Where Prayer Has Been Valid

“The beauty of sport, it seems to me, is that it provides a much-needed lift from the rigors of everyday life.”
-Al Michaels

 

We all seem to have spent a lot of time talking about what God will and will not fix and how prayer isn’t enough to do much of anything. The term “prayer shaming” has entered our vocabulary, as if it’s a real thing. We also have to find yet another way to bend in our heads what is a “terrorist” and what isn’t. We also have spent too much time figuring out how when some nut jobs stockpile weaponry in their home in preparation for a government assault, it’s called “exercising a Constitutional right” while when other nut jobs do it, it’s called “terrorism.”

I can’t handle writing about another shooting this week and because of the great job that A and Adrastos did on this front, I really feel that anything I add will be piling on.

Time to zig while others zag.

There are places and times in which prayer has been valid and when it comes right down to it, there has rarely been a more-used prayer than the Hail Mary, which was executed to perfection last night by Green Bay’s only begotten son, Aaron Rodgers, in a miracle that saved a season. It might not have been loaves and fishes, but someone clearly put out the call to St. Jude last night, as the Packers had six seconds to go 80 yards.

 

 

“A reporter asked me, ‘What were you thinking when you threw it?’ I said, ‘I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.’”
-Roger Staubach

In Catholicism, the term “Hail Mary” traces back to the Gospel of Luke, when the Angel Gabriel addressed the startled virgin with the news that she was to bear the child of God. As a prayer, it traces back to the 15th or 16th Century in the Latin translation.

In football, it goes back to Dec. 28, 1975 in a playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings. Trailing 14-10 with just 32 seconds left, Roger Staubach took a shotgun snap from the 50 yard line, pump-faked the defensive backfield and fired off a wicked, arcing ball that landed in the hands of receiver Drew Pearson. Unlike almost every other “Hail Mary” pass these days, Pearson did not catch the ball in the end zone, and then had to scamper past a fallen Nate Wright for the final five yards. The extra point made the game 17-14, which would also be the final.

In the years prior to the term “Hail Mary,” based on Staubach’s faith-based lexicon, the pass had been called an “Alley Oop.” Every football team has one version of this play or another. For the immortal 1984 BC/Miami game, Doug Flutie called for the team’s “Flood Tip” play. Ten years later, Kordell Stewart’s 64-yard prayer was answered via a play called “Rocket Left.”

The concept is one that comes from every sandlot and school playground game that comes down to a single play: “Everybody go long.” Based on stat-geek analysis, the odds of completing a game-winning Hail Mary stands somewhere between slim and none, although based on the field position, it can be a roughly 1-in-10 shot if you’re on the proper side of the 50. Arm strength, quarterback protection, timing, receiver prowess and luck all play a role in one of these throws. Toss in the fact that usually the defense knows you’re going for and referees tend to avoid pass-interference calls on these plays… well… Good frickin’ luck.

Rodgers took what should have been the final snap of the game from his own 21, 79 yards from pay dirt and thus way out of the range of a Hail Mary. Instead, he opted for the second-most ridiculous play in football: The hook and lateral.

 

“It was Moen, Rodgers, Garner, Rodgers, Ford, Moen. And the only thing that slowed them was Tyrrell on trombone.”
– Unknown Author, 1982

Rivalries bring out the best and worst of us. Just ask Jim McMahon how it feels to have a rivalry game end a season. Or ask Matt Suhey, for that matter.

In 1982, the Stanford/Cal game had bred legendary performances between these bitter rivals. The game needed only an adjective to secure a fitting moniker for their efforts: The Big Game.

In this case, it was John Elway’s final game of his senior season. A win got him his first and only bowl appearance on his way to becoming the number one pick in the NFL Draft. In what can only be described as hint of things to come, Elway rallied his team, down two points, in the waning seconds of the game, connecting on a 4th and 17 pass from deep within his own territory to save his season. The Cardinal then moved into kicker Mark Harmon into place for a game-winning kick. With eight seconds left, Harmon notched the game winner, putting the team up 20-19 with only four seconds left. Ominously, Cal announcer Joe Starkey noted, “Only a miracle can save the Bears now!”

After a 15-yard unsportsman-like conduct penalty, Harmon squibbed a kickoff to the waiting Cal onsides kick unit. Around the 45-yard line, Kevin Moen grabbed the ball and quickly lateraled to Richard Rodgers in an attempt to get out of bounds and set up a last-second Hail Mary. Hemmed in at the sidelines, he flipped the ball to Dwight Garner who pressed up the field for about five yards before being enveloped in a sea of white jerseys. He chucked the ball back to Rodgers who took off toward the right side of the field, moving quickly up field as well. As the wall of Stanford covermen began to stretch thin, Rodgers hustled his way toward the 45 of Stanford when he tossed the ball back to Mariet Ford who sprinted quickly farther right. As he approached the 30, fearing he might get tackled, he made a blind lateral to Moen, who had rejoined the play.

As he looked up near the 25, he saw a sea of Stanford white and crimson. It wasn’t players. It was the band.

Zigging and zagging through unwilling obstacles toting trumpets and tubas, Moen found his way to the end zone, crashing full on into trombone player Gary Tyrrell. Moen had scored with no time left. Flags had littered the field. No one knew what the hell just happened.

Then the referee raised his hands. Touchdown.

“THE BEARS HAVE WON! THE BEARS HAVE WON! OH MY GOD!” Starkey screamed as he went hoarse on live air.

