Sports

Cowboys vs. Vikings in playoffs conjures Hail Mary

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IRVING, Texas (AP) — The Dallas Cowboys are headed to Minnesota for a playoff game Sunday, which means longtime Vikings fans probably won’t want to watch much television the next few days.

Otherwise, they’re going to see it again.

The Hail Mary.

On Dec. 28, 1975, the Vikings were hosting a first-round playoff game against the wild-card Cowboys, and were winning 14-10 in the final half-minute, when Roger Staubach threw a 50-yard pass to Drew Pearson for the winning touchdown. Known at the time as merely “a bomb,” Staubach entered a new term into the vernacular of football when he described how he pulled off the miraculous throw by saying, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”

The quote is what made the pass stand out in NFL lore. But it meant so much more to both teams.

The Cowboys were plucky upstarts, a year removed from missing the playoffs and supposedly in rebuilding mode. Twelve rookies made the club, earning them the nickname “The Dirty Dozen.” Dallas rode the momentum of the Minnesota game all the way to the Super Bowl, only to lose a thriller to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

For Vikings fans, it remains perhaps the most excruciating film clip imaginable — for so many reasons.

First off, the ’75 Vikings might have been the best in franchise history.

Led by NFL MVP Fran Tarkenton and running back Chuck Foreman on offense, and featuring a defense fronted by a group known as the “Purple People Eaters,” Minnesota won its first 10 games and finished 12-2, tying for the best record in the NFL. Coach Bud Grant’s group had few weaknesses, perhaps fewer than his four teams that reached the Super Bowl.

In this game, Minnesota fell behind 10-7 early in the fourth quarter, then Tarkenton led a 70-yard drive for the go-ahead points with 5:56 left. Dallas had the ball on its own 15 with less than 2 minutes left. It was cold outdoors in Bloomington, so some fans headed to the exits.

It looked over when the Cowboys were facing fourth-and-16 from the 25. Then Pearson, who hadn’t caught a pass all game before this drive, caught a pass and went out of bounds at the 50. While he was sliding on the ground, a security guard kicked him.

After an incomplete pass to Preston Pearson, Staubach and Drew Pearson talked about a play that had worked before, a deep pass down the sideline with a pump fake along the way.

“We knew what we needed to do; we had to have a bomb,” Hall of Fame offensive lineman Rayfield Wright said Tuesday. “It’s a play I’ll never forget.”

Staubach put so much into selling the fake that he nearly lost control of the ball. He held on, but awkwardly, which is why he underthrew the pass.

And that leads to the next layer of Vikings fans’ ire.

Pearson slowed to catch it and bumped into cornerback Nate Wright as they jumped for the ball. Wright landed on the ground while Pearson felt the ball go through his arms. Somehow, he actually pinned it to his hip — a la David Tyree and his head in the Super Bowl two years ago. Pearson turned and scampered the last few yards into the end zone, then the former college quarterback heaved the ball into the crowd.

The throw fans wanted to see was a flag. The only one that came was against Minnesota’s Alan Page for griping about the non-call. Fans threw all sorts of things onto the field. An official reached to pick up some trash when a whiskey bottle conked him in the head, opening a gash.

“I don’t think he pushed off,” Rayfield Wright said, smiling.

Hours after the game, things got far worse for Tarkenton. He learned that his father — a pastor named Dallas — died of a heart attack while watching the game on television.

Dallas beat Minnesota in an NFC championship game following the 1977 season, then again in the playoffs on Dec. 28, 1996. That had been the Cowboys’ most recent playoff victory until last Saturday.

The Vikings have won five of the six meetings since the ’96 playoffs, including a playoff game following the 1999 season.