Even now, almost 34 years since he played in an NFL game and 41 years since snagging the original Hail Mary pass, Drew Pearson is still an inspiration.
Since his rousing moment during the NFL draft in Philadelphia last Friday, when he trolled Eagles fans as part of a passionate announcement of a second-round draft pick, the former Dallas Cowboys receiver has been flooded with feedback.
It’s been rather cool for Pearson, 66, to bask in football glory again.
“When someone tells you that you’re trending on Twitter world-wide, it’s like, ‘My golly,’ ” Pearson told USA TODAY Sports. “I played so long ago that people tend to forget. And the younger generation, they never knew about you. So that kind of exposure was priceless.”
Pearson never had his name called for the draft, having made the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 1973. On another level, it was fitting that Pearson, of all people, seized the spotlight. During his 11-year career, which included three Super Bowl appearances, he was pretty much Mr. Clutch. Ask Roger Staubach, if not the Minnesota Vikings stung by the Hail Mary in the 1975 NFC divisional playoff.
A takeaway from Pearson’s revival should be that voters are inspired to consider his case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame — and not because he’d give a stirring induction speech.
Count Pearson among worthy Hall candidates who have slipped through the cracks. To get to Canton now, with his 20 years of eligibility on the primary ballot expired, he’d have to go the route as a senior candidate, which can be a quagmire of another sort because of the vast numbers at play.
No, you can’t look at Pearson’s statistics and compare them to the prime candidates of the moment. Terrell Owens caught 1,078 passes in 15 seasons. Randy Moss had 982 receptions in 14 years. Both Owens and Moss eclipsed 15,000 career yards and 150 TDs. Pearson caught 489 passes for 7,822 yards and 48 TDs, with more than 1,000 more yards in the postseason.
Then again, when Pearson broke into the league it was acceptable for defensive backs to mug the receivers down the field. Rules for the passing game were liberalized in 1978 and with multiple tweaks since then, passing stats have inflated accordingly.
That’s no knock on Owens or Moss. But Pearson’s 870 receiving yards in 1977 led the NFL, en route to a Super Bowl crown. In 1976, he led the NFC with 58 catches. In ’74, his 1,087 yards ranked second in the league, just five shy of leader Cliff Branch.
By today’s standards, paltry numbers.
“It wasn’t the quantity,” Pearson says, “it was the quality.”
Maybe the strongest indicator of Pearson’s viability is reflected by the All-Decade teams that are chosen by Hall voters. Of all 15 of the first-team wide receiver selections from the 1930s through the ’90s, Pearson is the only one not in the Hall of Fame.
Furthermore, he never even advanced to the level of a finalist for discussion in the room on the day before the Super Bowl when the classes are chosen.
“That’s criminal,” said Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin, a fellow voter.
Why wasn’t Pearson considered? It didn’t help that Pearson — whose playing career abruptly ended 1984 after a car accident — wasn’t inducted into the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor until 2011. Differences with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones have been resolved now, not only evidenced by Pearson’s shout-out to the Jones family during the draft announcement but also by a deal that was reached that will allow him to use the team’s logo on legends-themed merchandise to be sold on a website he is developing.
“That’s a blessing,” Pearson said. “We needed to have the Cowboys’ star and logo.”
The business ventures represent another layer of Pearson’s inspirational journey. After his playing career, he formed a company that sold licensed headwear. He landed licenses from the NBA and MLB, but it took three attempts — and pressure from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, trying to increase business and other opportunities for minorities in the league — to get a license from the NFL in the late 1980s.
“That’s how we got involved with the NFL,” Pearson said. “It would have been easier to get us involved as part of progress.”
Pearson had his headwear company for nine years, and said, “I paid the NFL more in royalties than the NFL paid me to play for 11 years.”
That original deal came before Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989. Strikingly, in landing his new deal, Pearson dealt directly with Jones and the Cowboys. Jones, headed toward Hall of Fame induction this year, made a game-changing move in the 1990s when he sued for the right to control his own merchandising deals independent of the NFL.
And Pearson is still capitalizing, too, on the Cowboys brand.
“I’ve had my ups and downs, here and there,” he said, alluding to losses that include five of his six siblings. “But I’ve been blessed to not let that hold me back.”
Pearson laughed when recalling that he weighed 145 pounds in high school, which prompted a mantra from his late father, Sam.
“He said, ‘You’re just a small piece of leather, but you’re well put-together.’ ”
Still. After all these years.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.