The chances of making this play work were far worse than making a Hail Mary function, but Aaron Rodgers had no options. He flung the ball to the far sidelines, where James Jones made the 19-yard reception at the 40. Jones then pitched the ball back to a tight end, who flung it back to Rodgers at around the 24. Before he could make a move, defensive lineman Devin Taylor ripped him to the ground. A split second after Rodgers hit the ground, so did two flags: Personal Foul- Face mask.

In football, a game cannot end on a defensive penalty. The Packers were granted one final play from their own 39.

 

“You can always ask, if Billy doesn’t score, what happens to the hockey team? Well, Billy did score.”
– Mike Eruzione

Football, like life, is full of second chances. Despite having the best record in the NFL throughout the 1970s, the Oakland Raiders had never won a Super Bowl. When faced with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the perfect Miami Dolphins and the Roger Staubach-led Cowboys, it’s pretty easy to see why. Quarterbacks who didn’t win “the big one” rarely were remembered from that era.

Just ask Ken Anderson and Dan Pastorini.

In the 1976 playoffs between the Raiders and the New England Patriots, the Pats led 21-17 as time ticked away in the fourth quarter. Ken Stabler got the ball back with less than two minutes to play after the Patriots missed a 50-yard field goal.

The Snake drove his team to the 28 where he suddenly went cold. A sack and two incompletions put the game into a do-or-die play. Stabler died. His pass went incomplete and the Patriots were poised for victory.

Of all the flags that were thrown throughout the 1970s, it seemed as though 99 percent of them went against the renegade Raiders. The one that fell just after this play, however, saved the season for the Snake. Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton was called for roughing the passer, a call that to this day irks the entire East Coast. A smack to the side of Stabler’s head was enough to move the ball to the 13, from which his team eventually scored. Game. Set. Match.

 

A win over a depleted Steelers team and a dominant performance against the Vikings granted Stabler and head coach John Madden their only Super Bowl win. The penalty made this all possible, although Madden never saw it that way:

 

“If you could sit there for 60 minutes and say the officials turned that game around with penalties at the end, you were wasting your time,” Madden told reporters after the game. “You were eating a hot dog somewhere instead of watching what was going on. There was some great football out there.”

 

The Packers, on this day, found themselves after 60 minutes of football with one more chance.

 

“If they’ve got a bag of tricks, they’re going into it now… One chance left.”
– Don Criqui, Oct. 31, 1999 Saints/Browns :02 seconds left

 

To that point, Aaron Rodgers had played a pedestrian, even sub-par (for him), game. He tallied 212 passing yard, one touchdown and one interception. He had rushed for 27 yards and a TD as well, but when it came down to it, the Packers appeared destined for a 7-5 record and a rough road toward the playoffs.

 

He took one last snap, dropped back and pushed off toward his left, against his throwing-arm’s strength. Chased by two Lion defenders, he reversed field and ran out to his right, edging up close to the line of scrimmage. As he approached the imaginary line, helpfully placed on the screen by CBS, Packer fans had visions of Don Majkowski and the “beyond the line of scrimmage” call against the Bears in 1989.

 

Rodgers stopped two yards short of the 39, stepped up and fired a missile that reached an arc of nearly 70 feet, coming within 20 feet of clanking off the rafters at Ford Field. The ball set out on a line, flying at a wicked speed toward the end zone.

 

Most Hail Mary passes end up dropping into a sea of hands, with either a ricochet or a tumbling mess deciding the outcome. In this case, however, one receiver appeared to be tracking the ball from about the five yard line all the way into the end zone. As the ball cleared the goal line, he leapt into the air, securing the ball at its zenith and crashing to the ground with a game winner.

 

The receiver was the same player who threw the ball back to Rodgers on that fatal face-mask call. The same man who secured more than half of Rodgers passing yardage that day.

 

Richard Rodgers, a second-year player out of the University of California, had saved the day and perhaps the Packers season with a last-second desperation play. Although Richard shares the same last name as Aaron, and an alma mater, they are of no relation. However, Richard is related to someone else who knows something about miracles.

His father, Richard, was the only man to touch the football twice during the final play of that famous 1982 Stanford-Cal game.

 

 

“What is a miracle, Vincent?”
“An act of God.”
“And what is an act of God?”
“When God makes the impossible possible.”
– Pulp Fiction

 

It seems ridiculous that sports should have the pull it does over us. It also seems even more ridiculous that we would imagine prayer should have any say over the outcome of a game. In a stranger sense of the matter, you could even argue that prayer for one outcome will negate the prayer of another outcome. For every cheering Cheesehead on Thursday, there was a forlorn Lion.

 

To this day, John Elway refuses to admit defeat in that 1982 Stanford-Cal game. When the Stanford Axe, the trophy given to the winner of the Big Game, changes hands, so does the score for that game: Stanford records it as a 20-19 win, with Cal changing it back to the recognized score of 25-20. If you want to piss off Mike Ditka, start off a sentence with “After further review, we have a reversal…” The Majik Man’s 1989 last-ditch effort still bugs him. Even Miracles have dark sides, as Vladislav Tretiak can tell you.

 

However, the concept of sport is that it DOES provide that lift, that conversation starter, that “hey did you see” moment for people who otherwise would have nothing in common. It gives hope when we need it most and it provides joy when none seems present. Maybe that’s the prayer that will move us toward togetherness, a prayer for magic moments and improbable finishes. A chance to put aside all our bigger differences and either join under a common tent of enjoyment or argue in an arena that lacks such dire consequences.

 

Maybe that’s where prayer can be valid. For all of us.

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