From a seventh round draft pick to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Larry Frank Wilson played the game with sheer determination, guts, and maximum effort. He played thirteen seasons with the Cardinals earning 8 Pro Bowls and was named to five All-Pro teams. He is a member of the 1960s All Decade Team and is still the organization’s all-time leader with 52 interceptions.
Wilson was born and raised in Rigby, Idaho where he faced adversity as a youngster. His mother died of spinal meningitis when he was just ten years old and his father was a truck driver, so Larry helped rear his younger brother, John. As a teen, Larry worked ten-hour days harvesting potatoes, but his father encouraged him to play sports. Larry was a tremendous all around athlete, earning 16 letters in high school. He broke the state high jump record and was a very good baseball and basketball player.
Of course he was terrific at football and earned a scholarship to the University of Utah where he quickly became the team’s starting running back. Wilson’s best college game came his senior year when he scored a team record five touchdowns in a 54-6 win over Arizona. He led the Skyline Conference in scoring in 1959 and earned an invitation to the East-West Shrine game. Utah head coach Ray Nagel called Larry one of Utah’s all-time greats.
NFL OR AFL?
Wilson was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals in the 7th round after the 1959 season. However, the Buffalo Bills also selected Wilson in the first round of the upstart AFL draft. Wilson was prepared to sign with the Bills until Cardinals Vice President Bill Bidwill paid him a visit in Salt Lake City.
“I came awful close to signing with Buffalo,” Wilson told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “The Cardinals really never contacted me until Bill came out.”
The Cardinals offered no bonus, but a $9500 salary that was contingent on him making the team. He almost didn’t.
Wilson lasted only one practice at running back before head coach Pop Ivy and defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis switched him to cornerback. In his first preseason action, Wilson gave up several big plays to Colts future Hall of Famer Raymond Berry and soon found himself on the bench.
“It might have been the lowest moment of my life,” he would later tell the Post Dispatch. “I was sure I was going to be cut as soon as the team returned to training camp.”
The Big Red were scheduled to play their last exhibition game in San Francisco and then open the season in Los Angeles the following week. Thinking that he would be released after the 49er game, Larry made arrangements for his wife, Dee Ann, to meet him and they’d drive back to Rigby where he planned to teach.
But Dee Ann would have to drive home by herself. Due to injuries, Larry was forced into action and he shutdown the Niners top receiver R.C. Owens. A week later he would be the starting free safety against the Rams.
Wilson had typical ups and downs his rookie season. He started 11 of 12 games at free safety, picked off two passes and returned some punts and kickoffs. His first interception came at Yankee Stadium in the Cards 24-17 victory over the New York Giants.
He would make his mark his sophomore season. Chuck Drulis had been tinkering with a safety blitz and he felt he finally had the right guy for it to succeed. The safety blitz involved a defensive back bursting through the line just as the ball was snapped in a frantic attempt to sack the quarterback. Drulis called it the “Wildcat” and it would change NFL defenses forever.
The Big Red unleashed “Wildcat” in the 1961 season opener against the Giants 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. He sacked Conerly three more times a few weeks later in St. Louis. The New York press was buzzing and Wildcat Wilson was on his way to becoming a star.
Wilson would earn his first Pro Bowl appearance in 1962 and scored his first touchdown when he returned an Eddie LeBaron interception 57 yards in a 28-24 win over the Cowboys.
Larry continued to grow as a player and had another Pro Bowl season in 1963. Steelers head coach Buddy Parker put together film clips of Wilson and told his players “That’s the way to play defense – the way this man does it.”
Wilson was not a big man by pro football standards. He stood 6’0″ and weighed no more than 190 pounds. When Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle looked Larry over at the Pro Bowl he said, “Good God, if I’d known you were that small, I wouldn’t have been so scared of you.”
The little legend became a big legend in 1965. Many fans still ask, “Did Larry Wilson really intercept a pass with two broken hands?” The answer is yes.
Larry had broken both of his hands on two separate plays against the New York Giants. A week later, with both hands in casts and wrapped in bandages, Larry was back in action against the Steelers. It was November 7, 1965 at old Busch Stadium. Larry intercepted a Bill Nelson pass against his chest, cradled the ball in his broken hands, and returned the ball inside the Steelers 5 yard line. The Cards scored on the next play and won the game 21-17.
“I just knew Larry Wilson was going to get an interception,” Bill Nelson said. “Lying awake the night before the game, I was thinking there was no way he could catch one with his hands wrapped up to protect his fractures, but I knew he was going to get one.”
Larry ended up missing four games after having surgery on his finger, but came back for the season finale against the Cleveland Browns and had one of his greatest games of his career. Trailing 17-0 in the second quarter, Wilson intercepted a Frank Ryan pass and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown.
