It didn’t take long after the Cardinals moved to St. Louis in 1960 to realize they would need a new quarterback if they wanted to compete for an NFL Championship.
King Hill started the inaugural game in Los Angeles in 1960, but was benched at halftime. Backup QB John Roach was benched at halftime the following week. Hill, Roach and former Notre Dame star George Izo combined to complete only 44% of their passes and throw 25 interceptions in 1960. Some claimed that running back John David Crow threw the ball better than all three quarterbacks.
Immediately after the season, the Cardinals launched their search for a new signal caller and landed Canadian League legend Sam Etcheverry. “The Rifle” was a six-time all-star and Most Outstanding Player who passed for 586 yards in the 1955 Grey Cup for the Montreal Alouettes. The 30 year old New Mexico native was shocked when he discovered he had been traded from Montreal to Hamilton in November 1960. Claiming that he had a no-trade contract, Etcheverry declared himself a free agent and vowed to leave Canada and play in the NFL.
The former University of Denver star was originally snubbed by the NFL in 1952, where many felt he was too small to play QB. So he took his game north of the border and became a national hero of sorts. He played 9 seasons in Montreal shattering all passing records, before signing with the Big Red.
Hopes were high in St. Louis as training camp opened in 1961. Many felt the team was a solid quarterback away from being a league power and Cardinals Managing Director, Walter Wolfner, all but predicted the Grid Cards as Eastern Division champs after the signing.
“I think he’s the finest quarterback there is,” Wolfner told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “I think if you’d put both Etcheverry and Johnny Unitas on the field in unnumbered uniforms, you couldn’t tell the difference.”
“It’s a tough position to be in,” Etcheverry told the St. Louis Globe Democrat in 1961. “There are a lot of people in Canada and back in New Mexico, as well as in St. Louis, who are going to be watching me. I expect the National Football League to be a challenge.”
Unfortunately, Etcheverry showed only brief flashes of greatness in St. Louis. He suffered a shoulder injury on his first pass in training camp and would never come close to showing the greatness he displayed in Canada. He started only nine games in ’61 and ended up sharing time with backup Ralph Guglielmi. Etcheverry struggled throwing the long ball and teammates complained of his lack of mobility. Frustrated head coach Pop Ivy would end up resigning with two games left in the season.
After the Cardinals lost three of their first four games in 1962, Etcheverry was benched in favor of Charley Johnson who would take over the job permanently.
“I’d heard Etcheverry’s arm was sore, and it was obvious immediately,” head coach Wally Lemm said in Bob Burnes book, Big Red: Story of the Football Cardinals. “He just couldn’t do what he wanted to do. I’ve always felt, too, that Sam, even in his second year, had trouble making the adjustment from Canadian to American football. But he was a class guy and I will always have great respect for him.”
After being demoted to third string in training camp in 1963, Etcheverry asked to be released from his contract.
“I feel that I have at least two good years of football left,” Etcheverry told the St. Louis Globe Democrat. “I don’t know where I’ll go, but I want to play. I believe my arm is at its best since I came to the NFL.”
Etcheverry was quickly signed by the 49ers to back up John Brodie, but was released before the season started. He would never throw another pass in the NFL.
The Rifle would later get into coaching and led the Alouettes to a Grey Cup Championship in 1970.
Although Sam failed to meet lofty expectations in St. Louis, he did leave his mark on the organization and everyone who met him.
“Etcheverry may not have been as good a quarterback as all of us had hoped he would be,” Bob Burnes wrote in the St. Louis Globe Democrat in 1963, “but he left an imprint as one of the finest gentlemen we’ve ever known.