Celebrating football's greatest Hail Marys 40 years after Roger Staubach popularized phrase

— -- Many people know the football definition of a "Hail Mary" is a long pass under desperate circumstances that has so little chance of success it would take divine intervention for the play to succeed. But fewer folks remember it was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach who brought the term back into widespread usage in football 40 years ago this month -- or more than 50 years after it originated with Knute Rockne's famous 1922 Notre Dame team led by The Four Horsemen.

Staubach cemented his place in football lore by dropping back with 24 seconds left in the Cowboys' Dec. 28, 1975, NFC divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings and heaving a pass that wide receiver Drew Pearson caught for a 50-yard touchdown against the Vikings' Nate Wright. Afterward, Staubach -- a devout Catholic -- told reporters, "It was just a Hail Mary pass, a very, very lucky play."

Whether they involve luck, wondrous skill, freakish deflections or breathtakingly bad judgment, Hail Marys have created some of the most frenzied celebrations and unforgettable moments that college or pro football has seen. Here's a look at more of those thrilling plays.

Notre Dame at Georgia Tech, Oct. 28, 1922

The first reference to a Hail Mary football play is believed to have occurred during this game, when Fighting Irish guard Noble Kizer turned toward his teammates in the huddle and said, " Boys, let's have a Hail Mary," before running a pivotal second-quarter play. Notre Dame had been stymied on offense and was trailing 3-0 at the time, but promptly scored on a fourth-down touchdown run by Elmer Layden. When Kizer repeated the Hail Mary request on another Notre Dame possession in the fourth quarter and quarterback Harry Struhldreher scored to put the game away, another legend about Rockne's team was hatched.

Notre Dame at Ohio State, Nov. 2, 1935

Layden had succeeded Rockne as Notre Dame's head coach by the time the Fighting Irish faced undefeated Ohio State in this thriller that became known as "The Game of the Century." Notre Dame was trailing 13-0 at the start of the fourth quarter but scored two touchdowns to trim Ohio State's lead to 13-12. Still, things looked bleak for Notre Dame when starting quarterback Andy Pilney was carried off on a stretcher with less than a minute to play after being injured on a 30-yard run. But backup William Shakespeare (whose nickname was "The Merchant of Menace") entered the game and, with time running out, threw a 19-yard touchdown pass that Wayne Millner caught on his knees in the end zone for an 18-13 win. In 1969, this contest was selected in an Associated Press poll as the best game in the first 100 years of college football.

Minnesota Vikings vs. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/topics/sports/football/cleveland-browns.htm" class="r_lapi">Cleveland Browns</a>, Dec. 14, 1980

Minnesota quarterback Tommy Kramer finished a 456-yard passing day by completing a 46-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Rashad as time expired for a 28-23 victory. The catch -- which became known as the " Miracle at the Met" because three Browns defenders leaped for the ball but tipped it to Rashad rather than knocking it down -- locked up the NFC Central title and a playoff berth with one week left in the regular season. 

Brigham Young vs. SMU, Holiday Bowl, Dec. 19, 1980

This is called "The Miracle Bowl" for good reason. BYU finished a furious comeback from a 45-25 deficit by scoring 21 points in the final four minutes. Quarterback Jim McMahon capped the breathless rally by firing a 41-yard touchdown pass to Clay Brown on the final play from scrimmage. Brown made a spectacular leaping catch in the end zone despite being surrounded by SMU defenders -- then held onto the ball as they crashed to the ground. The extra point gave the Cougars a 46-45 win.

Boston College at Miami, Nov. 23, 1984

Miami spent a week ranked No. 1 early in Jimmy Johnson's first year, but undersized Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie beat the Hurricanes with a dramatic 48-yard pass that Gerard Phelan plucked out of the crowd in the end zone. In addition to giving BC a 47-45 win, the "Hail Flutie" play on the day after Thanksgiving cemented the quarterback's Heisman Trophy victory, which was announced eight days later.

