On November 23, 1984, Doug Flutie threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Gerard Phelan, giving visiting the Boston College Eagles a stunning 47-45 win over the Miami Hurricanes.
This miraculous Hail Mary took place on the Friday evening after Thanksgiving Day in front of 32,000 at the Orange Bowl in Florida and millions more on a national CBS broadcast. The two quarterbacks were Heisman contenders: Flutie, despite his 5-foot-9-inch frame, had led Boston College to a top 10 AP Poll ranking, while Miami’s signal-caller Bernie Kosar was in the midst of a school-record-setting year.
The game saw little defense as a whole, regardless of Flutie’s final throw. By the third quarter, the score was knotted at 31. By the end of the game, the two offenses would combine for 1,282 yards, with the quarterbacks airing over 440 yards each.
In the fourth quarter, the lead flip flopped several times until it looked like Kosar would be the night’s hero with Miami down 41-38 and three minutes remaining.
Kosar first escaped a safety and then completed four of six passes to put the Hurricanes on the Boston College 1. Fullback Melvin Bratton punched it in from there for his fourth touchdown of the game, giving Miami a 45-41 lead with less than a half minute to go.
After the ensuing kickoff, Boston College got the ball on their own 20-yard line with 28 seconds left. Flutie hit tailback Troy Stradford for a 19 yard pass and a declined Miami penalty halted the clock. On the next play, Flutie found tight end Scot Gieselman, who ran out of bounds at the Miami 48. After that, an overthrown ball that could’ve placed Boston College on Miami’s 25 drained the clock down to six seconds. Somewhat anticlimactically, the officials stopped the next play after a linesman threw a flag that was ultimately picked up.
The next snap got off without a hitch. Flutie took the ball and retreated to his own 40. Then pressure from defensive tackle Jerome Brown forced Flutie to scramble right. With three Hurricanes closing in after this quick scramble, Flutie set up between the hash marks and heaved the ball into the Florida rain.
The ball traveled 64 yards from Flutie’s hand. At the end of its arcing flight, the spiraling grail skirted by several Hurricanes, destined to not end up in the hands of the enemy. And there, about two yards beyond the goal line, Flutie’s roommate Gerard Phelan secured the once-flying prize while rolling to the ground.
Bedlam broke out. Eagle players piled on Phelan. Flutie was hugged by guard Steve Trapilo. About the only Boston College not immediately joining in the celebration was head coach Jack Bicknell, who was having trouble removing his headset.
Boston College had won 47-45. Flutie had compiled 472 yards on 34 of 46 passing with two of his three touchdowns going to Phelan (who also caught 11 total passes for 226 yards). In the losing effort, Kosar went 25 of 38 for 447 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. It was the second-straight game the Hurricanes had lost by two points; they had fallen 42-40 to Maryland two weeks prior.
The Hail Mary pass had miraculously worked. The play was practiced once every Thursday, although according to Bicknell it rarely succeeded because “nobody really jumps for it at practice.” But when it mattered, when it counted, the play worked—etching Doug Flutie into the stone tablet that is college football history.
I honestly believe when we ran that play we had a legitimate chance. I’m not saying that I anticipated it happening, but I’m saying we had a chance and that’s all I ask for.
On his last-second Hail Mary pass
There was pandemonium upon Boston College’s return home. Roughly 1,000 fans flooded Logan Airport to welcome the team back to New England. Six state troopers had to help Flutie and Phelan navigate the mass of humanity. Miami’s defensive coordinator, Bill Trout, resigned the day after his defense gave up 47 points and 627 yards of offense, although he cited differing philosophies with head coach Jimmy Johnson as the reason for his exit.
The front page of the next day’s Boston Herald decreed “HAIL, FLUTIE” (some other papers used similar headlines). That phrase would go on to be used as the play’s moniker in the years that followed.
Two days following the thriller, Boston College announced the football team had accepted an invitation to the Cotton Bowl Classic in Dallas on January 1. This announcement came prior to the school’s final regular season game against local rival Holy Cross. In that season-ender on December 1, the Eagles dismantled the Crusaders 45-10, with Flutie throwing three scores.
Later that same night, Flutie accepted the Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. While he was the shortest quarterback to win the award since Texas Christian’s 5-foot-6-inch Davey O’Brien in 1938, Flutie’s victory there hardly shocked anyone.
Flutie had put up tall marks in the 1984 season despite his short stature, throwing for 3,454 yards and 27 touchdowns (both school records). His 10,579 career passing yards were an NCAA record.
The miraculous toss in Miami was the cherry on top, although the votes had already been cast prior to the game. Still, Flutie ran away with the Heisman honors: He received 2,240 points while second place Keith Byars of Ohio State garnered roughly half at 1,251. Miami’s Kosar finished fourth.
An unsubstantiated rumor circulating before the ceremony and the Holy Cross game spurred some minor drama. According to Will McDonough, a Boston Globe columnist, a well-known (but unnamed in the paper) caller suggested that lawyer Bob Woolf had been negotiating with Donald Trump, then an owner of a United States Football League franchise in New Jersey, as Flutie’s agent. The caller stated that Trump had offered Flutie a three-year, $2 million contract, based on info from a “top” USFL executive.
If the rumor were true, Flutie would have been ineligible to play against Holy Cross and in the Cotton Bowl because NCAA rules prohibit players from working with agents during their college career.
