The expression goes back at least to the 1930s, when it was used publicly by Elmer Layden and Jim Crowley, two former members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish's Four Horsemen. Originally meaning any sort of desperation play, a Hail Mary pass gradually came to denote a long, low-probability pass, typically of the "alley-oop" variety, attempted at the end of a half when a team is too far from the end zone to execute a more conventional play, implying that it would take a miracle for the play to succeed. For more than 40 years, use of the term was largely confined to Notre Dame and other Catholic universities.
Crowley often told the story of a game between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech on October 28, 1922, in which the Fighting Irish players said Hail Mary prayers together before scoring each of the touchdowns, before winning the game 13–3. According to Crowley, it was one of the team's linemen, Noble Kizer (a Presbyterian), who suggested praying before the first touchdown, which occurred on a fourth and goal play at the Georgia Tech 6-yard line during the second quarter. Quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, another of the Horsemen, threw a quick pass over the middle to Paul Castner for the score. The ritual was repeated before a third and goal play, again at Georgia Tech's 6-yard line, in the fourth quarter. This time Stuhldreher ran for a touchdown, which sealed the win for Notre Dame. After the game, Kizer exclaimed to Crowley, "Say, that Hail Mary is the best play we've got." Crowley related this story many times in public speeches beginning in the 1930s.
An early appearance of the term was in an Associated Press story about the upcoming 1941 Orange Bowl between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Georgetown Hoyas. The piece appeared in several newspapers including the December 31, 1940, Daytona Beach Morning Journal under the headline, "Orange Bowl: [Georgetown] Hoyas Put Faith in 'Hail Mary' Pass". As the article explained, "A 'hail Mary' pass, in the talk of the Washington eleven, is one that is thrown with a prayer because the odds against completion are big." During an NBC broadcast in 1963, Staubach, then a Navy quarterback, described a pass play during his team's victory over Michigan that year as a "Hail Mary play". He scrambled to escape a pass rush, nearly getting sacked 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage before completing a desperation pass for a one-yard gain.
Arguably the most memorable and replayed Hail Mary pass came on November 23, 1984, in a game now known as "Hail Flutie".Boston College was trailing Miami (FL) 45–41 with six seconds left, when their quarterback Doug Flutie threw a 63-yard touchdown pass to Gerard Phelan, succeeding primarily because Miami's secondary stood on the goal line to keep the receivers in front of them without covering a post route behind them.
Miami's defense was based on the assumption that the five-foot-nine-inch Flutie could not throw the ball as far as the end zone: instead, Flutie hit Phelan in stride against a flatfooted defense a yard deep in the end zone as time expired. To commemorate the play, a statue of Flutie in his Hail Mary passing pose was unveiled outside Alumni Stadium at Boston College on November 7, 2008.
September 24, 1994: Known as the "Miracle at Michigan", Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Westbrook to beat Michigan 27–26. Stewart's pass had traveled 73 yards in the air from the Colorado 26 to the opposite 1-yard line, was tipped by Blake Anderson, then caught by Westbrook four yards deep in the end zone.
October 31, 1999: The Cleveland Browns' first win after returning as an expansion team came on a Hail Mary against the New Orleans Saints, when Browns quarterback Tim Couch avoided the Saints pass rush and launched a 56-yard pass that was tipped up in the air and caught by receiver Kevin Johnson near the pylon for a 21–16 Browns victory.
December 8, 2002: Three years after his first Hail Mary, Tim Couch won another game with a game-ender against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Couch launched a 50-yard Hail Mary that was caught by Quincy Morgan, and the ensuing extra point gave the Browns a 21–20 win. Although he remains a hotly debated player - due to being picked #1 overall in the 1999 NFL Draft and his injury-plagued career - Tim Couch remains the only NFL player to win two games on game-ending Hail Marys.
November 16, 2013: Known as the "Prayer at Jordan–Hare", Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ricardo Louis on fourth-and-18 with 36 seconds left to beat Georgia 43–38. Louis caught the ball after one Georgia defender tipped it away from another.
November 10, 2013: With the Baltimore Ravens leading 17–10 on the last play of their game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton launched a 51-yard Hail Mary to the end zone, where a Ravens player tipped the ball in the air directly to A. J. Green for a touchdown. Despite this game-tying score, the Ravens won the game in overtime, 20–17.
December 3, 2015: Known as the "Miracle in Motown", a 15-yard defensive facemask penalty on the Detroit Lions as time expired gave the Green Bay Packers, who had been trailing the entire game, an additional untimed down. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw a 61-yard touchdown pass which left his hand at Green Bay's 35-yard line and was caught four yards into the end zone by tight end Richard Rodgers II to give the Packers a 27–23 win. The total distance of 69 yards is the longest Hail Mary pass in NFL history.
January 16, 2016: In the postseason after the Miracle in Motown, Aaron Rodgers completed a second Hail Mary pass: faced with a 4th and 20 on his own 4-yard line and a 20–13 deficit against the Arizona Cardinals in the final minute of the game, Rodgers threw a 60-yard completion to Jeff Janis. On the final play of regulation, he completed a 41-yard touchdown pass to Janis, making Green Bay the first postseason team ever to score a game-tying touchdown on the final play of the 4th quarter. Despite this, Arizona won the game in overtime largely through the efforts of Larry Fitzgerald, who went all the way to the Green Bay 4-yard line on a short pass he caught while wide open before scoring two plays afterwards.
September 10, 2016: After Oklahoma State football quarterback Mason Rudolph threw the ball up into the air as time expired, it was ruled intentional grounding: under college football rules, the game should have ended and Oklahoma State should have defeated Central Michigan 27–24. However, both on-field officials (from Central Michigan's home of the Mid-American Conference) and replay officials (from Oklahoma State's home of the Big 12 Conference) missed the call and gave Central Michigan an untimed down. CMU quarterback Cooper Rush threw a 49-yard Hail Mary to receiver Jesse Kroll, who then lateraled to Malik Fountain, who ran it into the end zone to win the game 30–27.
October 1, 2016: After a 47-yard touchdown pass with ten seconds remaining on the clock, a Georgia player took off his helmet during the celebration, resulting in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The kickoff was returned to the Georgia 43-yard line: on the final play, Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs threw a game-winning touchdown, caught by Juwon Jennings, as time expired to win 34–31.
January 8, 2017: In a wildcard playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants, Aaron Rodgers completed a 42-yard pass to Randall Cobb over a crowd of players from both teams on the last play before halftime. This gave Green Bay a 14–6 halftime lead, and they went on to win 38–13.
The term "Hail Mary" is sometimes used to refer to any last-ditch effort with little chance of success.
In military uses, General Norman Schwarzkopf described his strategy during the Persian Gulf War to bypass the bulk of Iraqi forces in Kuwait by attacking in a wide left sweep through their rear as a "Hail Mary" plan. This usage, however, did not refer to the plan's chances of success but to the movement of Coalition forces to the left side of the front lines prior to the attack, which reflected the formation for a Hail Mary pass in which all the offensive team's wide receivers line up on one side of the line of scrimmage.
There are similar usages in other fields, such as a "Hail Mary shot" in photography where a photographer holds the view finder of an SLR camera away from the eyes (so unable to compose the picture), usually high above the head, and takes a shot. This is often used in crowded situations.