Big Red Tough Guy: Dan Dierdorf

One of the all-time great Big Red memories is when Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson played a game with two broken hands against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1965. Not only did Larry play with casts and layers of gauze on both hands, but he also intercepted a Bill Nelson pass during the game. It’s the stuff that legends are made of. And of course Larry Wilson is a legend.

But many people have forgotten that Wilson’s teammate, and fellow Hall of Famer, Dan Dierdorf once played with a broken jaw. In fact, he missed only two games after suffering the injury against the Minnesota Vikings in 1977.

Dan Dierdorf played four games in 1977 wearing a modified face mask to help protect his broken jaw.

LATE HIT

The injury occurred during the fourth quarter of the Cardinals 27-7 win over the Vikings on November 6, 1977. Dierdorf and the offensive line dominated the Minnesota front seven all afternoon as the Cards rushed for a season high 316 yards. It was the Vikings worst home loss in seven seasons.

Dierdorf’s injury occurred after an interception of a Jim Hart pass by Scott Studwell. The play had stopped, but Vikings linebacker Matt Blair did not. With Dierdorf standing still, Blair’s helmet rammed into Dierdorf’s jaw. No flag was thrown, but the big right tackle’s afternoon was finished.

“It was my own stupidity,” Dierdorf told the New York Times a few weeks later. “They intercepted a pass and ran it back and when the whistle blew, I saw Matt Blair coming at me about 10 yards away and I assumed he was going to stop or run past me. I assumed wrong. He hit me just under the helmet on the right side of the jaw. It wasn’t a cheap shot or anything. It was just stupidity on my part for standing around and assuming he wasn’t going to block me.”

A team doctor said after the game that he believed Dierdorf “only” had his teeth loosened, but x-rays later revealed the break.

END OF A STREAK

Dierdorf’s jaw would be wired shut a couple of days later, but that didn’t stop him from playing in his 92nd consecutive game against the Dallas Cowboys the following Monday night at Texas Stadium.

“I was all set to play the next week in Dallas,” he said, “but because of the fracture, two wisdom teeth became impacted. I had to have them removed.”

“My oral surgeon, Dr. George Shuert, somehow extracted them with my jaw wired shut,” Dierdorf told the New York Times. “He had only a half‐inch gap to get to them and when I woke up, I asked him how he did it. He told me, ‘You don’t want to know.’ The next week (against Philadelphia) I was in uniform but I only was in for three plays. I was all set to play against the Dolphins on Thanksgiving Day, but the day before my jaw began to swell up from an infection. So the jaw hasn’t kept me out, it’s the other things.”

The Dallas game was the first one he had missed since his rookie year in 1971.

“It’s been seven years since I missed a game,” Dierdorf told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “It was a strange sensation. I felt like a failure. It was a feeling of helplessness, like I was letting people down.”

Dierdorf had to suck liquids through the gap left from his missing front teeth.

MISSING STEAK N SHAKE

Because of his jaw being wired shut, Dierdorf faced all sorts of problems not related to football.

He could not eat solid foods and was living on a diet of milkshakes and soup. He lost over 40 pounds.

“I’ve become a connoisseur of soups,” he told the New York Times. “I’m lucky to have lost my two front teeth. I can suck liquids through that gap instead of having to use a straw.”

“I have to close my eyes every time I drive past a Steak n Shake,” he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

The “slim” Dierdorf also had trouble keeping his pants up so he had to borrow several pair of slacks from Conrad Dobler.

FIRST START IN BIG APPLE

Dierdorf would make his first start in New York against the Giants almost a month after suffering the injury.

“I’ve run every play in every practice this week,” Dierdorf told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “and I’m ready. I’m just anxious for this game to get here.”

He played with a modified face mask which was reinforced to absorb the jolt of any contact delivered to his helmet. His teammates called him “Darth Vader” after the famous Star Wars character.

Dierdorf ‘s helmet and modified face mask that he wore during the 1978 Pro Bowl game.

Dierdorf played the entire game, a 27-7 loss. He blocked, got caught in pileups, and dove for fumble recoveries. After the game, he thanked Giants defensive end George Martin for “not taking any cheap shots.”

Martin had told the New York Times that Dierdorf was ineffective, but Dan shot back, “How many tackles did Martin make?” Answer: 2 solos, 2 assists, and no sacks.

Dierdorf would also start the final two contests of the ’77 season against Washington and Tampa Bay. Despite missing two games, he was selected to the Pro Bowl and named first team All-Pro. He was also voted as Offensive Lineman of the Year by the NFLPA.

Dierdorf retired in 1983 and told the St. Louis Post Dispatch it was an easy decision.

“Physically, I just can’t play the type of game I want to,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of me is sad that I’m retiring, but my knees are very, very happy.”

In a 2013 interview with St. Louis Magazine, Dierdorf reflected on playing with a broken jaw in 1977.

“I’m not sure that was my best move,” Dierdorf says. “Having your jaw wired shut and then trying to do something as strenuous as football isn’t the easiest thing in the world.”

Dan Dierdorf played four games with a broken jaw. It’s the stuff legends are made of. And of course Dan Dierdorf is a legend.

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