“It’s a Hail Mary attempt, with due respect to the Virgin Mary,” said University of Texas School of Law Professor Steve Vladeck when asked by CNN’s Erin Burnett what he thought of the Donald Trump-backed lawsuit filed by the state of Texas to invalidate the ballots mailed in Pennsylvania. The term “Hail Mary” is generally used to describe a desperate effort to reverse an imminent but unwanted consequence.
The term is a common expression in American football and basketball, two sports which are played within a certain period of time. The losing team can attempt in the last seconds a desperation play with very little chance of success in the hope it will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. A 65-yard field goal attempt in American football and a long shot from the backcourt in basketball are examples of Hail Mary plays.
The term traces its origin to the 1922 football team of the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic school run by the priests of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. A member of that team, Jim Crowley, told the story of a game between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech in which the Fighting Irish, as Notre Dame players are known, said Hail Mary prayers together before each touchdown attempt.
They must have been taught by the Holy Cross Fathers that Holy Mary is a powerful intercessor for God’s blessings. After all, the school is named after the Mother of Jesus. As they scored their first touchdown after saying the Hail Mary, they decided to pray before every crucial play. Thus, they beat Georgia Tech.
After the game, teammate Noble Kizer, who suggested the idea of praying, told Crowley, “Say, that Hail Mary is the best play we’ve got.” Crowley told the story repeatedly in public speeches beginning in the 1930s.
The term gained widespread usage in 1975. In a crucial game televised nationwide by NBC, the Dallas Cowboys, down by four points with just 24 seconds left in the game and 85 yards away from the goal line, beat the Minnesota Vikings on a desperation touchdown pass by Dallas Quarterback Roger Staubach to his teammate Drew Pearson at the goal line. Asked about the game-winning pass during the post-game interview, Staubach said, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”
Roger Staubach, as a member of the football team of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, won the Heisman Trophy, the award given to the best football player in the nation for the collegiate football season of 1965. After graduating from the Academy and serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, he joined the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League. He led the team to five Super Bowls, the Cowboys winning two of them. He is in Football’s Hall of Fame. He is considered one of the best quarterbacks of all time. In 2010, Staubach was named the No. 1 Dallas Cowboy of all time by the Dallas Morning News.
One would think that Roger Staubach saying the Hail Mary is just another luck-invoking but empty ritual by a super athlete. Basketball superstar LeBron James tosses chalk into the air before a game. Tennis Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal drinks his water and energy drinks in the same order and puts back the bottles in the same position and on the same exact spot every time.
But we can assume Staubach says Hail Mary not as a mechanical ritual but with fervor as he is a devout Catholic. He attended St. John the Evangelist Catholic School and graduated from Purcell High School in Cincinnati. He must have heard the Gospel read at Mass last Sunday many times.
“Hail Mary, the Lord is with you,” said the Archangel Gabriel to the virgin girl named Mary.” “How can this be since I am a virgin?” asked Mary. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel answered. “Be it done unto me according to thy word,” declared Mary in submission to God’s will.
Mary consented out of love to accept God’s will. Staubach must have been taught by the priests and nuns in school that acceptance made Mother Mary a powerful intercessor. That is why Staubach asks her to intercede for him when challenged.
The gospel yesterday was about the time when Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Both Mary and Elizabeth were going through difficult times, Mary bearing a child when she was not married and Elizabeth bearing a child at an advanced age. But they used their faith in God and the joy of being together as a source of energy for carrying out their missions. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we, too, can turn our troubles into blessings and joys.
Today’s gospel is Mary’s song of praise to God, the “Magnificat.” It calls us to be like Mary, a willing and humble handmaid of the Lord. We are called to be God’s servants, serving Him and others for His glory.
Because of the pandemic and its impact on the economy, many of our country men and women are starving, some are very sick, and still others are tormented by the thought of a very dark future. Let us who have more in life share with them whatever blessings we have. Let us also say the “Hail Mary” on their behalf, so that the Lord will snatch them from the jaws of despair.
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.