In the third quarter he picked off another pass which led to a Cardinals touchdown. Later, with the score tied 17-17, Wilson netted his third interception which setup the go ahead touchdown. However, he couldn’t do it alone and the Browns came back for a 27-24 victory.
The Big Red moved into new Busch Stadium in 1966 and it was Larry Wilson’s finest season as a pro. He matched an NFL record by intercepting passes in seven consecutive games including a spectacular one-handed grab that he returned 91 yards for a touchdown against the Eagles at Franklin Field.
But he wasn’t finished. A week later the Cardinals played in front of a national television audience on a Monday night Halloween encounter with their old rivals the Chicago Bears. This game helped convince the NFL that Monday night football was a television necessity.
Larry picked off three Rudy Bukich passes. The first one led to the Cards second touchdown. With the Bears closing in, Wilson then picked off another Bukich pass and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown. With the Bears again threatening in the closing minutes, he picked off another Bukich pass to seal the 24-17 victory.
“Was I up for this one?” the smiling Wilson told the Post Dispatch after the game. “You bet your life I was. The way I think about the Bears, even though I wasn’t with the Cardinals in their Chicago years, is that the Bears are always among the best teams in the league.”
“He’s unreal,” Jim Bakken said after the game. “Nobody could hang in the air as he did for that third interception.”
“He plays every game to the hilt,” head coach Charley Winner said. “He always has played like that. Remember last year when he played with two broken hands?”
Wilson finished the ’66 season with 10 interceptions and was named to his first of five successive All-Pro teams. He also won the first George Halas Award for Defensive Player of the Year.
CAREER WINDS DOWN
Larry Wilson continued to play at a high level the next several years. The Pro Bowl game became an annual event and St. Louisans spoke of Wilson in the same regard as Stan Musial. He made the rounds in the community speaking at high schools and at local charitable events.
“This city has been wonderful to me and I owe it a lot,” Wilson once told the Post Dispatch.” Visiting some of these kids is the least I can do.”
But the seasons started getting longer and Wilson was growing older. He knew his time as a player was coming to an end.
“Larry Wilson is not able to do the things that he did three or four years ago,” Wilson said during the 1972 season. “It’s not right for the Cardinals to have me out there anymore. They need more speed and more quickness out there. Let’s not blow smoke, Larry Wilson’s not cutting it anymore.”
Larry played his last game on a frozen Busch Stadium turf on December 17, 1972 against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cardinals won 24-23 to finish 4-9-1 for the second consecutive year.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” he said after the game.
Wilson suffered a cracked rib early in the contest when he dragged down a young Eagles receiver Harold Carmichael from behind. But in true Larry Wilson fashion, he finished the game.
“It’s all right,” he said. “There’s really nothing to a cracked rib.”
Wilson, never comfortable talking about himself, suggested the sport’s writers write about this teammates. “Did you see the way the offense played?”
His teammates had plenty to say about the future Hall of Famer.
“Most of us talked about it,” said rookie linebacker Mark Arneson. “Everybody wanted to win the last game for Larry. I almost cried when he was hurt and the fans started chanting ‘Wilson Wilson, Wilson.’ It was really moving.”
Wilson’s teammate Bob Rowe, who played a strong game on defense, agreed with Arneson and added, “It may sound corny, but I personally dedicated this game to Larry. I wanted to show him how much I think of him. We have a lot of great ball players on this team. We lost one of them today. He’s going to be hard to replace.”
Wilson’s red number-8 Cardinals jersey was sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after the game. He would join his jersey in 1978 when he became the first St. Louis Cardinal to be inducted.
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL
Larry spent most of his post-playing career as an executive with the Cardinals. He was an assistant Director of Operations and Pro-Personnel Director in St. Louis. He also coached three games for the Big Red after Bud Wilkinson was fired at the end of the 1979 season. Wilson later became the first official General Manager of the Cardinals shortly after the team moved to Arizona in 1988. After 43 years with the organization, Wilson retired in 2003 after the Cardinals finally got their new stadium in Glendale.
Larry “Wildcat” Wilson is known as Mr. Cardinal. He was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals, played for the St. Louis Cardinals, and was General Manager of the Arizona Cardinals. He still has more interceptions than anyone who has ever played for the Cardinals after retiring almost 50 years ago. Not only is he a member of the NFLs 1960s Team of the Decade, he is also a member of the NFLs 75th anniversary team and was recently named to the NFL 100th All-time Anniversary Team.
Money was raised to erect a bronze statue of Wilson outside of Busch Stadium next to Stan the Man’s. They were to be called “The Man and The Boy.” Wilson wanted nothing to do with that and had the money donated to charity.
That pretty much sums up Larry Wilson. Humble, considerate, compassionate off the field. Ferocious, intense, relentless on the field. He will always be Mr. Cardinal.