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.
The game was played in front of 24,376 fans at CNE Stadium in Toronto on August 2, 1961. The Cardinal defense shined, holding the Argos to minus 22 yards rushing. The Argo quarterback play was so bad that assistant coach Nobby Wirkowski was summoned from the press box to suit up. Unfortunately, he was pummeled by a Big Red defender and left the game with a catastrophic knee injury. Wirkowski, a Chicago native, would become head coach of the Argos the following season after the firing of Lou Agase.
The Cardinals got off to a quick start when Larry Wilson intercepted a John Henry Jackson pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown just 38 seconds into the game. It would be one of four interceptions by the Big Red defense.
After holding a slim 8-0 halftime lead, the “Grid Birds” caught fire in the third quarter. George Izo threw a 70 yard TD pass to converted corner back Billy Stacy to make it 15-0.
Later in the third quarter, the Canadian crowd cheered as the sore-armed Etcheverry entered the game. He led the team to two quick scores without throwing a pass. Prentice Gautt, who was just acquired from Cleveland for QB John Roach, scored on a 74 yard draw play to give the Cards a 30-0 lead. Gautt would later add another score from 2 yards out. John Henry Jackson got the Argos on the board late in the game with a short TD run, but the Big Red came away with a commanding 36-7 victory.
The Cardinals would finish the 1961 season with a 7-7 record. Etcheverry and backup QB Ralph Guglielmi would split time at quarterback. John David Crow only played 7 games due to injuries and Pop Ivy unexpectedly resigned with two games left on the schedule. Wally Lemm would replace Ivy in 1962 and Charley Johnson would take over the team at quarterback.
The CFL exhibitions were a huge success at the box office, but many star CFL players were injured during these games over the years. The last CFL-NFL game was played just three days after the Cards-Argos game. The Chicago Bears defeated the Montreal Alouettes 34-16 at Molson Stadium.