditional play, and (in a case where the team attempting the shot is in the final regulation period or overtime) when they are either tied or behind by no more than three points. In basketball, successful shots at the basket will count as long as the ball is released prior to the expiration of time. A scoring shot that enters the basket after time expires is called a buzzer beater (in reference to the "buzzer" that sounds to signal the end of the period).
In soccer, a "Hail Mary effort" is a ball lumped up field towards a plethora of forwards trying to score a last ditch goal in the dying moments of a pivotal match. It is typically attempted when one goal will either salvage a draw from a losing position, or a win from a tied position with the last throw of the dice. Examples include:
May 8, 2019: In the 2019 UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg, the premier European football competition, England's Tottenham Hotspur were trailing Ajax of the Netherlands by one goal on aggregate, heading into stoppage time at the end of the game. With 5 minutes extra signalled by the officials to be played, that time had almost elapsed when Tottenham's French midfielder Moussa Sissoko hauled a long ball forward from deep inside his own half in a Hail Mary effort. Further touches by Tottenham forwards Fernando Llorente and Dele Alli pushed it into the path of the onrushing Brazilian Lucas Moura, to shoot low into the net as the time elapsed. That goal was the culmination of an epic three goal comeback for Tottenham, widely regarded as one of the best the tournament has ever seen, and did not allow time for Ajax to respond. As a result, Tottenham qualified for the Champions League final for the first time in their history.
There are similar usages in other fields, such as a "Hail Mary shot" in photography where the photographer holds the view finder of an SLR camera far from his eye (so unable to compose the picture), usually high above his head, and takes a shot. This is often used in crowded situations.