Desperate for a front-seven playmaker, the St. Louis Cardinals selected big Dave Butz with the fifth overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft. The 6 foot 7, 290 pound Chicago area native was an All-American defensive tackle and Lombardi Finalist at Purdue University and would ultimately end up in the College Football Hall of Fame (2014).
Big Red personnel director Abe Stuber told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1973 that Butz “was our highest rated defensive player. He has the greatest potential of any defensive lineman in the country.”
“I had no real preference where I went,” Butz said at the time. “I’m glad it’s St. Louis though, because my family will have a chance to come down and see me play.”
New Big Red Director of Operations Joe Sullivan struggled to sign Butz to his first contract and couldn’t believe how much money the top pick wanted.
“I’ve never seen such ridiculous demands,” Sullivan told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “He wants to be paid as though he’s a 12 year All-Pro.”
However, Butz’s agent, Arthur Morse countered, “I’ve never seen such a lackadaisical effort,” referring to Sullivan’s conduct in negotiations. “Our demands are fair and reasonable.”
After missing all of training camp and the first four exhibition games, Butz reportedly signed a pair of one year contracts just minutes before the Cards last exhibition game against Kansas City.
Butz missed over 70 practices and 40 to 50 meetings, but that didn’t stop new head coach Don Coryell from playing him against the Chiefs.
“It was like taking somebody off the street, giving him pads, and telling him to go play NFL,” Butz told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after his first game.
“I was in a world of my own when I ran onto the field,” Butz said. “I was told I was booed, but I didn’t hear it.”
Butz’s teammates were not enthralled with the big guy’s holdout, but his performance quickly changed their mind.
“I think I sort of resented him,” linebacker Larry Stallings said, “until he caved in the whole right side of the offensive line. Then I was all for him.”
Any boos heard in Busch Stadium quickly turned to cheers after Butz sacked Len Dawson for a loss early in the game.
“That was nice,” the big lineman said after the game. “I really had forgotten the joy of just being out there. It all came back to me very quickly.”
Butz showed flashes during his rookie season, but missing all of training camp obviously had an affect on his play. He was not as dominant as the Big Red had hoped and a hamstring issue plagued him for most of the second half of the Cards 4-9-1 season.
“There’s no question that he can be as good as everyone thinks he can be,” Larry Stallings told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “He’s got good speed and his quickness will be improved when he comes to camp next year and he has a chance to get in a little better shape.”
“He has the capability to be a star,” Oakland Raiders tackle Bob Brown said after an October game at Busch Stadium.
Butz refused to sign his contract in 1974 and decided to play out his option which meant that he would be free to sign with another NFL team after the season.
“I didn’t want to go through the hassle of negotiations again,” Butz told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “They more or less have to talk to me now. I like St. Louis. The fans are good and we have a lot of young players with potential. But I don’t want to be put into a situation where I’m waiting for someone to call for two months and nothing happens.”
Butz contended that the Cardinals did not talk to him or his agent for two months during his rookie contract negotiations and it took the threat of a lawsuit to get them back to the table.
Hopes were high heading into training camp in 1974. But an NFL strike would cause Butz to miss his second training camp and a knee injury in the season opener against the Eagles would end his season and Big Red career.
Butz became a free agent on May 1, 1975. As Jeff Meyers of the St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote, “He (Butz) has been offering his Olympian body to all 26 National Football League clubs, any of which presumably need only the resources of Kuwait to make him happy.”
Meyers was referring to Butz’s desire to be paid like an All-Pro despite only playing 13 NFL games over two seasons.
The Cardinals needed Butz and he knew it. He turned down the organization’s first offer, and instead of negotiating, Joe Sullivan actually lowered his second offer to Butz.
It didn’t take long for George Allen and the Washington Redskins to come calling. The Skins reportedly offered to pay Butz $200,000 over three years. It was a contract that he couldn’t turn down.
“It happened so suddenly,” Butz told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “They contacted my agent over the weekend and then . . . I got exactly what I wanted.”
St. Louis at one time offered a certain sum and dropped it,” Butz said. “We were having trouble getting the original offer back.”
Sullivan didn’t deny lowering his original offer.
“When he was still a member of our team,” Sullivan said, “I made an offer and told Butz and his agent that the offer would hold until May 1 (the date Butz became a free agent). It was not good enough. On the fifth of June I made another offer in Chicago. They were shocked that it wasn’t the same offer. They seemed stunned that I wouldn’t keep my word. I told them they had had five weeks to go out and top my offer and that since May 1 I was finally able to sleep at night because my offer had been too high anyway.”
Sullivan added, “He asked for a guaranteed, no-cut contract and he asked for multi-contracts. The things he was asking for make people fat, dumb and happy. I couldn’t agree to All-Pro wages. He’s a nice kid. There’s never been a problem with Dave . . . except money.”
Head coach Don Coryell told reporters, “I have no complaints with our management. If I had any spare money, I’d give it to those guys who have busted their fannies for the ball club.”
The Redskins signing of the free agent Butz wasn’t exactly “free.” Because of the Rozelle Rule, Commissioner Pete Rozelle would award a compensation package to the Cardinals if the two teams couldn’t come to an agreement.
Don Coryell didn’t have high hopes that a deal could be worked out.
“There’s no way you can negotiate with a man like him (Skins head coach George Allen),” Coryell told reporters.
Sullivan had come to the conclusion that that he had miscalculated Butz’s worth. “I now accept that I was totally wrong about the value of Dave Butz. He is the value he thought he was.” He later added that if Butz is earning “All-Pro” wages, he must then be worth an All-Pro player as compensation.
As expected, the two teams could not come to an agreement on a compensation package. Rozelle ultimately awarded two first round draft picks and a second round draft pick to the Cardinals. Those picks turned into Steve Pisarckiewicz (1977), Ken Greene (1978) and Calvin Favron (1979).
Butz wasn’t very complimentary of the Big Red or their fans after spending time in Washington.
“The big difference between the two teams,” Butz told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “is that there’s a lot more, well, there are real pros here. Here the the feeling is that any time we can make anything happen. I’ve never seen so many statistics, we’re given every type of scouting report there is.”
“In St. Louis, we watched the films and that was about it. Here we have stats and they put them on an overhead projector. It’s all very thorough.”
Butz said the Washington fans weren’t as fickle as those in St. Louis.
“Everyone you talk to tells you they’re a devoted Redskin fan. In St. Louis, people were fans while they were winning. But I remember times when they booed Jim Hart, then, all of a sudden he turned his game around and everyone was on his side.”
Dave Butz would go on to play over 200 games with the Redskins and win two Super Bowl rings. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1983 and later inducted into their Ring Of Fame. He was also named to the second team of the 1980s All-Decade Team.
Meanwhile, Big Red fans still wonder what might have been if big Dave Butz had stayed in St. Louis and played for the Cardiac Cards.