The Greatest Hail Mary Moments in Sports
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what happens in the first 59 minutes is sometimes just a prelude to the final 60 seconds.
By Erik Matuszewski
Sports are the greatest reality show. The chief reason? It’s the last-second dramas that can elevate players to hero status with a single pass or a swing of the bat. Most fans can vividly recall the best game-ending plays in history, from the postseason walk-off home runs of Joe Carter, Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Thomson and Kirk Gibson to Michael Jordan’s playoff game-winner over Craig Ehlo. Who could forget Auburn returning a missed field goal from 109 yards to beat Alabama in the 2013 Iron Bowl, or Bobby Orr flying through the air after the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup Final?
The past two championship games in both college football and college basketball were decided in the final second. This year’s NFC playoff game between Green Bay and Dallas came down to a last-second field goal — notably drawing the highest TV ratings for a divisional-round game in 20 years. But for all these great moments, far more are overlooked or even forgotten. Here are five underrated yet historical finishes that came down to the wire.
TOM DEMPSEY’S 63-YARD KICK, 1970
What happened? The woeful New Orleans Saints (1-5-1) seemed headed for yet another November loss when the visiting Detroit Lions grabbed a 17-16 lead with only 11 seconds left. But after the Saints got to their own 45-yard line with two seconds remaining, new coach J.D. Roberts put his hopes on the right foot of Tom Dempsey, who had missed a whopping 29 field goals over his first one-and-a-half NFL seasons. Field-goal kicking was far more erratic than it is today (toe-kicking was still in vogue), but Roberts didn’t have much to lose in his first game as coach after replacing the fired Tom Fears. Holder Joe Scarpati spotted the ball at the Saints’ 37-yard line, and Dempsey, who was born without toes on his right foot and wore a modified shoe, set off a wild celebration at Tulane Stadium by drilling the game-winning kick.
Why it stands out: It was not only a rare win for the Saints and a successful day for Dempsey (who made four of his five kicks that afternoon). The 63-yard game winner also shattered the previous NFL record by 7 yards. Dempsey’s standard stood for 40 years before Matt Prater of the Broncos took advantage of Denver’s mile-high altitude to make a 64-yarder in 2013, but that wasn’t a game winner.
HARVEY HADDIX LOSES HIS PERFECTO, 1959
What happened? On a dark and stormy May night in Milwaukee, not a single batter reached base against Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Harvey Haddix in 12 innings. Mixing a biting fastball and a slick slider, Haddix breezed through a strong Braves’ lineup in record-setting fashion — 36 up and 36 down. Finally, in the bottom of the 13th inning, Felix Mantilla of the Braves reached base on an error that ended the left-hander’s perfect game. After a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk issued to Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock ended the no-hitter, the game and perhaps the best pitching performance in baseball history with a single swing, belting an apparent home run.
Why it stands out: In more than 140 years and 200,000 games, only 23 pitchers in Major League history have tossed a perfect game. Haddix isn’t one of them, despite having been “perfect” for three innings longer than anyone else. In the excitement of Adcock’s winning hit, Aaron left the base paths and was ruled out. Ultimately, Adcock’s hit was ruled a double, rather than a home run, giving the Braves a 1-0 win.
ISAO AOKI’S MOMENTOUS WIN, 1983
What happened? There have been dramatic putts and chip-ins to win golf tournaments, and then there’s the magic of Isao Aoki at the 1983 Hawaiian Open. Trailing by one shot, he needed a birdie on the final hole to force a playoff with Jack Renner. Both Aoki’s drive and second shot found the rough on the par-5 18th hole, but his third — a wedge from 128 yards — landed short of the flag, bounced once and hopped into the cup. As shocked as Aoki was by the walk-off eagle, Renner was even more astonished and could be seen literally scratching his head. He heard the roar of the crowd as he signed his scorecard, asking several times, “He made it?” before being rendered speechless.
Why it stands out: The improbable victory made Aoki the first Asian-born player to win on the PGA Tour. It turned out to be the lone PGA Tour title for the future Hall of Famer, who won 51 times on the Japan Golf Tour and would go on to win nine times on the senior tour.
JIM MCMAHON’S BYU HAIL MARY, 1980
What happened? Jim McMahon’s legend began at Brigham Young University, years before he led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl title. With four minutes left in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, BYU trailed 45-25 against a Southern Methodist University team that featured the Pony Express backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James. When some Cougars’ fans headed for the exits, McMahon shouted to them that the game wasn’t over — and then proceeded to lead one of the greatest comebacks in college football history. BYU scored a quick touchdown, recovered an onside kick and scored again. The Cougars then blocked a punt with 13 seconds left and, three plays later, McMahon dropped back into his own territory and lofted a Hail Mary pass into a crowd in the end zone, where tight end Clay Brown outjumped a host of SMU defenders for a score that gave BYU a jaw-dropping 46-45 win.
Why it stands out: The game featured several NFL stars in the making, and it was the first Bowl victory for BYU and Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards. With 21 points scored in the final 2 minutes, 33 seconds, the game fittingly became known as the “Miracle Bowl.”
BARTON’S DIVISION II NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP, 2007
What happened? Winona State was the defending Division II college basketball champ and brought a 57-game winning streak into its title defense in 2007. But Barton College had Anthony “Ant” Atkinson. Barton trailed 74-67 with 45 seconds left when Atkinson took over the game, scoring 10 points in the final 39 seconds. Atkinson made a layup to tie the score with 11 seconds left, and after a steal, raced down court and laid home the winning basket. The ball left his fingers with a mere one-tenth of a second left. Atkinson finished with 29 points; as officials reviewed his final shot in the 77-75 victory, he ran a lap around the court with his hands on his head in disbelief.
Why it stands out: It was the first national championship for Barton, and the improbable rally sent Winona State to its first loss after taking a 35-0 record into the title game. Amazingly, Atkinson — who went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters — had this last-minute flurry without hitting a 3-pointer; he even missed a potential game-tying free throw at one point.
- Erik Matuszewski, OZY Author Contact Erik Matuszewski