"Hail Mary" Passes, Concussions, and Success after Football

Roger Staubach sits down for a personal interview with AAOS Now
As the Presidential Guest Speaker at the 2016 AAOS Annual Meeting, Roger T. Staubach discussed leadership, trust, and teamwork, and his various careers in football, real estate, and the U.S. Navy. Following that presentation, Mr. Staubach sat down with Stuart J. Fischer, MD, for a more personal chat. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

Dr. Fischer: What's it like being a quarterback, sitting back in the pocket, knowing you're throwing to the world's fastest human [ed: Olympic sprinter and Cowboys receiver Robert Lee "Bullet Bob" Hayes]?

Mr. Staubach: That was fun. I was in the college all-star game with Bob Hayes and I learned right away that I had to get rid of the ball quicker than normal or else he'd outrun it. He had another gear. I think he'd still be the fastest player in the league today. I threw a touchdown pass to him against the New York Giants. We were on about our 5-yard line and he caught it at the 50-yard line, and Spider Lockhart was right on him. By the time they crossed the goal line, Bob was 5 yards ahead of Spider Lockhart. And Spider was the fastest guy on the Giants.

Left to right: Stuart J. Fischer, MD, speaks with football great Roger Staubach.

Dr. Fischer: You're credited with coining the term "Hail Mary." How did that come about?

Mr. Staubach: In 1975 we had a big play to beat the Vikings [in the playoffs]. Drew Pearson made this great catch and went in to score the winning touchdown. After the game [the reporters] asked me, "What were you thinking?" I said I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary. I was a Catholic kid from Cincinnati, and I could have said, 'Our Father, Glory Be, Apostle's Creed or something, but Hail Mary came to my mind right away.

Dr. Fischer: Do you think people would still be talking about a "Glory Be" pass?

Mr. Staubach: It would be interesting if I had closed my eyes and said an Our Father. Would they call it the Our Father pass now? [laughs] It took off. An Associated Press writer really jumped on it and wrote some stories: "Hail Mary Pass Wins Game." It used to be [called] an "alley-oop" or a "bomb." It kind of took off slowly, but it took off. And the National Football League (NFL) recognized that was the first time it was ever said. I'm proud of it, actually. Drew and I both are proud of it. Plus, we won the game. [laughs]

Dr. Fischer: As a successful professional football player and businessman, what advice would you give to the Division 2 or Division 3 college athlete—a starting athlete, but someone who knows he's not going to make football his career?

Mr. Staubach: The most important thing is to prepare for the rest of your life. That's what your education is all about. Even as a pro athlete, you're still going to be young when you leave the sport, so you definitely should get your college degree. You know, today you can maybe leave [the sport] a little bit early and that's not all bad because you can get hurt. But overall, getting an education is the most important thing you can do as an athlete, because it's going to be with you the rest of your life. My education at the Naval Academy was [in] engineering. It taught me how to work and persevere, and it became helpful for me when I got into the real estate business. It took me a little while to learn what I wanted to do in real estate, but my background in the Navy really made a difference in my life. So my advice to the athlete is that sports are wonderful, and they're great outlets, but make sure you get a good education.

Dr. Fischer: In 2016, the issue of concussions has come to the forefront. You had several concussions when you were a player. Given the current protocols, would you have been allowed back on the field as fast today as you were then?

Mr. Staubach: I had six concussions where I was totally knocked out. I had a number of [what we called] dingers. The ones where I got knocked out, I never went back in the game. When I woke up, I went back and sat on the bench, and I was confused, but I was awake, and they'd give you smelling salts and check you; ask how many fingers are up. But nothing the next day other than, "Are you feeling okay?" And I always was feeling pretty good the next day. If I'd had slurred speech or something was wrong, I think they would have maybe held me out. But today, they measure your first concussion, and you have another one, they might hold you out for 2 weeks. They just didn't do that back in the old days.

Dr. Fischer: So you went back to practice on Tuesday…

Mr. Staubach: I always played the next week, but I never did go back in [the same game]. Now the dingers … where I was confused, kind of walking around and gathering myself … today, that's a concussion. Today, they would not let you go back in the game. I went back in the games. I would try to get coherent as fast as I could.

We're really still in the midst of understanding brain health and brain research. I think it's extremely good that they're [promoting neurological safety]. I don't think they intentionally did anything in the old days. If you felt fine, you went back in the game. But your brain has to heal just like other parts of your body. So I think what they're doing today is very good … really trying to study and understand.

Dr. Fischer: Many of us as orthopaedic surgeons are team physicians for high school, college, or professional teams. From a player's perspective, what advice would you give to a team physician, in terms of how he communicates with a player, particularly at the younger level?

Mr. Staubach: I think you need to be honest with him. The doctors that I had, who took care of my shoulders and concussions, did everything they could based on the evidence back then. Medical techniques and understanding have improved [over time]. I think overall, doctors are great human beings who are very, very honest, and players should listen to them. Today, you're forced to, especially in the NFL or in college. And I would say 99 percent of the doctors would never allow you to go out there if they really felt you were going to harm yourself.

Stuart J. Fischer, MD, is a member of the AAOS Now editorial board.

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