The late Chuck Drulis was known for his defensive talents. Some said that he was a generation ahead of his time. “He was a defensive genius,” linebacker Jamie Rivers told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1972.
The Pennsylvania native was a star offensive lineman at Temple before playing seven seasons in the NFL for the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. He arrived in Chicago in 1956 as a defensive assistant under Cardinals head coach Ray Richards and would serve under five different head coaches until his sudden death in 1972. Drulis was also credited with two victories when he shared head coaching duties after Frank “Pop” Ivy resigned with two games left in the 1961 season.
Drulis made his mark by devising the “safety blitz.” It involved a defensive back bursting through the offensive line just as the ball was snapped in a frantic attempt to sack the quarterback. Drulis called it the “Wildcat” and he had been tinkering with it for a couple of years, but needed a player who had the toughness and nerves of steel to successfully carry it out. That player arrived in 1960. Larry Wilson was drafted as a running back out of Utah in the eighth round of the draft, but was converted to safety by Drulis in training camp. After struggling early, Wilson showed just enough to make the team. He ended up starting 11 of 12 games his rookie season intercepting two passes.
The Big Red unleashed “Wildcat” against the Giants in the 1961 season opener at Yankee Stadum. Wilson sacked quarterback Charlie Conerly twice, forcing a fumble, and disrupting a number of pass plays in the Cards 21-10 upset victory. Wilson followed that up with a big game against the Giants a few weeks later in St. Louis when he sacked Conerly three times. A star was born in St. Louis as Wilson went on to a 13 year Hall of Fame career. If it weren’t for Coach Drulis, we may have never heard of Larry “Wildcat” Wilson.
Chuck Drulis lived and breathed football. Defensive tackle Luke Owens once said that he didn’t believe Drulis slept. “I believe he’s got a built-in movie projector inside his eyelids and runs offensive and defensive formations all night. Seven years ago when I came to this club, I didn’t like him. I thought he was outspoken and worked us too hard.”
“Chuck Drulis was married to football,” Big Red safety Jerry Stovall told Robert Burnes of the St. Louis Globe Democrat. Stovall claimed that only two people understood Drulis. Lineback Dale Meinert and Larry Wilson.
The coach’s tendency to put in long hours of preparation during the season quite possibly led to him suffering a heart attack in 1963. But, it didn’t phase him as he didn’t miss any games. He later said that if he has to die, he’d “just as soon die on a football field.”
Coach Drulis earned the respect of many of his players over the years, but controversy struck the Big Red organization in 1967. Some players claimed that head coach Charley Winner had lost control of the team. And several African American players, including starting defensive tackle Sam Silas, confronted Winner shortly before the season ended and presented a list of grievances, including one demand that an assistant coach be fired. It was later learned that the assistant coach was Chuck Drulis and the players were unhappy with the way they were being treated.
When other players learned there had been criticism of Drulis, they laughed it off. “Chuck treats us all alike – like dogs,” safety Jerry Stovall told the St. Louis Globe Democrat. “We all know how he operates. He’s harsh and demanding and he doesn’t spare you. But he demands more of himself than he does of anybody else.”
“He’s the best in the league,” Larry Wilson told the Globe. Robert Burnes claimed in his book “Big Red – Story of the Football Cardinals,” that even some of the African American players who admitted being in the contingent to get Drulis fired agreed that he was far and away the best assistant coach on the team.
Coach Winner and owners Bill and Stormy Bidwill rejected any idea of firing Drulis, and instead traded Silas to the New York Giants the following August. Management strongly denied the trade had anything to do with the list of grievances. They claimed they wanted to give a young Fred Heron a chance to win a starting job and that an aging Silas was expendable. Silas played three more seasons as primarily a backup with the Giants and San Francisco 49ers.
Drulis somehow survived 1967 and would continue to coach the defense until just prior to the 1972 season.
On August 23, 1971, Chuck Drulis suffered a massive heart attack on the team’s charter plane about 30 minutes after it had taken off from St. Louis en route to Houston where the Cardinals were scheduled to play the Oilers. The Ozark Airlines jet made an emergency landing in Little Rock in hopes of rushing Drulis to a hospital, but he had already died before the plane landed. He was just 54 years old.
Head coach Bob Hollway broke the sad news to the players over the plane’s intercom. “I don’t know how to say this, but Chuck Drulis has had a heart attack and he didn’t make it.”
The plane spent about an hour in Little Rock before continuing to Houston where a couple of days later the Cardinals would lose to the Oilers 33-24.
Former Big Red head coach Frank “Pop” Ivy said that “Chuck not only was a defensive genius, entirely devoted to football, but he also was extremely loyal, to the head coach, to the organization.” A then smiling Ivy continued, “It takes a loyal and flexible man to serve five different head coaches as Chuck did.”
Larry Wilson saluted his old mentor and friend in a eulogy at the funeral. The future Hall of Famer hailed the late coach as a “gentleman, a teacher, whose life was dedicated to football and to hard work.”
“I suppose I became one of the few to see both sides of Chuck, a tough man on the outside, but one who loved everyone and appreciated what people did for him.”
“He taught rock-’em, sock-’em football, but he also taught laughter and enjoyment. God be with him and bless him. We should all rejoice that Chuck did exactly what he wanted – to the very end.”
Post Dispatch columnist Bob Broeg said that Drulis’s death would be the ’72 Cardinals “greatest loss.” He wrote “Chuck Drulis was a hard man to please and he’ll be a hard man to replace.”
Drulis was survived by his wife Dale and sons Chuck Jr., and Kerry.