A Brief History of the Hail Mary Pass

(Last Updated On: July 14, 2020)

History of the Hail Mary Pass

The idea of the Hail Mary anything is a kind of cultural touchstone. People just kind of say it when they’re about to do something that probably won’t work. This is especially true if you’re into American sports, where the term Hail Mary is used a lot. Specifically in football. So let’s explore history of the Hail Mary pass. Where did the phrase originate?

A History of the Hail Mary Pass

Ave Maria

You might recognize Ave Maria as that song that plays in tons of movies and trailers. But the name is significant for good reason; it’s Latin for “Hail Mary.”

We’re not going to do a super extensive religious deep dive, but the Hail Mary is basically ubiquitous in Catholic prayer. The whole thing is in regards to Jesus’ mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s pulled straight from the Gospel of Luke, though because Christianity is split into a bunch of different ways of following the Bible (most of which are mutually exclusive or have historically not liked each other at all) the actual use of the Hail Mary prayer differs. 

Praying for Jesus’ mom dates back to the Greeks, with early forms of the prayer dating back to at most 1050. However, the west’s contemporary version of the prayer did not arise from Greek origins. It was petitioned to be thrown in around 1495 thanks to Girolamo Savonarola. 

It’s that version, after translation, gives you the following.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

In case you’re wondering, the “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners” as an independent prayer caught on in like 1555. 

Why Don’t Catholics Hail Jesus?

Okay, so this is one of those things that depends almost entirely on who you ask. Remember that there is a diversity of opinions not only in the Christian religion, but within the Catholic Church itself.

Regardless, if we take the prayer at face value, Mary is blessed among women because of the “fruit of her womb,” also known as Jesus. So Mary holds significance in the church because of her immaculate conception and the birth of Jesus. Hence, people felt the need to “hail” her.

But why no Hail Jesus? Poking around some Catholic blogs and other prayers, one thing is clear: there is a huge distinction between worship, owed to God; and honor, owed to Mary. So linguistically, hailing Jesus is probably a slight against him and a sign of disrespect? 

Hail Mary & The Four Horsemen

Perhaps ironically, applying the Hail Mary to sports is owed to football’s Four Horsemen. Yes, like the ones of the Apocalypse. But football’s Four Horsemen did not bring war, death, or famine. It was actually just a nickname given to Notre Dame’s backfield in the early 1920s under coach Knute Rockne. These men were Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden.

So where does the Hail Mary play come from?

Well according to Crowley, lineman Noble Kizer suggested saying a Hail Mary before the team’s first touchdown in a 1922 game against Georgia Tech. The team seemed to like the idea, and would go repeat the ritual before other touchdowns. Crowley would tell this story well into the 1930s.

It’s around this time that a “Hail Mary” came to refer to any kind of play made out of desperation. In 1935, Notre Dame beats Ohio State with a late, 19-yard touchdown. After the game, Notre Dame head coach Elmer Layden, who had been one of the Four Horsemen, called it a “Hail Mary play.”

Hail Mary plays would remain largely exclusive to Catholic universities at first. But over time the term got more widespread usage, especially throughout the 1960s and 1970s. We also start to see its usage shift from any act of desperation, to specifically describe long, last-second touchdown attempts. We can thank Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach in part for that. He helped popularize the term after a 1975 playoff game.

Of his gaming-winning touchdown pass, Staubach said: “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”

Speaking of Hail Mary passes, see if you know who the best passers in the NFL are here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.