San Francisco 49ers at Cincinnati Bengals, Sept. 20, 1987

With Cincinnati leading 26-20 with six seconds left, Bengals coach Sam Wyche called a fourth-down run from his own 30, thinking the clock would run out during the play. Bad idea. The 49ers stopped James Brooks, who got the ball on a sweep, for a 5-yard loss with two seconds remaining. Then, on the final play from scrimmage, 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, already a two-time Super Bowl champ by then, lobbed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice (another player you might have heard of), and San Francisco pulled out a 27-26 shocker after trailing the entire game.

Southern Mississippi at Louisville, Oct. 14, 1989

Southern Miss actually used back-to-back stunning plays to win "The Miracle at Louisville" -- first by blocking a go-ahead field goal attempt with 23 seconds left and the score tied at 10 and then by winning the game on the very next play. Southern Miss quarterback Brett Favre took the snap at his own 21, rolled right, shook off a pass-rusher and chucked the ball to the Louisville 35. It was tipped right into the hands of Darryl Tillman, who gathered in the ball on the run for a 79-yard scoring play and a 16-10 win.

Cleveland Browns at New Orleans Saints, Oct. 31, 1999

The revived Browns were 0-7, but they won their first game since coming back to the NFL after a three-season hiatus when Tim Couch completed a 56-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Kevin Johnson as time expired. After the Cleveland's unlikely 21-16 victory, photographers snapped heartsick Saints head coach Mike Ditka lying on his stomach, right where he fell to the turf after the final play.

LSU at Kentucky, Nov. 9, 2002

This game doubles as one of the most embarrassing endings in college history. After kicking a go-ahead field goal with 11 seconds remaining, Kentucky's players had already given a Gatorade shower to head coach Guy Morriss when LSU quarterback Marcus Randall took the game's final snap with two seconds left. When Randall launched a long pass from his own 18-yard line that was deflected by one defender and then another inside the Kentucky 25, fireworks went off over the stadium and Kentucky fans stormed the field to celebrate. But the deflected ball had actually traveled nearly 10 yards forward, where LSU's Devery Henderson made the catch and ran into the end zone to complete a 75-yard touchdown play that's now celebrated as " The Bluegrass Miracle." 

<a href="http://abcnews.go.com/topics/sports/football/seattle-seahawks.htm" class="r_lapi">Seattle Seahawks</a> vs. Green Bay Packers, Sept. 23, 2012

On the final play of this Monday night game, Green Bay's M.D. Jennings outjumped a pack of players to snag Russell Wilson's heave into the end zone -- but  Golden Tate also got his hands on the ball as the players crashed to the ground. This controversial play became known as the "Fail Mary" after the NFL admitted replacement officials should have ruled pass interference on Tate for shoving a defender. Still, the NFL's statement did nothing to settle why one official signaled touchdown while another signaled touchback. Three days after Seattle's 14-12 victory, an agreement was reached between the NFL and the referees' union to end the league's lockout of officials.

Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions, Dec. 3, 2015

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers got an extra chance at authoring the "Miracle in Motown" only because the Lions committed a face mask penalty against him as time ran out in regulation of this Thursday night game. Given a gift bonus play, Rodgers eluded three Detroit pass-rushers and bought eight seconds to survey the field before launching a rainbow throw that traveled an estimated 70 yards in the air and into the end zone. Tight end Richard Rodgers -- one of four Packers receivers waiting in the vicinity -- caught the pass for a 61-yard touchdown, giving the Packers a 27-23 win and the record for the longest game-ending, game-winning Hail Mary in NFL history.

Honorable mentions

Colorado at Michigan, Sept. 24, 1994: Kordell Stewart won this battle of highly ranked teams by heaving a pass that traveled around 70 yards in the air before it was batted up at the goal line and into the hands of a diving Michael Westbrook for a 27-26 stunner. (Keith Jackson's classic call on YouTube is worth hearing.) 

Atlanta Falcons vs. San Francisco 49ers, Nov. 20, 1983: Why? Because any play that involves fancy footwork by Billy "White Shoes" Johnson -- this time on a 47-yard bomb from Steve Bartkowski to give the Falcons a 28-24 victory -- deserves another look.

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Houston Texans, Nov. 14, 2010: Houston safety Glover Quin thought he'd smacked David Garrard's pass safely out of the end zone with both hands, only to watch in horror as Mike Thomas caught it at the 1-yard line and stepped into the end zone with no time left for a 31-24 Jacksonville victory.