Woolf denied the rumor, calling it “the wildest thing [he] ever heard.” Nothing ultimately came of the accusation, as the NCAA never disciplined Flutie. For what it’s worth, Woolf did eventually become Flutie’s agent, and the quarterback did sign for Trump’s New Jersey Generals franchise (neither would be that surprising, no matter the rumor’s veracity; Woolf was a prominent local agent who worked with several Boston sports stars and the Generals had Boston College’s territorial rights in the USFL draft).
Following a month of Flutiemania—the hero’s helmet was stolen (and then returned) just before Christmas while his equipment bag was swiped six times—Boston College played Houston in the Cotton Bowl. The Eagles shot out to a 17-7 lead before the Cougars would make things 31-28 in the third quarter. A pair of Boston College rushing scores in the fourth, however, sealed a 45-28 victory.
The win gave the Eagles a 10-2 record on the year. It also gave Flutie a 33-14 record during his four seasons at the school. The final AP Poll ranked Boston College fifth, the school’s highest season-ending rank since 1940.
Miami’s downward luck continued in their postseason finale. Against UCLA in the Fiesta Bowl, the Hurricanes lost again by two points, this time in a 39-37 thriller. Miami trailed after three quarters and Kosar rallied the squad with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns that built a 37-36 lead, but John Lee’s 23-yard field goal with 2:58 remaining gave the Bruins the two-point lead they needed to win.
Miami completed the 1984 campaign 8-5 with a No. 18 ranking in the AP Poll.
At 5-foot-9-inches, Flutie was considered too small by many for the professional game and skipped the NFL for the upstart USFL. He struggled for New Jersey there until the league’s folding in 1986, and then bounced to the NFL, where he made little impact during four seasons split with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots.
He broke out in the pro ranks while spending eight years in the Canadian Football League, winning a single Grey Cup with the Calgary Stampeders and then two with the Toronto Argonauts. Flutie later returned to the NFL in 1998 and had stints with the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, and New England. He retired after the 2005 season, having spent 21 seasons playing professional football.
Flutie is also known for being the first player to successfully convert a drop kick in the NFL since 1941, when his point-after-attempt for New England was good against the Miami Dolphins during the regular-season finale in 2005.
The other equation of Flutie’s miracle pass, Gerard Phelan, was drafted in the fourth round of the 1985 NFL draft by New England as the 108th pick. However, a knee injury kept him from ever seeing the pro gridiron.
Boston College has yet to regain the heights the school reached with Flutie under center. It took over 20 years for the program to have another 10-win season (going 10-3 in 2006), and the Eagles best postseason AP ranking since was No. 10 in 2007, a far cry from the No. 5 ranking the 1984 squad had.
Miami, meanwhile, did a fair bit better following their trio of close defeats. Once new head coach Jimmy Johnson settled in, the Hurricanes flourished, and a perfect 12-0 season in 1987 won them an undisputed national title. After Johnson’s departure in 1988, Dennis Erickson guided the team to national championships in 1989 and 1991. The program has since had one more national title, won in 2001. Harder times have hit Miami recently, though, and the school has only one 10-win season since 2003.
There was a way to stop Flutie, but you go to prison for killing somebody.
Miami’s defensive coordinator
The play is available to watch on YouTube:
Several photos of the game exist (most of the celebrations), although there’s only one high-quality photo of the play itself bouncing around that I can find. This shot shows Flutie as he scrambled away from the pressure:
Another well-known photo is of Flutie leaping into the arms of Steve Trapilo immediately after the play:
There’s also second well-known celebration photo of Flutie. This one, which shows him hugging his brother Darren, made numerous papers the day after:
A third celebration photo is of Phelan. This photo also made it into a number of papers:
Yes! Yes! Yes! We’ve seen them all, and this was the best.
Doug’s father when asked if the Hail Mary pass was the greatest play of quarterback’s career
- Down 45-41 with six seconds to go, Doug Flutie threw the ball 64 yards in the air to roommate Gerard Phelan for a touchdown, giving Boston College a 47-41 victory over Miami.
- The win vaulted No. 10 Boston College to No. 8 in the AP Poll while cementing Flutie’s place in the annuals of college football lore.
- Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy a week later and his Boston College Eagles beat Houston a month later in the Cotton Bowl.
- “A miracle in Miami”, The Boston Globe, November 24, 1984 via Newspapers.com
- “Here are some words of advice for Flutie”, The Boston Globe, November 29, 1984 via Newspapers.com
- “Small wonder, no wonder: Flutie runs away with the Heisman”, The Boston Globe, December 2, 1984 via Newspapers.com
- “Father Flutie knows best: This one was the greatest”, The Boston Herald, November 24, 1984 via GenealogyBank.com
- “HAIL, FLUTIE”, The Boston Herald, November 24, 1984 via GenealogyBank.com
- “Miami coach: You can stop Flutie”, The Boston Herald, November 24, 1984 via GenealogyBank.com
- “Flutie’s helmet stolen”, The Boston Herald, December 22, 1984 via GenealogyBank.com
- “FOUND! FLUTIE’S STOLEN HELMET”, The Boston Herald, December 23, 1984 via GenealogyBank.com
- “Flutie’s Pass on Last Play Overcomes Miami by 47-45”, The New York Times, November 24, 1984 via TimesMachine
- “PRO FOOTBALL; PATRIOTS’ PHELAN TO MISS SEASON”, The New York Times
- “Doug Flutie States”, Pro-Football-Reference.com
- “The last dropkick”, Pro Football Hall of Fame
- “1984 Boston College Eagles Schedule and Results “, Sports-Reference.com
- “1984 Miami (FL) Hurricanes Schedule and Results”, Sports-Reference.com