A few months after the 1961 signing of legendary Canadian Football League quarterback Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry, the St. Louis Cardinals traveled north of the border to play an exhibition game with the Toronto Argonauts. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the first time the NFL and CFL hooked up. The New York Giants tangled with the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1950 and 1951. And the Chicago Cardinals beat the Argos in 1959 by a score of 55-26.
In 1960, the Cardinals relocated from Chicago and finished 6-5-1 in their inaugural season in St. Louis. The offense featured star running back John David Crow and wide receiver Sonny Randle. However, quarterback play was inconsistent and below average. As a matter of fact, the 1960 trio of John Roach, King Hill, and first round pick George Izo would all be playing elsewhere by opening day of the 1961 season. Etcheverry, who threw for over 30,000 yards and 183 TDs with the Montreal Alouettes, was brought in to lead the team to an NFL Championship. Unfortunately, Sam injured his throwing shoulder on his first pass in training camp and struggled during his two seasons in St. Louis.
The Cardinals practiced 12-man football for 10 days in preparation for the exhibition game with the Argonauts. The game would be played in accordance with Canadian rules. CFL fields are 10 yards longer, 15 yards wider and also feature 25 yard end zones. Games are played with 12 starters. Big Red head coach Frank “Pop” Ivy was no stranger to CFL football. He won three consecutive Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos before taking over the Chicago Cardinals in 1958. Assistant coach Ray Willsey played quarterback for a season in Edmonton as well. So, the Big Red were not only bigger and stronger than their opponent, the coaching staff had experience with CFL rules and style of play.
NFL Pro Football: St. Louis Cardinals coach Jim Hanifan before game vs New York Giants. St. Louis, MO 12/09/1984 Credit: John Iacono
Former Big Red head coach Jim Hanifan and a few stars from yesteryear spoke at today’s National Football Foundation Luncheon at Lombardo’s Restaurant in St. Louis. Hanifan along with former players Johnny Roland, Tim Van Galder, Irv Goode, Eric Williams, and Bob DeMarco talked about their careers in St. Louis and the differences in today’s game and the one they played in the 1960s and 1970s.
As everyone may have guessed, Coach Hanifan was the star of the luncheon telling the packed house how he fell in love with the St. Louis community and the fans after arriving in 1973. “When I first arrived here with Coach Coryell, it took a little while to get used to the area and the people. At the conclusion of that first season, we went 4-9-1. Even with a poor record, there was something special taking place at that time. When I looked into the locker room, I could see the players getting involved in the game and getting involved in the community. And, I myself, had that same experience. Being around the people in the community and truly enjoying being in St. Louis. I used to say, ‘What in the hell do I see here that makes me feel this way?’ You know… there are no mountains, no oceans here… forget about that. So, it has to be the people. The people are what makes St. Louis so great. And that’s why I continue to live here after I retired.”
Former Big Red head coach Jim Hanifan
Former Big Red Pro Bowl center Bob DeMarco recounted playing at old Busch Stadium (Sportsman’s Park) and how fans in the temporary bleachers would offer the players some bourbon on cold Sundays in the mid-60s.
Many thought Mel Gray was too small and had questionable hands coming out of the University of Missouri in 1971. However, no one could question his speed and athleticism. In high school, Gray tied Jesse Owens’ record with a 9.4 in the 100 yard dash and he later became an All-American in track and field at Mizzou. Gray was working in a California book store in 1971 when a friend informed him that he had been drafted. He initially thought he was headed to Vietnam, but soon discovered the St. Louis Cardinals had selected him in the 6th round of the NFL draft. Gray spent the next 12 seasons in St. Louis burning NFL secondaries, delighting fans, and fighting with Big Red management (as did many other players). I recently sat down with Mel Gray to chat about his time at Mizzou and career with the Big Red.
Q: You’re a California native. How did you end up at Mizzou?
GRAY: I wasn’t a bad kid, but I got in trouble a lot because of the guys I hung out with. My mother wanted me to leave. I could have gone to USC or UCLA, but my mother said, “no, I want you out of California.” And Mizzou was the only school who would let me play football and run track. (Gray spent his freshman year at Ft. Scott Jr. College in Kansas)
Q: Was there a culture shock moving from California to the Midwest?
GRAY: When I signed with Missouri it was 80 degrees and sunny. But by November (1968) it was 10 degrees. I never experienced anything like it. I stayed in my room for two weeks under an electric blanket. One day, the coaches knocked on my door and asked me why I wasn’t in class. I said “have you been outside?” So they went over and looked in my closet, looked at each other, and then left. I climbed back under the covers and thought they were going to send my butt home! But they came back later with boxes of thermal underwear, sweaters, socks, scarves, jackets… It definitely took a while to get used to the cold weather!