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On This Date in Sports December 28, 1975: The First Hail Mary

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The Dallas Cowboys stun the Minnesota Vikings 17-14 in the Divisional Playoffs as Drew Pearson catches a 50-yard pass from Roger Staubach with less than 30 seconds left at Metropolitan Stadium. Pearson appeared to push off Nate Wright on the play, but no flag was thrown. After the game, Staubach said he closed his eyes and said a “Hail Mary” when the ball was thrown. The Cowboys would go on to play in Super Bowl X. 


The Minnesota Vikings led by Bud Grant were the power in the NFC. They entered the 1975 season looking to get back to the big game, after losing Super Bowl VIII to the Miami Dolphins and Super Bowl IX to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Vikings appeared to be on track for a third consecutive NFC Championship after posting a record of 12-2 as Fran Tarkenton was named NFL MVP. 


In 1974, the Dallas Cowboys had a strong finish to post a record of 8-6, but after a 1-4 start, they missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years. The Cowboys replenished with a strong draft class posted a record of 10-4 in 1975 and returned to the postseason led by Tom Landy as the NFC’s Wild Card team.


Combined, the Vikings and Cowboys had played in five of six Super Bowls entering the 1975 season, but the two teams had yet to play each other in the playoffs. The first half was a defensive struggle as the Dallas Doomsday Defense, and the Vikings Purple People Eaters were both dominating. In the second quarter, the Vikings got a break on a muffed put that gave them the ball at the Dallas four-yard line. The Vikings cashed in on the opportunity and led 7-0 at the half after a touchdown by Chuck Foreman. The Cowboys had a chance for points, but Toni Fritch missed a field goal, wasting a Mel Renfrow interception. 


The Cowboys' offense got on track in the third quarter with a long drive that ended with a four-yard touchdown run by Doug Dennison. The game was tied 7-7 heading into the fourth quarter. Dallas would take the lead for the first time on a 24-yard field goal by Fritsch. Struggling all game, Fran Tarkenton had his best drive of the game to put the Vikings back in front. He completed four-of-six passes for 37 yards on an 11-play 70-yard drive, as Brent McClanahan scored from the one with 5:24 left.


After the Cowboys failed to answer, the Vikings had a chance to run out the clock as the Cowboys exhausted the last of their timeouts, with a chance to salt the game away, as Charlie Waters sacked Fran Tarkenton for a three-yard loss at the two-minute warning. The Cowboys would get the ball at their own 15, needing to get in the end zone down 14-10 with 1:51 on the clock. The Cowboys got the ball to the 31 but stalled as Staubach fumbled a snap resulting in an eight-yard loss. Facing 4th down and 16, Roger Staubach completed a 25-yard pass to Drew Pearson. The catch was controversial as Pearson landed out of bounds, though an official could call it a catch on the force out at the time. 

Time was winding down, the Vikings defense was stout, and the Cowboys were at midfield. With 32 seconds left, the Vikings were tasting victory, when Staubach decided to let it fly he threw up a deep pass he would later call a “Hail Mary,” Drew Pearson pulled down Nate Wright and caught the ball at the four, and walked into the end zone as a fan tossed an orange on to the field. The touchdown was good; no flags were thrown. This rose the ire of Allen Paige, who was ejected for arguing with the officials. Fans in Minnesota followed suit littering the field with debris, including a glass bottle, one of which struck field judge Armen Terzian in the head. Terzian was knocked unconscious and required 11 stitches for a gash on the forehead. 


The Cowboys would seal the 17-14 victory with a pair of sacks. A week later, they defeated the Los Angeles Rams 37-7 to reach Super Bowl X. The Cowboys would lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-17 in a thriller at the Orange Bowl in Miami. 


The Vikings would rebound and play in Super XI, losing the big game for the third time in four years. The term Hail Mary would become popular for desperation passes at the end of a game or the end of a half.