Described as “desperation catches”, “stunning feats”, “improbable plays”, Hail Marys and football have a long history together. This past Saturday’s game between the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia is just yet another reminder of Mary’s last minute intercession. The Georgia Bulldogs looked like they had the game locked up when they scored with 10 seconds on the clock. Tennessee, however, wasn’t ready to give up. With four seconds left, quarterback Joshua Dobbs heaved the ball 43 yards into the end zone. Jauan Jennings plucked it out of a pack for the Vols win, 34-31.
I still recall vividly the first Hail Mary I saw. It was November 23, 1984. My father told me there was just one play left in the game as I impatiently waited for Saturday’s interminable series of games to end. With 6 seconds left on the clock, quarterback Doug Flutie, after being flushed out of the pocket, threw a 63-yard Hail Mary at the last second. Miraculously, Gerard Phelan caught it in the end zone, giving Boston College a win over the University of Miami. Even I knew the throw, now called the “Hail Flutie,” was a big one.
Wins attributed to Hail Marys, however, aren’t just for college football. In 2003, the San Joaquin Memorial High School football team in Fresno, California, was off to a rough start. Mid-season, they found themselves with an unenviable 3-4 record. The high school’s new principal, Fr. Vincent Lopez, a Dominican with a devotion to Our Lady, had been after the coaches to start praying the Rosary after each game. At first the coaches thought he was joking, but after enough pressure they realized he was serious. Uncomfortable with the idea of leading a young team in the rosary after games, the coaches simply avoided their principal as long as they could. Finally, with a losing record, they gave in.
The first night the team said the Rosary was after another loss. Fr. Lopez recounts the teenagers gruffly shuffling into the school’s grotto to pray. When the prayers were finished, however, they were singing a different tune. “Hey, Father, that was pretty cool,” they said. And they began to think it was even more cool when they won the next game; and then the next; and then the next. The team went on to win their final five games, winning their state section title. “After their last game when the team won the championship,” Father explained, “I was home sick. They called to tell me they won and then when the bus arrived back at school, they met me and we all prayed the Rosary together in thanksgiving for the victory.”
Anthony Goston, who was the offensive coordinator during Fr. Lopez’s tenure at the high school, said the team continued to pray the rosary for the following two years when Fr. Lopez was principal, though not quite to the same success as the first year. One wonders, however, which was the bigger miracle? The games the team won or teenage boys willingly praying the rosary together for three football seasons?
What is interesting is that the only other explicitly religious name given to a football play (that I and a number of experts could recall) is yet another reference to Mary: the Immaculate Reception. The 1972 jaw-dropping catch and touchdown by Franco Harris allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to triumph over the Oakland Raiders.
Football has become America’s national religion – more people watch football on Sunday (68% Marist poll) than go to church (20% Pew). Even college football registers more viewers than church attendees with 54% (Marist) of U.S. residents calling themselves football fans. Even football fans know there is something about Mary. We may love Touchdown Jesus, but we know where to turn when the situation is dire.
It is a fascinating thing that the improbable, stunning, miraculous Hail Marys do for players and fans. Whether fans realize it or not, the Aves are a subtle reminder (a) that Mary triumphs in the end and, (b) that she is ever anxious to meet people exactly where they are at — even on the edge of their seats.