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Cowboys' Drew Pearson, author of the first Hail Mary catch, rode clutch play to the HOF

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There aren’t too many Pro Football Hall of Fame paths quite like that of Drew Pearson’s.

In high school in New Jersey, Pearson grew up catching passes from Joe Theismann — then ended up replacing him as the team’s starting quarterback.

That landed Pearson all the way out at Tulsa on baseball and football scholarships, one of the few schools to allow him to play both sports. He was a quarterback operating in a run-heavy offense for the Golden Hurricane but went undrafted in the NFL and forced to move back to wide receiver to make it with the Dallas Cowboys.

All Pearson would do in his 11-year NFL career — one shortened by a tragic accident — is establish himself as one of the great clutch receivers of all time. 

He enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend as only the fourth undrafted Hall of Famer in the league’s modern era, joining Jim Langer, Warren Moon and John Randle.

Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson is never afraid to defend the only NFL team he ever has known. (Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson is never afraid to defend the only NFL team he ever has known. (Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Drew Pearson earned 'clutch' label with first Hail Mary pass

As a rookie, Pearson earned a role as a part-time starter and took over the spot opposite Golden Richards in Year 2, leading Dallas in receiving yards each of the next five seasons.

“I never doubted my ability,” Pearson said. “I knew all I needed was a chance to show what I could do. It was a challenge.”

That’s when the three-time Pro Bowler’s clutch reputation began to take hold.

The phrase “Hail Mary” is now universally understood in football lexicon. Pearson had a big hand in authoring what is believed to be the first play to be called that.

With the Cowboys trailing the Minnesota Vikings, 14-10, in the 1975 divisional-round playoffs in the NFC, Roger Staubach hit Pearson for 25 yards on fourth-and-17 to keep the game alive in the waning moments (even if Vikings fans claim he was out of bounds). Then on the final play of the game Staubach heaved the desperation ball up and it ended up in Pearson’s arms for a stunning TD.

"I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary," Staubauch said after the game, birthing one of the most famous sayings in sport. (Vikings fans also will tell you that Pearson pushed off of the defender to make the play).

Pearson's other big-game contributions

Pearson stung the Vikings again seven years later on “Monday Night Football,” helping spring Tony Dorsett for the first 99-yard TD run in league history with a huge block downfield — all despite the Cowboys having only 10 men on the field.

Other clutch plays on Pearson’s lengthy ledger include catching the game-clinching TD in a 1973 playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams (one of two TDs in Pearson’s playoff debut) and grabbing the game-winning touchdown from backup QB Clint Longley in the 1974 Thanksgiving game against Washington.

And Pearson almost rendered “The Catch” invalid. Following Joe Montana’s signature play with the 49ers against the Cowboys in the 1981 season's NFC title game, there were still 51 seconds remaining. Pearson caught a 31-yard pass from Danny White on the Cowboys’ first play after the TD, putting them in business at the San Francisco 44-yard line with ample time left. 

But White fumbled on the next play, cementing Montana’s early legacy and robbing Pearson of another prime-time gem.

His career was cut short in a car accident

A few years later, Pearson’s career would end prematurely and in shocking tragedy.

Driving his brother home from a basketball game, Pearson fell asleep at the wheel of his Dodge Daytona. The subsequent crash almost completely severed his liver, snapped his clavicle and punctured his thigh with the truck’s stick shift.

The liver injury ended Pearson’s career at age 32. He retired as the 14th-leading receiver in league history and Dallas’ all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards at the time. The more devastating result was the death of Pearson’s brother, Casey, in the accident.

“Not a day, an hour, or a minute goes by,” Pearson said in 2001, “that I do not think about what happened.”

Pearson has found some solace and peace, and has been connected to his only NFL team since. The Cowboys legend started the legacy of the No. 88 WR jersey in Dallas — one that since has been carried on from Michael Irvin to Dez Bryant and now to CeeDee Lamb.

Along with working on team broadcasts, Pearson endeared himself to Cowboys fans when he hilariously trolled Eagles fans at the 2017 NFL draft in Philadelphia by touting the Cowboys' all-time achievements and listed many of the franchise's greats to the crowd prior to announcing Dallas' pick.

No one can doubt his allegiance to his team. Pearson is an all-time Cowboy and now is recognized as one of the best receivers of his generation with his induction to Canton.

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